Tuesday, January 13rd, 2015

Being A Manager Is Lonely

Management is new for me. I have spent a lot of time focusing on the craft of programming, now I focus on the people who focus on the craft of programming.

During the fifteen years I’ve been participating in something I’ll call a developer community, I’ve seen a lot of progress. Sometimes we wax nostalgic with an assertion that no progress has been made… but progress has been made. We, as professionals, hobbyists, as passionate practitioners understand much more about how to test, design, package, distribute, collaborate around code. And just about how to talk about it all.

I am a firm believer that much of that progress is due to the internet. There were technological advancements, sure. And there have been books teaching practice. But that’s not enough. There were incredible ideas about programming in the 70s! But there wasn’t the infrastructure to help developers assimilate those ideas.

I put more weight on people learning than on people being taught. If the internet was just a good medium for information dispersal — a better kind of book — then that is nice, but not transformational. The internet is more than that: it’s a place to discuss, and disagree, and watch others discussing. You can be provocative, and then step back and take on a more conservative opinion – a transformation most people would be too shy to commit to print. (As if substantial portion of people have ever had the option to consider what they want to commit to print!)

I think a debate is an opportunity; seldom an opportunity to convince anyone else of what you think, but a chance to understand why you think what you do, to come to a more mature understanding, and maybe create a framework for future changes of opinion. This is why I bristle at the phrase “just choose the right tool for the job” – this phrase is an attempt to shut down the discussion about what the right tool for the job is!

This is a long digression, but I am nostalgic for how I grew into my profession. Nostalgic because now I cannot have this. I cannot discuss my job. I cannot debate the details. I cannot tell anecdotes to elucidate a point. I cannot discuss the policies I am asked to implement – the institutional instructions applied to me and through me. I can only attempt to process my experiences in isolation.

And there are good reasons for this! While this makes me sad, and though I still question if there is not another way, there are very good reasons why I cannot talk about my work. I am in a leadership position, even if only a modest and subordinate leader. There is a great deal of potential for collateral damage in what I say, especially if I talk about the things I am thinking most about. I think most about the tensions in my company, interpreting the motivations of the leadership in the company, I think about the fears I sense in my reports, the unspoken tensions about what is done, expected, aspired to. I can discuss this with the individuals involved, but they are the furthest thing from a disinterested party, and often not in a place to develop collaborative wisdom.

This is perhaps unfair. I work with very thoughtful people. Our work is grounded in a shared mission, which is a powerful thing. But it’s not enough.

Are we, as a community of managers (is there such a thing?) becoming better? Yes, some. There are management consultants and books and other material about management, and there is value in that. But it is not a discussion, it is not easy to assimilate. I don’t get to interact with a community of peers.

On the topic of learning to manage, I have listened to many episodes of Manager Tools now. I’ve learned a lot, and it’s helped me, even if they are more authoritarian than makes me comfortable. I’m writing this now after listening to a two part series: Welcome To They: Professional Subordination and Part 2.

The message in these podcasts is: it is your responsibility as a manager to support the company’s decisions. Not just to execute on them, but to support them, to communicate that support, and if you disagree then you must hide that disagreement in the service of the company. You can disagree up — though even that is fraught with danger — but you can’t disagree down. You must hold yourself apart from your team, putting a wall between you and your team. To your team you are the company, not a peer.

There is a logical consistency to the argument. There is wisdom in it. The impact of complaints filtering up is much different than the impact of complaints filtering down. In some sense as a manager you must manufacture your own consensus for decisions that you cannot affect. You are probably doing your reports a favor by positively communicating decisions, as they will be doing themselves a favor by positively engaging with those decisions. But their advice is clear: if you are asked your opinion, you must agree with the decision, maybe stoically, but you must agree, not just concede. You must speak for the company, not for yourself.

Fuck. Why would I want to sign up for this? The dictate they are giving me is literally making me sad. If it didn’t make any sense then I might feel annoyed. If I thought it represented values I did not share then I might feel angry. But I get it, and so it makes me sad.

Still, I believe in progress. I believe we can do better than we have in the past. I believe in unexplored paths, in options we aren’t ready to compare to present convention, in new ways of thinking about problems that break out of current categories. All this in management too – which is to say, new ways to form and coordinate organizations. I think those ideas are out there. But damn, I don’t know what they are, and I don’t know how to find out, because I don’t know how to talk about what we do and that’s the only place where I know how to start.

[I wrote a followup in Encouraging Positive Engagement]


dartdogTue, 13 Jan 2015

Leadership is much like politics (another form) the art of compromise. What is the best way forward "given the constraints" whatever they may be.. People often believe that leaders get to make the choices, they are more often constrained by the pre-existing conditions. As you get more senior the constraints actually grow stronger..

L.D LibraTue, 13 Jan 2015

This is thoughtful, and welcome. I'm hopeful for the future of management, and hope you know longer must bathe in sadness to hold the position. I look to companies like Zynga for the cutting-edge insight, and hope others will come to see the fruit of new ways.

Christopher MahanTue, 13 Jan 2015

It looks a lot like you need a good mentor.

Also, the bit on agreeing whether you really agree or not is wrong. You must be guided by your principles. You must not lie. You must not deceive. You may be in the wrong organization, or in the wrong job. But don't compromise your integrity.

dmoseTue, 13 Jan 2015

This is a very thoughtful post, thank you for it! It expresses many things I've run into in leadership roles in the past. I will say that having a mentor (or a good career coach) can be incredibly helpful as a sounding board, source of advice, and helper in processing all these things.

jamessocolTue, 13 Jan 2015

Morgamic made sure the webdev managers under him (all new at it) had each other as a peer group to combat this very feeling. He was a mentor at management to us, and we were a cohort, a community. It's not as broad and connected as the community of programmers—maybe someday it will be—but it was something. I strongly encourage you to connect with other managers at a similar level within the company, as well as looking for the mentor other commenters mention.

Patrice BoivinTue, 13 Jan 2015

I think you misunderstood the meaning of the word "team" -- sounds more like a work group to me, or a section, if people in your group can't be honest and straightforward with each other. "team" ended up being an MBA buzzword like "empowerment", "proactive", "continuous improvement"; most people who use these terms don't really know what they mean and/or have no intention of implementing them properly.

tarekziadeTue, 13 Jan 2015

Good post Ian, thanks for that. There's one thing I disagree on from those podcasts is the need to hide a disagreement you can have on a company decision. I think it's a terrible advice.

If your disagreement is on a minor thing that does not impact the mission as a whole, it's probably better not to talk about it since they would be no benefit, just trolls-- But if my reports talk about it negatively I would probably give my opinion but also try to convince them that it's no big deal and they should not worry and fight the important fight.

If your disagreement is bigger, and clearly articulated (and so that's not a complaint) it should be delivered to anyone the same way. A disagreement to a company decision is not a threat or something to hide imo, it's an opportunity to make a decision better and to engage with others.

But telling my manager I disagree and then telling my reports I agree is terrible and a lack of respect imho.

Mark R CôtéTue, 13 Jan 2015

Unless you are a *very* good liar, I bet at least some of your reports would see through any attempt to sound completely convinced by a decision that you strongly oppose.

You can still support a decision while disagreeing with it, and I think this can be communicated (carefully) to your reports. "I understand your feelings; here is what I think is behind this decision." Everyone needs to accept that there will be decisions made that they don't like. The best we can do is try to explain our feelings, and especially our reports' feelings, to our managers, and to be empathic when discussing difficult situations with our reports.

Secondly, I think it's also okay to have frank conversations with your peers in management. It provides a good way to vent, to get negativity out that might harm the morale of your reports.

I feel like I'm not quite getting out what I'm trying to say here... but if you want to chat about it sometime, let me know. I'm still relatively new to management myself (3 years in April) but I feel that I've learned at least a few things. :)

Allen CheungTue, 13 Jan 2015

It sounds very much like you need to talk with other peer managers, or at least find a mentor with experience who can discuss specifics beyond the general advice that podcasts/books/seminars can provide.

As much as management is a skill to be learned and honed over time, it's also a ton of improvisation and trial and error, with no great way to get great feedback on whether the decisions and moves you make are having the effect you'd want them to have. Having someone who can even just say "yea, that's par for the course" makes it a little bit easier.

Christopher MahanTue, 13 Jan 2015

Posting again.

I went looking at the link you posted "Welcome to They, professional subordination" and found this in the third line/paragraph of the description.

But what really matters is what you're going to tell your team. Because
you have to support the decision without complaint, publicly and

This is hogwash. Your people rely on you for their career, for their livelihood, for their growth as individuals, both technically and emotionally. Your people rely on you to get from you the information that they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives within the company. Your people rely on you to get them timely, accurate, and complete information about their standing in the company, within the team, and in their relationship with you.

Anything less is your failure as a leader.

If your direct supervisor or the chain of command going up doesn't support you doing that 100%, the best thing you can do is walk out.

These people are not your pawns. You are their servant. This is true leadership. If you fail, they take it in the face, and they will rightly blame you.

Take it seriously.

Go watch link 1 at http://christophermahan.com.... It's about real leadership from a nuclear fast attack submarine commander.

It doesn't have to be the way you describe. It shouldn't.

jasonaTue, 13 Jan 2015

Oh, good lord.

These are all THE reasons why I decided to go the management route vs. staying technical: so that I could be a better manager and leader; and build more, better managers and leaders.

It's up to you, me, us, we to accept nothing but an environment that is bottom-up, delegated to, and empowered to "question everything".

It does no one any good to enforce the status quo, and reinforce the idea of more lemmings to do the bidding of the Corporate Gods.

First, raise holy hell at your company to elicit change from the top down. If that doesn't work, find another job where you can. Life is too short.

Brett SlatkinWed, 14 Jan 2015

I really like your intro about how the internet has helped us get better at programming. As a new manager I'm grappling with how I'm unable to get better at this new set of skills as quickly as I could improve at programming. I can't talk about it and that drives me crazy.

The suggestions in the comments of getting mentors seems as antiquated as reading an old book on management. I don't need just one smart person's opinion. What I need is the ecosystem of debate. I don't know how to get that (maybe confidential accountability groups for software managers?)

Christopher MahanWed, 14 Jan 2015

That's why the in-company mentor works, since you're not divulging company secrets. Plus, a mentor might know specific individual personalities and can personalize your approach to other managers with the hindsight of personal experience.

Though, good mentors may not exist if your org is too young or too caustic.

Christopher MahanWed, 14 Jan 2015

on the ecosystem of debate, look up wirearchy, management 3.0, beyond budgeting on twitter.

Christopher MahanWed, 14 Jan 2015

One last one. link 13 http://christophermahan.com... Bob Chapman on truly human leadership.

StormyWed, 14 Jan 2015

I agree that it's a huge transition from being able to discuss everything very openly (and in my case publicly) to having issues that simply can't be shared. It limits the feedback and ideas you can get to a much smaller pool of people. In my case typically my mentors, peers, manager, sometimes HR, but not the broad community I am used to talking to. I agree it sometimes feels lonely. And I although I work hard to get diverse input, the very nature of the issues often limits that diversity. - Stormy, http://stormyscorner.com

StormyWed, 14 Jan 2015

I do feel that you should be honest when you disagree with a company policy. But if you decide to stay in your role as manager even though you disagree, then you must fully commit to the company decisions. So I think it's ok to say you disagree (and why) and then explain why or how you are personally able to get behind the company decision.

jacobianWed, 14 Jan 2015

Great post, Ian; this is something I really struggle with, as well. The concept that as manager you're personally responsible for *all* the companies decisions -- ones you advocated against -- is tough, tough, tough. But it's important; organizational aligning is critical to a company's success, and we all want to work for successful companies (right?)

One thing that strikes me reading this, though, is that if you're feeling lonely about this you may not have the professional support you need in your role. You write that you "... cannot discuss [your] job. [You] cannot debate the details. [You] cannot tell anecdotes to elucidate a point. [You] cannot discuss the policies [you are] asked to implement".

If this is true -- and I hope for your sake it's overstated -- then something's not right. These are things that you should (and must!) discuss. You should be able to discuss these things with your manager, with your peer managers in the same group, with your mentor/coach, etc. It's terrifically hard to work through these issues without support.

Nate AuneWed, 14 Jan 2015

Great post Ian! I just subscribed to the Manager Tools podcasts - thx!

Have you read the book the Starfish and the Spider? It advocates for a new type of organizational structure that is less top-down and more de-centralized, one might go so far as to say "leaderless". http://www.amazon.com/The-S...

What do you say to starting a "Starfish" peer group for us who are in manager positions?

Ian BickingWed, 14 Jan 2015

I think many people are being a bit too light with the sense that they should always be entirely truthful. I don't think the alternate perspective is that you should lie.

Well, an anecdote perhaps might explain the challenge I see. We recently started a bonus program at Mozilla. I had and still have several reservations about this. But I don't actually know what the result of the program will be – am I more right than the people who have initiated this program? Most of these most strongly held opinions are about plans, about the future, and none of us really know how plans will work out. There is a hubris in assuming that because I have an opinion that my opinion is the best – yes, I hold the opinion because I believe it is the best, but I also know I can be wrong. But now, as a manager, what I state isn't just my own opinions – I am also speaking for the institution. I have to incorporate this meta-analysis: that I believe something, but also other thoughtful people came to a different conclusion and they could be right. And I have to use that to speak accurately.

So with the bonus program I was frank with my reports about my fears. Fears like it would encourage over-specialization of duties, or had more potential to ratchet-down morale than encourage performance. But I was careful to temper those opinions with alternate justifications for why the program was designed as it was – reasons I had heard, or could at least imagine. And I tried to avoid showing an opinion towards the program as a whole or to the process that designed it.

Expressing my fears I think was productive, as it gave my reports an opportunity to engage with those issues and we could talk through our approach to try to avoid those issues. We collaboratively came up with some solutions, and I think they will feel safe expressing their own concerns with the program should a problem arise.

Ultimately I think we found some really positive output from the new bonus program. Specifically it gave us a structured (and required) process for talking about their goals, and the work that is most important for them to focus on. In our group we decided to keep the personal goals short, which I think had an unintended impact: we had to work fairly hard to articulate the underlying concise goals while still retaining measurability. I'm hopeful that this helped give people a new perspective on the impact of their work.

If I had talked down the bonus program I don't think this positive outcome would have been likely. I would be giving my reports cues that they don't have to think hard about the process, and giving us both permission to punt. That I didn't talk down the program doesn't mean I never had bad thoughts about it. It took quite a bit of thought and debate to figure out a way to work in the system that felt good to me. I had some help in this from my fellow managers – though I complain here, I do have opportunities to talk about these things with my direct and indirect peers. It would not have been wise of me to write down my thoughts publicly while I was still processing my feelings on the matter.

That all said, I have gotten both positive and negative feedback on my attempts to think out loud (internally) about management. Thinking about it now, I think much of the negative feedback has been because some people have read more into my statements than I intended. In a leadership position this is just something I have to get used to. But it's also the result of speaking into a relative vacuum – at least at Mozilla talking about management isn't very popular. If it's different elsewhere I wouldn't know, because people don't talk about that either ;) But because there's relatively little communication about the craft of management, and that communication is usually very formal, people become sensitive, they try hard to read between the lines. The result is that if you are candid in your communication, people *still* try to read between the lines and magnify what you are saying.

All that said, one of the tricks about management is that you can't complain about the company in the same way. I'm now complaining about myself – the company isn't something I must endure, it is something I am part of, and problems with its organization are problems I am supposed to address. So yeah, there's that.

dbtThu, 15 Jan 2015

I have happily and honestly talked about risks and concerns with various company policies at work with the peeps who report to me. The result has often been great ground-up feedback that has made the company a better place. I also make sure to say that I sometimes have to trust the people who are making decisions at a broader scope than me -- expressing lack of trust in their process or motives IS corrosive.

I can imagine there are people who can't distinguish between the two. I probably don't want to manage those folks, but if I ended up in that situation I would probably be a different manager for them than I am for the folks who I manage now.

And god yes, find people you can talk to honestly about questions and problems like this. Peers? Your lead? Hopefully you can bring up these kinds of concerns in YOUR 1:1 with your lead, right?


jrconlinFri, 16 Jan 2015

First off, watch a bit of this video: https://www.youtube.com/wat... (Yes, it's cheesy sports-ball related, but it's 2-5 minutes long and there's a point.)

There's a lot going on there that's not mentioned, but the biggest of the items is that the hitter has spent years honing his skills for a specific task in a specific environment. He's good, but then placed in a completely different environment, one where all the clues and associations he's subconsciously refined are no longer present. Mind you, he's facing someone who's nearly perfected her skill in that environment, but in many cases, it'd be like handing him an oboe and asking him to play a song.

Management isn't engineering. It's a completely different set of skills using very different parts of your mind. Your tired for the same reason that folks who specialize in running long distance get winded when you put them on a bike or ask them to spend an hour doing push-ups.

The reason that building things is invigorating is because you're using the skills you've spent a long time developing. Hell, as one of your direct reports, I'm thrilled that you're spending time doing something you love because it means that you won't burn out, get bored, and I'll lose having a great manager.

(Oh, and as one of your subordinates, please don't feel responsible for my career. I'm pretty good at doing that myself and I know a number of your other reports are the same. What we ask from you is more "communication", both up and down the chain. If we have concerns, we hope that you seek out parties to talk to. If there are things you hear in the many, many, (sigh) many meetings you're now responsible to attend in our stead (thank you, by the way), that may impact us, we want to know what they are, good and bad. I greatly appreciated your views on the Bonus program, even if I had a bit of a knee-jerk (ok, minus the knee, more of the jerk) reaction to it as well. Feel free to tell me to shut up if that's off mark. It's why I chose against the management tract.

In short, we're a team. That means we're here to help you too. That's how teams work.

Darshan BhambiruFri, 16 Jan 2015

Just that the date for the Article / Post Tuesday, January 13rd, 2015 shouldn't it be 13th ? :) #JustBeingMysElf

PrometheeFeuTue, 20 Jan 2015

As a subordinate, my manager is the person i trust to give me information on what is going on above my pay grade. Part of that is giving me their opinion since I will reasonably be unaware of some details and so I need someone to help me interpret the information I am given. The reason why I need that information is because it tells me where the team, project, org, company is going and that allows me to make an informed decision as to whether I will stay aboard or not. If my manager cannot do that and is hiding their opinion and pretending to agree with bad decisions, I will eventually find out and then I will definitely leave given the breach of trust.

This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.