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Years ago, I shadowed a night manager at a large grocery store chain. She didn't sit down a single time during her entire eight hour shift. She tackled problem after problem, putting out fires. I was completely exhausted by the end of it, and asked her how she did it. She said, "Well, I've been here six months and I've lost 20 pounds without dieting."

The reason why her shift was so chaotic was that she was managing by being reactive, rather than proactive. To some extent, this is inevitable because of the role—you never know when a customer is going to throw a fit because you're out of her favorite dog food, or when a delivery truck will come in late. Still, there are ways to prepare for some disasters.

Many of us spend far too much time being reactive rather than proactive managers. If we can maximize how often we think proactively, our lives—and our customers' lives—become easier. Here's how to make the switch:

Anticipate What Will Happen

Managers aren't gifted a crystal ball when they accept the position, but we have the next best thing: data. Data can provide insight into recurring patterns, and better prepare managers for upcoming challenges before they manifest.

If John has come in late six times in the past two months, you can bet that he will come in late next month as well. You can wait until he comes in late again to talk with him, or you can sit down now and figure out what the problem is, and if there is a solution.

It's tempting to simply say that the problem is John's lateness and the solution is to reprimand him continuously. But that's the type of thinking that gets you into a reactive rather than proactive management mode. Instead, sit down with John and find out what is going on. It could be that:

  • There's construction along his commute that can be quite unpredictable
  • On Tuesdays, his wife has to be at work early, so he has to get the kids on the school bus. More often than not, this means he's late.
  • His clients are on the opposite coast, so he finds it silly to be in at 8:00am when they aren't going to be in the office until 10:00am.
  • John is a slacker and this isn't his only problem.

For each one of these problems, there is a different solution. To address the first, John just needs to leave earlier. To solve the second, you could consider adjusting his schedule so that he starts 30 minutes later on Tuesdays. The third requires a reassessment of his schedule and the fourth might mean that it's time to let him go.

This proactive management style, predictive thinking doesn't only apply to lateness. For example, based on previous experience, you've learned that the Senior Vice President is always going to have last minute changes to projects, so add time for those into the timeline. And, draw from structured data sources such as performance reviews or employee surveys to anticipate problems or tough conversations that may arise with specific employees.

If you sit down and look at the past fires you've put out, you're very likely to find that the same fires start over and over again. Creating a plan for each one will prevent the sparks from turning into full on blazes.

You Can't Stop Every Fire, But You Can Hire a Fireman

Even armed with the best data, it's impossible to predict everything that can go wrong. There's no way for a night manager to prevent all customer complaints, or ensure that no one ever drops a jar of pickles, and it's impossible to foresee the next time a shoplifter will try to sneak Diet Coke out the door. So, build that uncertainty into your plan.

You know that these fires will happen, but you don't know which ones and at what times. To avoid falling behind on crucial tasks, be mindful about time management. Don't leave all your monthly paperwork until the last minute, and get frustrated when you get pulled into other tasks. You know this happens on most nights, so be prepared.

Approaching your management tasks in this proactive manner takes the frustration out of it. These "fires" aren't stopping you from doing your job. These fires are your job. It's a tough job, but if you're mentally prepared for it, and that alone reduces stress.

Take a minute to stop and analyze what you can predict, what you'll have to handle and how to best handle it. It will make managing a heck of a lot easier.

Photo: Twenty20