The Absent Manager: Not a Mythical Creature

The absent manager is someone most of us have worked for at some point in our lives. Let’s see how to recognise them and the only choice in dealing with them.

A manager can be absent in two ways. The first is to be physically absent. The second is to be mentally absent.

It is not easy to identify the physically absent manager as it is not simply a case of not showing up to work. Managers can be physically absent and still seem to be working quite hard.

One scenario is simply to be out of the city/country ostensibly going to training courses, conferences, marketing, due diligence trips and international client/partner/vendor visits. Although such trips can be useful they are not necessarily the best use of a manager’s time and certainly should not occur frequently.

The second scenario is similar but occurs in the same city as the manager’s office. Here the focus switches predominantly to clients. Again, a manager constantly visiting clients pitching the products and services of the company and trying to close deals is the normal course of business. On the other hand if the manager meets with clients with no specific agenda tied to identifying revenue producing opportunities then it is a waste of time.

There are many warning signs to meeting clients as a replacement for real work. This includes meetings that occur in coffee shops instead of the client’s premises. Why on earth meet in a coffee shop? There is no privacy, there are no resources to support the meeting and it is never quiet. Worse is the manager who spends his whole day wandering from coffee shop to coffee shop, an executive nomad, filling his time in between scheduled meetings with other ineffective managers swapping gossip and who believe coffee shops equate to managing. One almost wonders if the revenue of the local branches of Starbucks, Costa and Bateel aren’t a negative indicator of management effectiveness.

An internal warning sign is when a manager spends the whole day in coffee shop meetings but at the end of the day does not generate any action items. A natural consequence of any meeting is to produce minutes of that meeting highlighting decisions made, potential revenue opportunities and action items. This should happen for every single meeting. So a day filled with six coffee shop meetings and a lunch should end with several hours writing meeting minutes, reflecting on opportunities and identifying action items. Instead it seems that the only outcome of all that coffee is frequent visits to the restrooms.

The third and final choice that a manager has to be absent is to be physically present in the building but not present in the relevant offices. I do not know who cursed us with the concept of “management by walking about” but there is nothing effective about that other than to give absent managers legitimacy.

There are exceptions as always such as trading floors or factory floors where real-time work in an open space can be observed. However in most cases employees work singly in offices or cubicles and just randomly dropping in adds no value to the employee and provides no insight to the manager. Instead it gives an excuse to the manager to socialise with employees and usually waste their time. Sadly, anecdotal evidence points to attractive female employees as being the most likely target of this tactic.

One step up from this is meetings. Nothing gives the incapable and incompetent a better sense of fulfillment and accomplishment then attending a meeting. Warning signs include frequent ad hoc meetings (a week’s notice should be a minimum requirement), lack of agenda, lack of advance material, a goal other than to reach a decision (such as updates), lack of action items, lack of circulated minutes, etc. Again, these are not hard and fast rules but a pattern of such behaviour is a clear danger signal.

If you do manage to corner a professionally absent manager that doesn’t mean that you will get anything useful, especially if you are looking for a decision. The defensive judo skills of the absent manager include “Did you get sign off from the following 36 people?”, “There isn’t enough data, get more,” “Let’s run it up the flag pole” and the dreaded “Leave it on my desk.”

Entertaining as it is to talk about the absent manager, it is important to understand that he is lethal to your career. The fact that it is not overtly malicious behaviour makes it all the harder to recognise. But if you your boss is a professional absentee, you are best served by finding a new manager, even if it means going to a new company.

This article was originally published in The National.