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80/20 Management

by David Brock on September 8th, 2013

All of us like to fit all sorts of principles and examples into Pareto’s Law.  In many cases these are relevant and great examples.  There are dozens of articles on leadership and coaching which apply the 80/20 principle.  Everyone seems to have a different 80/20 depending on what they are talking about.  Much of it may be valid, but too often I think many of these articles miss the real point.

As managers, we are expected to lead, manage, and coach all our people–not just some of them.  Our job is to maximize the performance of each person in our organization.  We should continue to stretch and develop our top performers.  We need to help our mid-performers step up their game, improving as much as possible.  Finally, we cannot ignore our poor performers–we have to help them get to a sustained satisfactory level of performance or manage them out of the business (that’s the politically correct way of saying, “Fire them.”)

So we have to pay attention to everyone, again making sure each is performing as best possible, meeting our performance expectations.  We also need to look at their long term development, coaching them to achieve their full potential–both for our organizations, but for their own careers.

Does this mean we spend 80% of our time on our top 20%, and the remainder on the others?  Or 80% of our time on the bottom 20, and so forth?  Do we have to spend that “magical 4-7 hours per month on each person?” 

Frankly, I don’t know and I really don’t care.  Effective management, leadership, and coaching shouldn’t be formularized in these ways.  We can’t reduce it to:  I will spend 45.27 minutes every week with my top performers, 15.35 with my mid-range, and 11.6 with my bottom.  We can’t go through the same checklist with each person, “I said this, I reminded the of that, I coached them on these.”

How much time we spend, what we coach, how we coach depends on the individual, a point in time, and the circumstances.  We have to adapt our coaching to what is most effective with each individual at that point in time.  We may have to spend an hour with a bottom performer and 10 minutes with a top performer.  This week, we need to work with Jill on these things, but Lou needs development in a completely different area and it will take more time.

I’ve directly managed hundreds of people over my career.  I’ve had truly outstanding performers who’ve gone on to great things, I’ve had my share of poor performers, good people  in the wrong job–or just people with plain bad attitudes.  I’ve had a lot of solid contributor–not superstars, but great people who do what’s expected.  Through all that time and all those people, I’ve not been able to reduce things to a formula–nor have I sought to.  I’ve just known that it’s been my job to maximize the performance and contribution of each person that I’ve led.  With each person, it’s been different.

There are certainly critical underlying principles on what we coach, how we coach, when we coach and why.  There are great principles to people development,  performance management, and leadership.  All help us improve our effectiveness and impact with each person on our teams.

But the real joy in managing, leading, and coaching is with each individual–figuring out with them how to help them achieve their goals and ours.  Finding ways to lead and inspire each person to achieve their potential, while maximizing their contribution to our organization.  That’s the fun of being a leader, seeing the results is when you know you’ve made an impact.

We can never forget, it is only about people.  Each person is different.  If we are formulaic in our approach, we will cheat most of them, our organizations, and ourselves.

  1. John Sterrett permalink

    Hear, Hear!

    But I also think we need to pay attention to the micromanaging vs macromanaging split. The micro, if applied as a blanket strategy will kill a good performer – and us, trying to keep track of all those minutes and minute action items. But the poor performers need a detailed, task driven approach – at least in the beginning.

    A religious analogy would be the Jews in the time of Christ. Many were only able to perform to the task-driven Law of Moses and ancillary corollaries they had developed to it. While those who were ready to perform were able to function under the much broader New Law – Love God and Love Your Neighbor.

    Our top performers share the broader vision, and need guidance, inspiration and a pat on the back, but not micromanagement. But as in the analogy, we still need to be concerned with all the players – who understand our parables to distinct degrees.

    • Thanks John. We have to adapt our management style, coaching, and time to what’s appropriate for the individual.

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