I recently hopped to a new company a few months ago and am now an individual contributor. And while I’m glad I no longer have to manage people for the time being, I know it will be something I revisit down the road, at either the behest of the company I now work for or my own renewed desire, or perhaps both. I also continue to reflect on how well I managed my teams over the last few years, which is what has prompted recent reflection as well as this blog post.
In 2018 I became a manager for the first time. My boss at the time — who also happened to be our team’s architect, my mentor and now my friend — sent me to Dallas for the Manager Tools Effective Manager and Effective Communicator conferences. It took place over two days, and I learned a lot about how to approach leading and managing a team. Mark Horstman broke down a lot of the myths of management I had inadvertently steeped over time, and expanded upon a lot of the intuitive lessons I had learned but not yet grounded in rationale or experience. His talk at USI gives a good taste of what it was like to not just listen to him, but work with him on management and communication.
In the talk he goes over the four behaviors that matter, and the tools his company developed to enact those behaviors. I’ve listed them below, with the latter in parentheses.
- Know Your People (One on Ones)
- Talk About Performance (Feedback)
- Ask For More (Coaching)
- Push Work Down (Delegation)
I’ll be honest — I haven’t thought about these in this way since Mark first taught them to me. And for better or for worse, a lot of those behaviors were enacted by the org structure we had at the time. Here’s how my boss fared with these behaviors with me as his direct:
- He was excellent about doing 1:1s with me and getting to know me. He did them consistently and knew about my interests outside of work as well as how well I was doing with schooling.
- 1:1s help facilitate this, as did his involvement in our sprint retros. He also filled out and discussed quarterly reviews with me. Each of these feedback loops (weekly, bi-weekly, quarterly) helped me learn from my mistakes.
- This didn’t happen often, but I would seek out coaching during 1:1s and I remember when I had to have a talk with one of my directs and he challenged me to take that on while stepping outside my comfort zone.
- Work was naturally pushed down because he was involved with planning our sprints.
At the end of 2018 I got a new boss — a remote boss, an overworked boss, a boss with no prior history working together. During that time I didn’t reflect on these behaviors, but looking back I notice something scary:
- He was not consistent with 1:1s every week. It took over a month to get them started, and he only started after I kept pushing it. He also frequently canceled 1:1s if he had a meeting with me at some other time during that week, figuring that was a valid substitution. (Narrator: it was not.)
- Outside of spotty 1:1s, he was not involved with our sprint and therefore had little context for our sprint retros. We had quarterly reviews that were based on a list of accomplishments he had each of us write up and send to him. Then these would be hastily written up and discussed before they were due to HR.
- This sometimes happened, but instructions were vague and expectations were never set.
- Work was only pushed down when someone was breathing down his neck. And it never aligned with what our team was doing or with what product wanted, so getting it into a sprint was a mess.
Going back to Mark’s talk, Mark spells out the two most important responsibilities of a manager: results and retention. The first boss did both of these things; the second boss did neither. Which brings me to my next reflection: how well I did as a manager. Without going into another breakdown of the four behaviors, for each of my directs — relationships are with people, not teams! — I can tell you that I was focused so much on retention that I papered over a lot of the bad that my own boss was doing to make my job impossible.
Retention was most important in my eyes because we were bleeding a lot of people in 2018 (both those let go and those looking for greener pastures) and HR wasn’t doing a damn thing to help us hire good candidates. Mark even mentions it — hiring the wrong person is worse than hiring no one at all. But we as a company weren’t trying to do more with less, we were doing less with less with the expectation of more. It was devastating.
Towards the end of my time at that company, I started to focus more on results when I realized that retention of my people wasn’t enough to combat the lack of retention in the rest of the company. That first boss I mentioned — the one who did everything right — was eventually stretched thin and chose to leave, along with most of the other architects in the company. And I soon learned that other teams were bleeding people as well. We got a new CEO halfway through 2019 but by then we had lost a lot of blood and it was going to take time to close the wound and begin to heal. And that’s when I decided to leave.
I don’t really have a happy ending or anything here. I’m still working through the details and reflecting on where I was and where I am now. I should probably get my copy of The Effective Manager back and maybe even purchase a copy of The Effective Hiring Manager.
I also know it’s two in the morning, so I’m not going to make good decisions right now, especially purchasing decisions. And I’m not currently a manager — I should be focusing on being an effective IC. Which probably means getting better sleep, eating healthier, making sense of my Todoist tasks and sticking to a budget. 🙂