So You Want to Be a Manager?

Special thanks to my colleagues Sam Chaudhary, Lexi Ross and Stuart Reavley for feedback/criticism!

I’m not a management guru, and I’ve never taken a management class. I have done some management, and a hell of a lot more coaching (which is often more powerful than traditional management) though, and I’ve worked with and for managers of varying degrees of effectiveness and I’ve picked up a few things that I’ve seen work really well.

While I’ve got a lot of experience with management of technical systems, I’m really just going to talk about the management of people here as if it’s the only type of management. It certainly isn’t, but it’s important enough to attempt to discuss separately.

Management is sometimes a title, but it’s more important that you think of it as a responsibility. It’s the responsibility to be effective in the larger organization.

Let’s break that down further: being effective means achieving the desired results for a given endeavour. When you’re not a manager, you can often get away with just trying hard and waiting for someone else to correct your course when the results aren’t sufficient (though I hope it’s obvious later that I don’t suggest this). Conversely, managing requires watching results tirelessly and changing tactics that aren’t working until they work.

Congratulations, You’re Hired!

You’re already in a management position: No matter who you are, you’re in charge of managing yourself, and the world is constantly deciding how it values you based on your ability to be an effective person. Even if you were to become a hermit living on a remote island somewhere, you have to constantly be considering your effectiveness at how you spend your day in order to survive on a daily basis. When you see your shoelace untied and you tie it back up, that’s self-management. Before you can manage endeavours that involve other people, you’ll want to make sure you’re reasonably good at managing yourself.

Managing Without Being a Manager

A team can successfully be self-managing in varying degrees, or a team can be managed by a single individual. My preference has always been to lean as hard on the team as possible to be self-managing but regardless, “management” as a responsibility (ensuring effectiveness) must happen.

It is also possible to manage sideways and to manage up. This means that you are ensuring that management is happening regardless of your title. At any company I’ve seen, people that do this successfully (they’re effective and not an asshole) are the natural choices for management roles, and they get them much more often. You have to constantly pick high-value problems, and work within your organization to solve them.

The easiest way to start trying to manage up is to be part of your own solutions. When you find a problem that you can’t solve yourself and want to bring it to your manager, bring some potential solutions too.

Part of managing is finding your own high-value problems to solve. More commonly this is called “taking initiative”. If you’re waiting for someone else to give you the opportunity to “take initiative”, you’ve got a fundamental misunderstanding of what “taking initiative” means.

People that “want to be a manager” without having previously managed sideways or up are continuously overlooked for that role. If you can’t be successful at this without a title, you’re probably not going to be successful at it with a title either. Management isn’t for everyone; it often means a bunch of administration, bureaucracy, and conflict.

7 Core Principles

There are 7 principles that I think are important to pursue constantly and relentlessly to achieve effective management. Theoretically none of these are actually necessary for delivering results, but I’ve never seen a team consistently deliver results without them.

Integrity

Help the team identify and adhere to team values and goals.

  • Do what you say and say what you do. Relentlessly change what you’re doing to match what you’re saying you’re doing, or change what you’re saying you’re doing to match what you’re doing.

  • Be trustworthy and internally consistent.

  • Ensure that the entire team is acting as a cohesive unit.

Reliability

Reliability means rejecting responsibilities that you can’t be successful at.

  • When you find you’ve got a responsibility that you can’t fulfill, raise the issue externally immediately.
  • If you find this is happening repeatedly, figure out why and stop it.
  • When you find that the organization is exerting pressures on the team that are counter-productive, defend the team by fighting to create space for it to be productive and happy.

Alignment

Ensure the company and product vision, mission, and the strategy to achieve them are unambiguous, well known and widespread.

Work tirelessly to ensure buy-in from team-members, whether that involves changing minds or changing goals.

Two important tips for easier buy-in:

  1. Make sure people know WHY the goals are what they are. Even if they’re happy to work on any goals, the reasoning behind them can make them much more effective.
  2. Getting people’s input on goals is the easiest way to get buy-in, and a great way to get better goals.

Transparency

Ensure progress and status on the goals are well known and widespread.

  • ALWAYS keep interested parties up-to-date. Saying “I have no update” is almost always a crucial update.
  • Don’t be surprising. ALWAYS ask yourself “Would the current state of our progress be a surprise to interested parties?”.
  • Favour processes, practices, systems where transparency is built in, so it is less tedious (Nobody wants to do manual status reports, and that dislike is often an impediment to achieving transparency).
  • Make failures or difficulties transparent to the larger organization, including your efforts to solve them.
  • Effective communication is the key. Ensuring that the audience has actually understood it as easily as possible is critical. Do not waste your time writing documents/memos that people don’t read or don’t understand.

Continuous Improvement

Support continuous improvement in processes and practices.

  • Regularly revisit the current practices and processes and look for ways to improve.
  • Throw out practices and processes that cost more than you get from them.
  • Revisit practices and processes after large projects or new problems.
  • Consider ways to double down on successes and reduce failures.
  • Consider not only prevention of failures, but also mitigation of failures when they occur anyway.
  • Find ways to measure success and failure and make it more constantly obvious to everyone so they can adjust faster.
  • In general “try harder next time” is a recipe for repeated failure. Think of ways to try differently.

Empowerment

Ensure that the team is set up for success and motivated.

  • Often this includes absolutely crucial human issues like staffing, team composition, interpersonal conflicts, and individual compensation.
  • Happy, well-supported teams are effective teams. Continuously poll the team to find out how to better support them.
  • You’ll need social and emotional intelligence to tackle this, and there’s no shortcut around it.
  • People are set up for failure when their responsibility in a given situation exceeds their ability and control in that situation. Root out these situations and rectify them immediately.
  • Be gracious, thankful, and celebratory where warranted. Genuine appreciation is a powerful motivator.

Autonomy

Avoid being a bottleneck by delegating all possible responsibilities back to the teams.

  • It’s exceedingly difficult for one person to beat the ideas and efforts of an entire team, so it’s foolish to not promote as much shared-responsibility and autonomy as possible for the capabilities of the team. Coaching (as opposed to command-and-control management) is the extreme logical conclusion of this.

  • Fix things within your realm of capability. Raise all other issues (ideally with possible solutions) where possible.

And with all that said…

Usually when I’ve been ineffective (which occurs to some degree on a daily basis), I’ve found that it’s because I’ve failed to achieve one of the above principles. I still struggle with all of these quite regularly myself, and I’m not sure there’s ever a point where they’re “mastered”.

Most of these principles can and should be applied to sideways or upward management as well. Also, see how many you can apply to yourself; at the very least you’ll be a better teammate.

Ultimately there are no points awarded for effort. Effectiveness requires actual results, so even if these principles aren’t getting success for you, it’s your responsibility to throw them out and come up with better ones.

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