My management career began with a misunderstanding.
“Rands, you’re doing a great job on tools development and I’d really like you to Lead the effort.”
It sounded liked your standard professional compliment. Atta boy! Go run with it! Problem was, I didn’t hear the capital L.
Lead is what my manager had said. Not lead, but Lead. He asked poorly and without definition and specifics, but he did ask. He was subsequently baffled two months later when I said, “I don’t think I can finish this by next month, I need more time.”
Him: “Why don’t you hire another engineer?”
Me: “Wait, I can do that?”
I see three possible situations whereby you might become a manager:
- You decide. “I believe I am going to be a better manager than engineer. I choose management.”
- You evolve. This is what happened to me. Essentially, a series of small decisions and actions where, at the end, you end up being a manager.
- You have no choice. “You. Manage this team. Go.”
Whether you get to choose or not, there are aspects of management that you need to understand.
Management is a total career restart. Now, if you’re evolving into the career, this will be less obvious, but if management just landed in your lap, realize that while you’re in the same game, it’s a totally new game board, and you’re at square #1. You will use the skills that made you a great engineer, but there’s an entirely new set of skills you need to acquire and refine.
This sensation will appear at the end of the day when you ask, “What did I build today?” The answer will be a troubling, “Nothing”. The days of fixing ten bugs before noon are gone. You’re no longer going to spend the bus ride home working on code; you’re going to be thinking hard about how to say something important to someone who doesn’t want to hear it. There will be drama. And there be those precious seconds when there is no one in your office wanting… something.
You go to a lot of meetings. You already knew this, but Managers Go to Meetings. Meetings are the bane of my existence and I consider it my personal goal to kill as many possible, but I still go to a lot of meetings. As best I can tell, there are two useful types of meeting: alignment and creation. Briefly:
Alignment meetings sound like this: “It’s red, are we all in agreement it’s red? Ok, swell. Wait, Phil thinks it’s blue. Phil, here are the 18 compelling reasons it’s red. Convinced? Done now?”
Creation meetings sound like this: “We need more blue. How are we going to do that? Phil, you’re our blue man. What should we do here?”
There are other meetings out there, but you will learn to avoid them. One being the therapy meeting. They sound like this: “Show of hands, who likes to talk about blue? Or red? I don’t care. Let’s explore our color feelings for the next 60 minutes.”
In time you will learn which meetings to attend, but when you start you will go to all of them because…
You are a communication hub. One of your primary jobs as a manager is to be a communication hub not only for all of those working for you, but for everyone who needs something from you. This means you are going to spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in random conference rooms and listening. Hard. Who are they? What do they need? Do I understand what they are saying? Should I say no now or let this fester?
Confusingly, as a manager, you often get credit just by showing up, sitting there, and nodding. As a career management strategy, the “nodding fly-on-the-wall” approach isn’t proactive or helpful. But there are critical times when all that is being asked of you is that you are the receiver of the rant. Simply by listening, by letting an idea be heard, you are helping.
However, you need to do more than listen. Whatever is being said in this meeting isn’t just for you; parts of it are for your team, which means you need amazing skills of…
Abstraction and Filtering. During these endless demands for your time, you do need to communicate, but if you’re relaying all the information that’s being thrown at you during the day, all you’ll do is relay. Your new job is one of abstraction, synthesis, and filtering. During that 30-minute status meeting, you need to develop the mental filter to listen for the three things you actually need to tell the team in your alignment meeting, but in a mere three minutes instead of 30.
Your thought is, “If there are only three things I need to know, why the hell are we spending 30 minutes in this meeting?” First, I relate to your frustration. Second, the three things you need to relay are different than the three things each of the other folks in this meeting needs to relay. Third, if you blow this, here’s what’s going to happen: more meetings.
See, your world has expanded, now…
You will be multi-lingual / translator. Each group in the company has a different language they speak and a different set of needs. As a manager, you need to be able to speak all the corporate dialects of those you depend on. Think of the healthy tension between Engineering and QA. Remember that flame war that went on between you and the QA guy for a week in the bug database? Engineering and QA actually speak the same language, but have different goals. As a manager, you will discover an entire company of languages and goals. For example:
- Sales cares about selling and doesn’t much care how hard it is to build.
- Marketing is passionate about brand, content, and voice and will argue endlessly for details you find to be irrelevant.
- Tech supports talks to the customer ALL DAY, but still feels no one listens to what they say.
- Admins speak many of these languages and have more power than you think.
Everyone believes their job is essential, everyone believes everyone else’s job is easy, and, confusingly, everyone is right.
These roles exist for a reason. The groups each bring something unique to the corporate organism. You can giggle and make fun of their bizarre acronyms as an individual, but as a manager you must speak their language, because once you do, you’re going to better understand what they want.
Learning new languages is tricky, especially when you’re just getting started. You’re going to spend 90 days being totally confused, and it gets worse because there’s…
Drama everywhere. Your manager calls you into her office first thing on a Monday morning. It’s clearly urgent. She sits you down and starts, “I’m, uh, making a change in the organization. Amanda is really excelling in tools development so I’ve asked her to take over Jerry’s management responsibilities. I think this will make everyone more successful.”
Wondering what happen to Jerry? Feel like you’re getting half the story? Wrong, you’re getting 1/10th of the story. People are messy and a huge part of the management gig is managing this messiness. Who knows what personal or professional issue Jerry has that is forcing this management change. It’s really none of your business. However, it is your manager’s business because the people are her job.
As an individual, you’re seeing 10% of the organizational drama your manager is seeing. I know it’s intriguing to get the full story, but again, it’s often none of your business, and it’s not your job. As a manager, you get front row seats for all of the drama in all its messy glory. This is why you have a monthly 1:1 with Human Resources. Their job is to train you how to manage the drama. This is why you need to become a great…
Context Switcher. This is your morning. Six 30-minute 1:1s starting at 9am. This day is unique in that in your 4th 1:1, your architect resigns. The guy who has been designing the heart of your application for 18 months has been poached by a start-up and had piles of money thrown at him, and it sounds like there’s no way of saving him. Sounds grim. What’s harder is that when your sky-is-falling 1:1 is done, you’ve got your next one with your QA Director who has no clue your architect resigned, and she urgently wants to talk bug database, and that’s exactly what you need to do. You need to quietly and confidently forget that you’re fucked and give this team member your full attention.
There will be a steady stream of curveballs headed in your managerial direction, each with its own unique velocity. One of your jobs is to not only deftly handle the pitch, however bizarre, but also shake it off and calmly expect an even stranger one.
There’s a reason you’ll see an inordinate amount of bizarre organizational crap as a manager. See, the individuals can handle — and should handle — the regular stuff. You want a team of people who aren’t bringing you every little thing, but if you successfully build this team, your reward is that what is ends up in your office is uniquely kooky.
As these freakish pitches whiz by, you will be judged in two very different ways. First, what did he do about the pitch? Are we going to see more of these? Second, how was his composure as that pitch whizzed by, missing his nose by an inch? Does it look like he handled it or is he freaked out and ready to bolt?
Leadership is not just about effectively getting stuff done, but demonstrating through your composure that you aren’t rattled by the freakish. Fortunately, one of the new tools you have to control the proliferation of freakishness is the ability to…
Say No. This is your second most powerful tool. Whether you’re a manager, considering management, or just here for the Rands, I want you to pick the hardest problem on your plate. The one that is waking you up at 4am. I want you to decide and to say out loud:
You’re not going to do that thing. QA can’t test it. Engineering won’t finish it. If we attempt to do it, we will fail and we don’t fail, so the answer is “No”.
You had this tool as an individual. You could say no, but you usually did so by cornering your manager and explaining, “Here is why No is the right move here,” and then he’d say no.
As a manager, you are caretaker of No for you group. When it is time to do the right thing by stopping, it’s your job to bust out the No. You defend your team against organizational insanity with No.
No does not come without consequences. Saying No because you can rather than because it’s right slowly transforms you into a power-hungry jerk, but again, this is your new tool to do with as you see fit. Also, it’s not all No, you can also…
Say Yes. Yes is how you begin building both people and things. It’s not just a positive word; it’s the word that provides the structure for moving forward. “Yes. Begin”, “Yes, I know he’s leaving. What are we going to do?” and “Why yes, we should tackle the audacious.”
There will be times when your Yes needs to be unencumbered by reality, where it needs to be the inspiration that demonstrates how you perceive the unknowable.
“Yes, I think you’d be a fine manager.”
Trust So You Can Scale
As a new manager, whenever the sky falls, you’ll become an engineer again. You’re going to fall back on the familiar because those are the tools you know and trust, but it’s time to trust someone else: your team.
If I could give you one word, a single, brief piece of management advice, the word would be “scale”. Your job as a manager is to scale the skills that got you the gig in the first place. You used to be the guy who did the impossible when it came to fixing bugs. Ok, now you’re the guy whose entire team does the impossible bug fixing.
It’s time to translate and to teach what you’re good at to those who you work with, and that starts by trusting them to do that which you previously only asked of yourself.
The benefits of defining and maintain this trust create a satisfying productivity feedback loop. By trusting your team, you get to scale, and scaling means you hopefully get to do more of what you love. The more you do, the more you build, the more experience you gather, the more lessons you learn. The more lessons you learn, the more you understand, and that means when more shows up you’ll have even greater opportunity to scale.