As a sales manager, how come your daily work schedule is a hopeless mess by lunchtime? Why does it seem like your “ToDo” list grows exponentially while your direct reports are often idle, frequently waiting on you?
Business advice published just a year or two ago is often horribly out of date, but William Oncken’s “Who’s Got the Monkey,” which tackles these questions, is as relevant today as it was when it first appeared in the Harvard Business Review nearly forty years ago. It is the second most downloaded HBR document of all time and the ideas in it have become a cornerstone of modern management theory.
The idea, in brief, is that problems arise in the course of work which are too complex to be solved in a single step. Whomever has the responsibility for the next step has the “monkey.” For example, as you are racing down the hall to your next meeting, one of your subordinates stops you with “We’ve got a problem…” After listening briefly, you realize that (1) you know enough about the problem that you’ll need to be involved at some level and (2) you can’t make an on-the-spot decision.
If you respond with “Let me think about it,” you’ve just allowed a “monkey” to leap from your subordinate’s back to yours. You now have the responsibility for the next step. You’ve added an item to your own “to do” list and your subordinate is now waiting on you.
Sales managers who pick up stray monkeys, even just one or two a day, don’t have time to handle their real job: fulfilling their respective own boss’s mandates and helping their peers generate business results. There’s an old saying that “If you want to find the bottleneck, look near the top of the bottle.”
In most companies, individual contributors with stellar personal sales records are promoted to sales management. They got promoted because of their ability to make things happen as individual contributors. Now as managers, they need to make the transition to working with and through others.
Creating a culture where subordinates learn how to manage their own monkeys, rather than handling only routine work and bouncing all of the really interesting stuff back up to their manager, creates real leverage, improving the productivity of the whole team. It multiplies the effectiveness of your managers, while creating the kind of challenging and growth-oriented environment that attracts and retains top performers. At the same time, it helps you build the next generation of great managers that you will need to grow your organization.
So how should you respond to a subordinate who tries to hand you a monkey in the hallway? You can read Oncken’s original work, with modern notes by Stephen Covey, by clicking here.
At Farsyte, we believe that the secret to building the best sales team in the world is investing in your front-line sales managers. We are like personal trainers, working with your high-potential sales managers to unlock their potential to be great sales leaders. Our system uses a unique combination of assessment tools, mobile apps and one-on-one coaching to actually change their behavior, from trying to manage each sale, to multiplying sales by empowering their teams for maximum performance.