The opportunity to manage many engineering teams in Silicon Valley over the past three decades has given me many opportunities to retrospect. In this post, I have the pleasure of sharing with you the top ten management lessons I've learned along the way.
Lesson 1: It’s Not About You
Like some of you, I was first promoted by being good as an individual contributor. One of the mistakes I made as a new manager was to try to help my new team accomplish their goals by taking on the lion share of individual contributor work myself. I don’t dispute the need for hands-on work—especially at a startup like Swift Navigation—but the trick as a manager is to remember your job is to keep your entire team productive and moving forward—not just yourself. In my case, by focusing on my tasks, my early team lost focus and work stalled because I had my hands in the dirt and wasn’t available to help provide direction or remove obstacles.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to take an 8-week sabbatical. As a stretch assignment, I left an employee (Jason) “in charge”. While I firmly believed Jason had management potential, he was my least experienced team member. When I got back from my sabbatical I had my first 1:1 with Jason.
“Jason, how did it go? What did you learn?” I asked.
Jason said, “I have never worked so hard, so many hours in my entire life and accomplished so little.”
“Welcome to management,” I said.
The reality is that while I was gone, Jason oversaw a software release and had to deal with some difficult personnel issues. Jason was so used to producing his own deliverables, that he was incorrectly interpreting his lack of “output” as failure, where had he measured his success on the output and accomplishments of the team, he would have taken much more satisfaction in what was accomplished.
Remember, it isn’t about you—it’s about the team.
Lesson 2: Lead Yourself First
Pause and think about the top 10 traits you want in your leaders.
How many of you had honesty/integrity, forward-looking, inspirational or visionary or competent on your list?
One of my favorite management books is Credibility by Barry Poesner. Over the last twenty years, he has sponsored surveys with thousands of executives on a global level, asking them what they want from their leaders.
Barry’s top four survey answers haven’t changed in twenty years—people want leaders who are honest, forward-looking, inspiring and competent. In every survey, honesty was picked over every other leadership characteristic. Leaders are judged to be honest when their actions match their words and when they are willing to stand up for what they believe is right. “Do what you said you would do”. In addition, leaders need to have a sense of purpose, of direction and strong convictions. No one wants to follow someone who is lost or wishy-washy. Leaders need to be inspiring and positive and competent. If you look at these traits, I think you would agree that these traits are not just about what a person does, they are about who they are inside. What they do is a mirror into who they are inside. To be a great leader, you need to work on yourself from the inside out. Are you someone you would want to follow? If not, what could you change? What should you change?
Lesson 3: Set Clear Expectations
Good managers set clear expectations. When I was a new manager, I had the opportunity to work with another new manager who gave his new team a one-page handout to post in their cubes outlining his values and guiding principles, as well as what his team could expect from him as a manager and what he would in turn expect from them. His list really made me think about the importance of clear expectation setting. His team went on to be very successful and he, in turn, has become quite successful and is a Senior VP at a very large software company.
Jeff Miller, the CEO of Documentum when I joined, was also quite good at expectation setting. “We may be wrong, but we aren’t confused,” Jeff said on multiple occasions. The first time I heard it I was a little taken aback, but Jeff saw his place as our leader to instill a shared vision and a sense of direction. He would tell us the target and we would relentlessly pursue the target. But sometimes the target would move or we might be a little wrong about our heading and need to make some small course corrections. Everyone rowing in the same slightly wrong direction makes a lot more forward progress than everyone rowing in different directions.
At Swift we have a very open and transparent culture—where we freely share information. We have monthly All Hands meetings, where our CEO, Tim Harris, shares a lot more information with us than most leaders would share. Allowing the team access to this level of information and ability to ask open questions—keeps us aligned. We also use objectives and key results (OKRs), a framework for setting public and aligned organization goals—a concept covered very well in John Doerr’s book, Measure what Matters.
A good manager points their team in the right direction, delegates authority and then trusts the team members to do the right thing. A good manager also provides feedback and verifies that work is done well.
Lesson 4: Learn The Platinum Rule
I’m sure you’ve all heard the golden rule, “treat others the way you want to be treated”. I believe this rule needs some tweaking and should instead be “treat others the way they want to be treated”.
If you go through formal management training, there will be a section where you will focus on differing personality styles of people. You should also go through diversity training. These lessons can be boiled down into understanding differences between people and knowing your people well enough to treat them the way they want to be treated.
Lesson 5: Maintain 360 Degree Relationships
One of the hardest lessons I learned as a manager is that to be really successful you should not only focus on your employees but also create and maintain relationships with your manager, his managers, your peers in your organization and your peers in other cross-functional organizations.
One tip for managing up, is to find out what your boss and executive management teams expect and present your information accordingly.
Another skill is to establish relationships with your peer managers who are often in the same stage of their career as you. These relationships make the company more effective because there will be more trust across the organization and better communication-leading to better alignment on goals. They make you more effective because you now have a network you can count on for hands on/practical advice.
At Swift we have implemented a new manager's meeting where we share best practices with one another. At one of our recent meetings, one manager shared a Jira “onboarding” epic he created for his team—bringing new employees into the fold quickly and efficiently. Other new managers quickly followed suit.
Lesson 6: Learn Matrix/Remote Management Skills
Sometime in your career as a manager, you will be asked to work on a cross-functional team or provide direction to a remote employee who does not directly work for you.
The management principles I’m covering still apply, but with no positional power over cross-functional, borrowed or matrixed employees, it is even more important to create a shared vision and to find ways to communicate with all the people on the team. Communication and collaboration tools are necessary to pull remote teams together and if you have a situation where you have matrixed employees, it’s also advisable to establish 1:1’s with the matrixed employees and occasional 1:1s with their reporting managers.
Lesson 7: Balance Comfort/Challenge
One of my early mentors—Bob Little—taught me to make sure that each of my employees are getting a balance of tasks that are comfortable and challenging. If too many tasks are out of their comfort range employees will be in a constant state of panic, but if not challenged enough, employees will be bored.
This is a simple concept, but as a manager you will typically want to maximize your output by giving people tasks that they can do better than anyone else. If you have someone who is an expert at Excel, you’ll ask her to do the pivot table project because it will take a lot longer for anyone else to do. Sometimes the easiest choice is not the right choice. Think about who will benefit to do what work as you make your assignments. Who wants to grow in what areas, where can strengths be developed, where do you need to build some redundancy? Occasionally, you may have to justify your assignments. For example when I made Jason my replacement, I talked to my more senior employees about my choice and asked for their mentoring support of this stretch assignment as well briefing my management chain on the reasons behind my decision.
One caveat to this—do not assign employees a task that does not suit their personality or strengths. Instead think about each employees' natural gifts/talents and spend your time developing those first.
Lesson 8: Always Keep Learning
Mediocrity is not an option if you want to continue to be employable in today’s global market. In the last few years, the playing field has gotten a lot bigger and a lot more level, due to technologies allowing collaboration across the globe, business practices that support this collaboration and billions of new “players” able to join the global workspace.
What does this mean for you?
It means that you are no longer just competing for jobs with those living geographically close to you. The choice employers have is much larger and you must take action to have continuous employment. It means committing to always learning, always growing in your chosen field. Seek bigger challenges, invest in yourself – take classes, read books and surround yourself with people who help you grow your skills. Study the industry. Read trade magazines, attend industry shows and watch the competition. If you find that your chosen specialty is obsolescing, look at your skills and see what you can adapt to a new specialty. The world and your industry are constantly changing. To stay ahead, you can not get complacent, you must continually invest in yourself.
In my first job, I was lucky enough to work with a young man named Houman. Houman would spend 10 minutes every morning, reading something that would help grow his skills for our job. Ten minutes a day—that’s it. But ten minutes a workday is almost an hour a week and about 40 hours a year. This was over 20 years ago—which means he has logged well over 800 hours of learning to his resume! I challenge you to find that 10 minutes, don’t get complacent, invest in yourself and your future a little each day and always keep learning.
Lesson 9: Practice Management By Walking Around
This is not a new concept but one that I rarely see managers doing. We managers keep getting caught up in Slack, email, meetings, schedules and deadlines and rarely take the time to walk around and see what our associates, employees, and team members are doing.
It is not just walking around either. It is what you do when you walk around. Before you walk around, review what you know and when you meet your employees, ask them about their families, their lives, but also ask them specific questions about what they are working on. Show an interest, listen and learn! Ask them about their ideas. If you have remote employees you can do a virtual walking around with tools. Management by Walking Around gives you opportunities to catch people doing things right as well as opportunities for coaching and real-time feedback. Lastly it lets your employees know that you value their ideas and suggestions and shows that you are approachable—that you care—all of which positively affect morale.
Lesson 10: Act on your Open Requisitions
How many of you have open reqs now? Reqs are one of the hardest commodities to come by and are not to ever be taken lightly. Hiring well can help you shape your team, fill in skill gaps and accomplish even larger goals! As a matter of fact, before you even get one, you can help your cause by creating a pipeline of possible candidates, doing anticipatory interviews and having your job descriptions pre-written. Create your pipeline by finding employees at other companies that are known for what you are looking for, people you know and people your network knows. Do informational interviews all of the time with people you think might be good fits. Let your social media contacts know you are hiring! Have your elevator pitch on why you are a great boss, why your company is a good place to be and why your open position is the right choice for your candidate.
Know that hiring well is your top priority. Who you hire will enable your success and ultimately your company’s success too. Once you’ve hired them though, it’s important that you manage your people effectively, because the number one reason people leave jobs is "poor supervisory behavior" or bad bosses. Even more incentive to make sure you keep investing in yourself and in your employees. By the way, Swift is hiring, check out open positions here.
I am a big proponent of career retrospectives, done at year-end or at big personal career milestones. The practice of thinking about where you are, what insights you learned along the way and what positive actions you'll take going forward helped me create this post and can also help you create your own lessons learned. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, whatever you lead, be a good leader!