Sunday, March 18, 2018

Management is a support role

I'm coming back to blogging after a few years buried under project work, and I want to explore some lessons learned as a technology leader managing a department growing rapidly and going through significant changes. My department builds educational software products and has grown from a couple employees and a dozen consultants to over 70 employees and 100 contractors/consultants over 3 years.
What is the role of a manager? What makes one "good"? Statistically speaking, most of us aren't too happy with our managers. If you are a manager, you probably think you are the exception (the 20-25% that are "good"). I think part of the issue is the common misunderstanding about what makes a good manager. A popular perception is that managers make the tough calls (and decisions), set strategic goals, and tell people what to do (while of course allowing them to decide how...).

Whether you are newer to management or have decades of experience, at some point before becoming a manager, you previously were amazingly successful as an individual contributor or small team leader. You always delivered on time and your work quality was amazing. As a result, you were recognized and given more responsibility. You might have even received advice about how you need a team in order to accomplish your newer and broader responsibilities. Now you have more to do and more people to help you do it. No problem because the role of your team is to help you get the job done... right?

If this is resonating with you, then you are trapped in a traditional management style. You are seeing the role of your team(s) as support for you. You are still operating like an individual contributor who happens to have lots of assistance. You are the brains and they are the brawn.

The trap here is that this actually works for some kinds of less creative and more repetitive jobs and therefore one can find lots of advice out there about how to run a team or organization of this type. For those of us in engineering or other creative fields though, this is a fallacy. The people in a creative organization will not respond well to this traditional style of management and you will not be successful in accomplishing your goals.

There is a better way. Invert the pyramid and see that management is a support role. Your team are the brains AND the brawn. You are the coach, mentor, and a supplier. You provide guidance, advice, and resources (money, time, etc.) to help them accomplish their goals. Yes, you heard that right. The goals don't come from you (at least, not entirely... but that's a nuance for a future post).

Think about it purely logically, who knows the customers and products best? Is it the CEO? Obviously that's impractical in all but the smallest organizations. How about the senior management team? The same logic continues to apply until you reach the team who is directly responsible for interfacing with the customer and creating the product. The entire organization (including you as a manager) is there to support those teams.

Here are some practical steps you can take this week to begin to manage in a more supportive and modern way:
  1. Ask your team how you can help them this week.
    If you haven't been doing this then you will probably get blank stares and confusion. Just hold your tongue and count to 10 slowly in your head. If no one has spoken up yet, then repeat the question and this time count to 20. Give people a chance to think and get comfortable with the reality that it will take time for your team to get used to seeing you as a supportive manager.
  2. Explain your supporting role to your team.
    You might have even done this in the past incorrectly. Don't worry about that. The key here is to explain that you are here to empower them and enable them to accomplish goals as individuals and as a team. Use an analogy like coaching a sports team. Coaches can't tell the players what to do every minute of the game but they can provide training outside of game time and guidance during the breaks in play. In combination with #1, you will begin to see your team culture shift to one of empowerment and intrinsic (vs extrinsic) motivation.
  3. Ask your teams what the next (or current) goal should be.
    If you and your team are used to traditional management then they probably have become dependent on you. Instead of empowering independence you have probably enabled dependence. Don't be an enabler anymore. Give decision making to your teams and embrace your supporting role. They may just echo your current plans to start. This is an opportunity to challenge your own thinking and ask people to suggest why the current plans are wrong. Find the problems in your own plan and ask your team for better options. Suggest that the current plan is likely to fail and you need their help to come up with one that will succeed. Take the role of facilitator and yield the floor at every opportunity. Your aim here is to get them to own the goals because their objectives are probably more effective than yours.
Welcome to your modern role in supportive management.

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