A recurring theme I’ve heard a lot lately from tech executives in unicorns is that their management team is their weakest link.
You feel like you—as the one running the show—have your act together and that your ICs are great. If only you could get your managers to do things correctly, you’d be thriving. Right?
There are logical reasons for why this is coming mainly from unicorns. That’s about the team size where even competent executives can no longer fill in for all the gaps in their organisation. You can act as a crutch for only so long. Another aspect is that this is the stage where a lot of external pressure tends to be added to the mix, making all the weakest links in your organisation be strained even more.
I wholeheartedly agree that your management team is your organisations skeleton. If they’re not working as they should, it would be well nigh impossible to get anything done. What I don’t agree with, though, is the attitude that blames them without realising your role in this situation.
First things first: I have a bone to pick about the very first thing I mentioned in this article. It is an oxymoron for the executive to have everything sorted out while their management team is underperforming. Extreme ownership rightfully taught us that we should view this as our issue and no one else’s. Without that attitude, you’re not likely to see an improvement.
This is due to you because you hired those managers, you trained them, and you are actively managing them. In my experience, this is precisely where the problem lies. You might be their manager, but you’re not treating management like you treat the rest of the professions in your company.
Engineering Management 101
In The Tech Executive Operating System I’ve called it “flipping a bit”: We dub someone as a manager and expect them to have all the skills necessary pretty much from day one. These are people that have spent years honing their skills as engineers. Often, they have formal education. They put a substantial effort into becoming professionals—but now they are being yanked to a whole new kind of work. If we don’t treat this transition for what it is—a complete rewrite of their work habits—we’re not likely to succeed.
Consider this list of management growth tools that I go through with clients to decide where they should be focusing their efforts:
- Coaching: Our managers, just like all other employees, deserve thoughtful and active coaching. That’s the fastest and surest approach for accelerating their experience. That’s doesn’t mean that you should be doing things for them, but putting them in situations where they can actively grow faster. I know coaching is lacking nowadays, but it’s a way to achieve the experience pressure cooker effect.
- Onboarding and Training: Do you have a real plan for the transition into management (or from being a manager of ICs to managing managers)? It should not be treated as a single event but as a process that is performed over a period of time. There’s also no reason to let different people wing it every time (e.g., each director does this entirely differently).
- Measuring Success: I frequently notice teams where the manager’s role is vaguely defined. Most line managers think their responsibility is to ensure that their team delivers. My claim is that they should view themselves as responsible for creating a solid team that keeps growing and evolving. Measuring them based on that is vital. For example, if Bob’s team delivered 100% of the roadmap but at the cost of burning everyone out and inculcating the team that they shouldn’t voice their opinions because “we’re in a rush,” did Bob really do his job?
- Providing Tools: All your managers should be equipped with standard procedures and guides. One-on-ones, performance monitoring, pay discussions, growth goals, all of those should be defined and handed to them. Otherwise, you will make them do a lot of rework, some of which would not be good enough. Sharing these principles also means that it would create a shared yardstick across your organisation and make transitioning between teams smoother (which naturally becomes more common in unicorns).
- Creating Support Systems: Your managers deserve to get ongoing support of different sorts. Along with the regular one-on-ones with their boss, you can introduce other environments like external coaches, their peer teams (e.g., the EMs under the same director), and guilds. We are very used to the concept of guilds for technical aspects—why don’t we have an “engineering management guild” to discuss these topics?
- Expectation Setting and Pilots: Lastly, you might be better by ensuring that people get the meaning of the management profession in your company even before becoming managers. You can accomplish that by having a clear role definition and doing proper expectation setting with candidates. For some first timers, expectation setting should require something more akin to guided meditations. “Let’s imagine together how your days will look like. Do you think you’d like that?” Further, even though it is possible to reverse a decision to become a manager, it is hard for stupid reasons (e.g., the egos that are involved). Therefore, I often recommend finding ways to test things out without committing. Consider having pilots where people get the ability to experience some parts of the role before getting the actual promotion.
Let’s treat management with the respect it deserves.