The new GM and his monkeys

When you are promoted to your first General Management position, the first thing that will happen is that people will start to bring you their problems. “Hey Boss, what should I do next?”

While you may think that this is a similar situation to when you first became a manager the GM challenge is different. For a newly appointed General Manager you have a strong temptation to take over. You are now fully responsible for the performance of the business. Your teams business problems a your problems. and these problems often are more complicated than you faced as a department manager and are fundamental to your performance.

You have a natural tendency to get involved.


I first learned how to deal with this situation through an excellent (and short) management book by Ken Blanchard “One Minute Manager meets the Monkey”a humorous and highly effective way to learn how to start dealing with problems and delegating business tasks. Let me introduce its simple concepts to you.


When your team member comes into your office with a problem imagine them entering your room with a Monkey on their back.

When you agree to do something about their problem, imagine that the monkey is now off his back and onto yours.

The first big problem the new GM will face is do you wish to avoid these leaping monkeys? And if so, then how? The rest of the book then goes onto explain: how managers can meet their own priorities, resist the urge to accept other people’s monkeys, and encourage and assist your team members to solve their own problems.

When the you gladly accept other people’s monkeys, problems that your team could have or should have handled, you give a clear message that YOU want all the monkeys. So naturally, the more you pick up, the more you get.  This creates an atmosphere where monkeys keep coming and multiplying to a point where you will start to borrow time from your personal life, or exercise, hobbies, and eventually your family life- to care for and feed all these monkeys. The next stage in this process sees the new GM procrastinating whilst their people wait- the new GM doesn’t want the monkey but doesn’t know how to avoid taking them on. This creates a costly duplication of effort. By spending all your time working on other people’s monkeys means you have no opportunity to work on your own solutions to the monkeys you own.

This is not managing.

You are being managed by your people effectively delegating upwards to you. You become reactive and lose out on appropriate proactive delegation downward. This is a recipe for disaster for a new GM.

So lets start at the beginning again.

As a new General Manager, the extent that one can get your heads of department to care for and feed their own monkeys, is the key to your future success.   Here, the monkey isn’t necessarily a whole problem, or a challenge or an opportunity. Consider that the monkey you see on your team members shoulders is the NEXT MOVE in a situation, and the responsibility for making that move.


To reiterate; consider the monkey in these examples is not a project or a problem; the monkey is whatever the ‘next move’ is on this project or problem.

This is illustrated in the book by  Oncken’s 4 Rules of Monkey Management. These rules apply to your meetings with your team members who appear at your door with a monkey. In this meeting, your discussion should not end until all monkeys have:

Rule 1. The Appropriate “next moves” are identified and specified- the monkey is defined.

Rule 2. Ownership agreed: The monkey is assigned to a person i.e. it is agreed who is responsible for it. This must be to the lowest paid competent individual.

Rule 3. There are Insurance Policies: The risk is covered. Every Monkey leaving the presence of the General Manager on the back of one of their people must either be “recommended & acted upon” (a recommendation is passed to you FIRST and THEN acted upon) or “acted & then advised upon.” (the problem owner acts on the problem and THEN informs you what has been done, the actions result, and any follow up recommended actions)

Rule 4.  Next Steps; Monkey feeding and checkup appointments. The time and place for follow-up is clearly specified, put into your diary and the follow up actions agreed. Proper follow-up means healthier monkeys. Every monkey should have a checkup appointment.

When Blanchard wrote his management booklet he was quite clear in terminology…

We do not have a problem, and we will never again have one. I am sure that there is a problem, but it is not ours, it is either yours or mine.”

When a problem presents itself, the first step is to find out who’s problem it is, who is the owner.  If, genuinely, it’s the GMs problem, then your team can be enrolled to assist you solve the problem.

Be quite clear with your people, if the monkey turns out to be theirs, that you will help subject to the following condition: at no time while you are helping will their problem become your problem, because the minute their problem becomes your problem, they will no longer have a problem and you can’t help a person who does not have a problem!

The purpose of these simple rules of active delegation is to help ensure that the right things get done the right way at the right time by the right people.

On a precautionary note, these rules should be applied only to monkeys (problems, issues, challenges, opportunities) that deserve to live. Some problems deserve to die, to be ignored. Ask your team members: “why are we doing this?” If the answer doesn’t support your business strategy, dismiss the monkey. This engages your people to focus only on issues that are essential for the business.

To create a permanent monkey free office, practice the following skills :

– Active Delegation – whereby your people are achieving more and more with less and less involvement from you. Whilst assigning involves a single monkey; delegation involves a family of monkeys. And once delegation is reached, staying there is easy compared with the job of getting there. With delegation comes insurance policies as outlined above – you should be clear which approach each person or type of problem in your team takes is either  “recommended & acted upon” (a recommendation is passed to you FIRST and THEN acted upon once you agree) or “acted & then advised upon.” (the problem owner acts on the problem and then informs you this has been done, the result and any follow up recommended actions)

-Practice Hands-Off Management as much as possible and Hands-On Management as much as is necessary. Your people are fully responsible for their projects unless a problem is encountered that requires intervention. This practice leads to self-management, which is a lot better than the high degree of boss-management that one experience’s while assigning monkeys. The assignments should be boss-initiated only to the extent that the team member cannot initiate them.

– It is better to strike a straight blow with a crooked stick meaning work with what you have (a crooked stick) rather than spending time trying to fix the problem from its root, which could take forever. Quickly come to a solution to address the immediate problem, then try to search for a sustainable remedy, when the urgency has passed.

If you are overwhelmed by monkeys—projects and problems that don’t belong to you—then try to take these suggestions, and work to keep monkey where they belong- in the zoo and out of your office.

So I’ve spent a lot of time finding ways not to take on others’ problems and solve for them. So how do you solve these intractable problems, how do you make crooked sticks straight.

That’s whats next; check in next week for 9 problem solving techniques!


and here’s the source of the fantastic Monkey art to start with