Ed: Day #4 of the Deconstructing Managers week. Day #1 sets the stage and is a good place to begin.
How does your manager talk to you?
My first piece of advice to all new managers is “Schedule 1:1s, keep them on the same day and time, never cancel them.” With this mind, some of the trickiest transitions for me during the day is when these 1:1s show up. I’m deep in some problem, writing a specification, answering a critical email, and this person walks in my office and they want to talk about I don’t know what… WORKING IN THE ZONE HERE PEOPLE. In the brief second I try to figure out some way to reschedule this meeting, I remind myself of a simple rule, “You will always learn something in your 1:1.”
When is your manager giving you a chance to tell him what’s in your brain? I’m worried if your answer isn’t “At a 1:1”, but I’m not panicking, yet. Maybe your manager is one of these organic types who likes to jump you in the hallway and gather relevant bits. Terrific. Does he do it consistently or when he needs something? The former is great, the latter is a problem waiting to happen.
What is a manager learning in a 1:1? Much of what you’re talking about in a 1:1 your manager already knows. You’re concerned about the reorg, right? Well, everyone is and he’s already talked to four other people about their concerns. You think the field engineers are a bunch of twits? So does he. A good manager has his finger of the pulse of their organization and the 1:1 usually echos much of that pulse, so why is he carving out 30 minutes for every person on his team?
He wants to learn.
Whether it’s a 1:1 or a random hallway conversation, your manager should always be in active information acquisition. He should love it when you stop him in the hallway and tell him, “I hate your favorite feature”. See, the thing was, he’s been losing sleep over that feature for the past three days and he can’t figure out why. Your random (hopefully justified) hatred just shoved his thinking in another direction.
Managers who don’t have a plan to regularly talk to everyone on their team are deluded. They believe they are going to learn what is going on in their group through some magical organizational osmosis and they won’t. Ideas will not be discovered, talent will be ignored, and the team will slowly begin to believe what they think does not matter… and the team is the company.
How much action per decision?
When the new VP showed up for his first day at the start-up he was wearing a Members Only jacket. Sky blue. I didn’t know they still made these throw-backs to the 80s. A jacket which lived under the tagline, “When you put it on, something happens.” I’d given the VP a thumbs up during the button-up and tie phase of the interview, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Three months in, we had a problem. Members Only was doing a phenomenal job of discussing and dissecting the problems facing engineering. We’d leave meetings fresh with new ideas and promises of improvements, but then nothing would happen. Ok, so follow-up meeting. WOW! He gets it. I’m fired up, again. Let’s roll. Ummm, two more weeks and nothing is happening here.
Now, me being the Director of Engineering, you can argue that the onus of action was on me. Problem was, I was doing everything I signed up to do. The VP wasn’t. He wasn’t talking with the CEO about our new plans. He wasn’t handling the other Director who was totally checked out. When the third follow-up meeting was scheduled, the VP again demonstrated his solid problem solving skills, but I wasn’t listening anymore. I was waiting to when we got the the next steps portion of the conversation where I’d pull up the meeting notes from the previous two meetings and carefully point out these were the same next steps as THE LAST TWO MEETINGS.
The act of delegation is a slippery slope for managers. Yes, you want to figure out how not be a bottleneck in your organization and, yes, you want to figure out how to scale, but you also want to continue to get your hands dirty. Members Only’s problem was he believed his job was purely strategic. Think big thoughts; delegate the results of those thoughts to the minions. He was a pure delegator and he’d forgotten how to do real work.
Pure delegators are slowly becoming irrelevant to their organization. The folks who work for pure delegators don’t rely on him for their work because they know they can’t depend on him for action. This slowly pushes your manager out of the loop and, consequently, his information about what is going on in his organization becomes stale. Then, the CEO walks into your bossses office and asks, “How’s it going?” The third time your boss gives the same generic answer, the CEO goes to you and asks the same question. When you respond with, “Well, we’re fucked”, the CEO has an entire other conversation with your manager.
Real work does not mean that I think engineering managers need to continue to code. Real work is visible action managers take to support their particular vision for their organization. The question you need to answer for your manager is simple: Does he do what he says he’s going to do? Does he make something happen?
Next: Your manager’s political value matters.