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It turns out that if you’re okay at being responsible for people and things, you eventually get made responsible for more people and things.

The real ramifications of that morequalifier are that are that you might very well end up with less time to engage in the activities that contributed towards your success in the first place.

I know its trite, but there might actually be a grain of truth in the old Peter Principle. If you keep getting promoted until you are in a position where you can no longer reliably engage in the activities that led to your success in the first place, its probably going to manifest as incompetence.

I’m sure you can guess why I’m mentioning this…

Alone I Break

Historically, I’m used to being able to absorb a information from multiple sources and retain it. I have something of a reputation for remembering a wide variety of things in a work context, and even outside work my head is filled with far more useless information than I really care to think about (there’s a lot of Warhammer lore in there for example, praise Sigmar).

The problem is, as I get involved in more things, I’m finding it more and more difficult to keep up with everything all at once.

Perhaps I’m getting old, and my brain is not as good as it used to be (very possible), but I think I’m just running up against the real limitations of my memory for the first time. Prior to this, I could always just focus down on one or two things at most, even though there was a lot of technical complexity in play.

The degradation was gradual.

The first thing to go was my ability to understand all the technical details about what was going on in all of the teams I was working with. That was a hard one to let go of, but at the end of the day I could still provide useful guidance and direction (where necessary) by lifting my focus and thinking about concepts at a higher level, ignoring the intricacies of implementation. Realistically, without the constantly tested and tuned technical skills acquired from actually implementing things, I wasn’t really in a position to help anyway, so its for the best.

The second thing that started to go though was the one-on-one interactions, and I can’t let that fly. I’ve been in situations before where I wasn’t getting clear and regular feedback from the people who were responsible for me, and I did not want to do the same thing to those I was responsible for. Being unable to stay on top of that really reinforced that I had to start doing something that I am utterly terrible at.

Delegating.

All In The Family

Its not that I’m not okay with delegating, I’m just bad at it.

There are elements of ego there (i.e. the classic “If I don’t do it, it won’t be done right!”), but I also just plain don’t like having to dump work on people. It doesn’t feel right.

But the reality is that I won’t always be around, and I can’t always pay the amount of attention to everything that I would like to, so I might as well start getting people to do things and make sure that I can provide the necessary guidance to help them along the path that I believe leads to good results.

The positive side of this is that it gives plenty of new opportunities for people to step up into leadership roles, and I get to be in the perfect position to mentor those people in the way that I believe that things should be done. Obviously this represents a significant risk to the business, if they don’t want things to continue to be done in the way that I do them, but they gave up the ability to prevent that when they put me into a leadership position.

With additional leaders in place, each being responsible for their own small groups of people, my role mutates into one of providing direction and guidance (and maybe some oversight), which is a bit of a change for someone that is used to being involved in things at a relatively low level.

And letting go is hard.

Got The Life

I’ve written before about how I’m pretty consistently terrified about micromanaging the people I’m responsible for and destroying their will to live, but I think now that being aware of that and being appropriately terrified probably prevents me from falling too far into that hole. That doesn’t mean I don’t step into the hole from time to time, but I seem to have avoided falling face first so far.

Being cognitively aware of things is often a good way to counter those things after all. Its hard to be insane when you realise that you’re insane.

So letting go is actually in my best interest, even if the end result of a situation is not necessarily what I originally envisioned. At the end of the day, if the objectives were accomplished in a sustainable fashion, it probably doesn’t really matter anyway. I’m still free to provide guidance, and if the teams involved take it as that (guidance), rather than as unbreakable commands, then I’m probably okay.

A healthy lack of involvement can also break negative patterns of reliance as well, making teams more autonomous. Within reason of course, as a lack of direction (and measurable outcomes) can be incredibly and rightly frustrating.

Its a delicate balancing act.

Be involved just enough to foster independent though and problem-solving, but no more than that so as to avoid creating stifling presence.

Conclusion

This is another one of those wishy-washy touchy-feely posts where I rant about things that I don’t really understand.

I’m trying though, and the more I think (and write) about the situation the better I can reason about it all.

The real kicker here is the realization that I can’t do everything all at once, especially as my area of responsibility widens.

The situation does offer new and interesting opportunities though, and helping people to grow is definitely one of the better ones.

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Being in a position of something approximating authority, I am constantly terrified that everyone I “lead” is losing their will to live.

Granted, that statement is somewhat hyperbolic, but the concern is real and is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

I really don’t like the term manager, because it conjures shades of the pointy-haired boss, and I don’t want to perpetuate that clueless middle-manager archetype. I mean, I’d have to grow some hair first, but I really don’t think that the hair is the main requirement to exhibit the destructive and soul-destroying behaviour that he embodies. In the end though, being in a traditional management role, there are certain connotations that come with the territory.

What might have previously been easily identifiable as an animated discussion about a potential solution to a problem between two engineers, might be construed as a direct order not to be questioned or disobeyed.

I don’t want to control every tiny thing like a tyrannical dictator, squeezing the life out of my colleagues with an iron grip.

I just have a lot of opinions about everything.

Whatever Happened To Rick Moranis Anyway?

Micromanagement is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the workplace, especially in software development.

It has these huge negative connotations attached to it, evoking images of an overbearing overlord to whom his or her employees are merely cogs in a great machine of their design. This sort of person ensures that their “cogs” activities are planned out in great detail, making sure that their purely mechanical work is being done in the right area and at the right time. I mean, how else would the overlord be able to make sure that everything is going to get done?

I think at its core the desire to actively micromanage comes from a lack of trust in the people you work with, or perhaps even a fear that without your input, they won’t do what needs to be done.

For some industries maybe this is true. In software development though, you’ve probably gone out of your way to higher smart, educated people who have a proven track record of solving problems and delivering value, so you really should trust them.

Now, the idea of being an all powerful overlord controlling a swathe of minions might be attractive to some, but I want nothing to do with it.

Consciously anyway.

I Hope He’s Happy Now

I have been accused of many things in my life, but being indirect is not one of them. I would say that it is more common to describe me as “direct”, “to the point” and even “brutal”.

This has both upsides and downsides, but there is one specific downside that is relevant to the current topic.

I have strong opinions and I speak about them with authority. Now, whether or not that authority is warranted is a different question, but I definitely project a certain amount of passion into what I say. Internally, my goal is to hold my strong opinions weakly, in that I am willing to listen to new information and change my viewpoint appropriately, but I also know that I am stubborn, so I don’t think I accomplish that consistently. Its definitely an area for personal growth.

Anyway, all of these prefacing statements are really just trying to provide context to the fear that I’ve accidentally engineered an environment where people feel like they have to rely on me for answers, decisions and so on.

Isn’t that what a good leader does though? Provide a strong decision making point and decisive direction?

That’s true in the general, but not in the specific. You should be presenting your people with problems and then giving them the freedom to solve them. If you’re the one making all the decisions, then you’re micromanaging them, whether you realise it or not, and you’re taking away what little fun exists in the work.

In my case, I think that my willingness to offer an opinion combined with the way that I present said opinion has given the illusion of command, rather than collaboration.

And that makes me sad.

The Entertainment Industry Seems Like Such A Hellhole

The solution to the problem is incredibly difficult, for me anyway.

It requires letting go of the minutia, holding back opinions and potential solutions, and leaving your people to make their own decisions and their own mistakes and missteps. In the end, as long as the desired outcomes are met, how the outcomes were met doesn’t really matter except to the people who lived it.

At the point where you let go, the leadership role becomes more about identifying and communicating the destination and figuring out how to measure whether or not it has been reached. Once you’ve done that, get out of the way of your smart people and let them do their stuff.

One thing to keep in mind though is that any successes that your people have should be their own. You don’t get to take credit, except to acknowledge that it was all their doing.

The mistakes they make though? You own those. Your goal is to protect your people from external interference and ramifications, while supporting them through the learning process that comes with a mistake.

A good leader serves first and commands second.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, what I really want is to foster a collaborative environment where ideas are shared openly, defended, tested and mutated such that they become greater than the sum of their parts.

An important part of that is for everyone to feel like they can contribute safely. The set describing “everyone” includes me though, so I need to adapt myself so that I can participate in that space without unintentionally quashing or otherwise negatively affecting the collaboration.

Honestly, it might be easier if I just stopped having opinions about things and constantly sharing them to anyone who will listen.

I think it would probably be easier to stop breathing though.

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If you fulfil some sort of team leadership role, where you maintain and possibly direct one or more teams of people to accomplish things of value to the business, then you probably have some sort of responsibility to both give (and gather) feedback to (and from) all parties involved.

Obviously, collecting, collating and sharing feedback should be something that everyone does, but if you’re in that team leadership role, then you kind of have to do it. Its your job.

For me personally, I’ve spent enough time doing it recently that I’ve managed to form some opinions about it, as is often the case when I do a thing. The natural extension of that is to share them, because honestly, what good is having an opinion if you aren’t telling everyone aaaaaallllll about it.

As a side note, I’m sure that posts with a technical slant will return as soon as I actually do something technical, but until then, enjoy my musings on the various “managementy” things that I do.

Loyalty Card

In a team leadership position, you are responsible for the well being of your colleagues and their professional development

As such, their happiness and fulfilment should be your primary concern.

Such a strategy is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the best interests of the business though, and in fact should be complementary (happy fulfilled people generally being more productive than others), but if push comes to shove, and the best interests of the business do not line up with the best interests of your people, you should stand with your people.

Moving on from that sobering point, the first step is to understand the mechanism by which you give and gather feedback. From pain points and frustrations all the way through to career and personal development opportunities and direction, you need to have an effective and consistent way to learn all about your people and to understand what they need in order to be the best they can possibly be.

Going Undercover

The most effective way to really understand the people you’re responsible for is to engage with them on a regular basis.

Not in the form of “hey, lets have a daily catchup” though, because that’s going to easily turn into a status report, and that’s not what you want. You need to share the trials and tribulations of their day to day, and not as a manager or boss, but as a colleague. I’m fairly resolutely against what I see as the traditional management approach and instead think that if you are contributing in the same way (and to the same things) that your people are, then you’re going to understand them a hell of a lot better than if you’re looking down from your ivory tower.

Realistically this means that there is probably a hard cap on the number of people that you should be responsible for.

If they are all in a single team/squad, working towards the same goal or working within a shared space, you’re probably good for ten or so. If they are split across multiple areas/goals, then you’re limit is probably less than that.

The natural extension of this is that a pure people management role feels somewhat pointless. You should deliver the same sort of things as everyone else (maybe less of them), just with additional responsibilities to the people you’re working with.

How else could you possibly understand?

Face/Off

Even if you are completely embedded within the group of people you’re responsible for, there is still value in specifically making time to talk openly and honestly with every person individually about how they are going.

To be clear, the primary focus should be on the person, how they are feeling, where they would like to go (and how you can help) and any issues or concerns they might have, with a secondary focus on how you feel about the whole situation. You want to encourage them to have enough emotional maturity to objectively evaluate themselves, and to then be able to communicate that evaluation.

If you’ve been doing your job correctly, then you shouldn’t be surprised by anything that comes out of these sessions, but they are still useful as a more focused (and private) way to discuss anything that might be relevant.

I like to keep the discussion relatively freeform, but it does help to have some talking points, like:

  • Are you happy?
  • Do you feel productive in your day to day?
  • Do you feel like you are delivering value to the business as whole?
  • How do you think we could do better as a team?
  • How do you think we could do better as an organization?
  • How do you think you could do better?
  • Where do you want to go from here?
  • Do you have any concerns or unanswered questions?
  • Do you feel appropriately valued with regards to remuneration?

Don’t bombard the poor person with question after question though. Its not an interrogation.

The conversation should flow naturally with the questions above forming an underlying structure to help keep everything on track, and to provide some consistency from person to person.

That’s a Sick 360 Bro

Another mechanism is the classic “360 degree review”, where you encourage your people to send out surveys to their peers (and to complete surveys in turn) containing questions about how they are doing in various areas.

This particular mechanism has come up recently at my current workplace, so its topical for me.

I’m sure you could manage the entire process manually (paper!), but these sorts of things are typically digital (for ease of use) and are focused around getting people to anonymously comment on the people they work with in regards to the various responsibilities and expectations of the role they fill.

For example:

Bob is a Senior Software Engineer.

He is expected to:

  • Solve problems, probably through software solutions (but maybe not)
  • Mentor other software engineers, with a particular focus on those who are still somewhat green
  • Participate in high level technical discussions

Each one of those responsibilities would have a set of questions carefully crafted and made available for Bob’s peers to fill out, usually with some sort of numerical rating. That information would then be aggregated and returned to Bob, so that he could get a sense of how he is doing.

The anonymity of this approach is easily one of its greatest strengths. Even if you’re the most friendly, least intimidating person on earth, you’re still probably going to get more honest feedback if they don’t have to look at you directly.

Even more so if you have something of a dominant personality.

Its All About The Money, Money, Money

As a final point, everything that I’ve written about in this post should be clearly separated from discussions about salary, titles and all of the accoutrements that come with them.

At best, salary is a slightly positive factor in overall happiness and fulfilment. Once a creative person is being paid enough to meet their own personal goals, more money is unlikely to make them happier.

Of course, the flip side is devastating. Not enough money or a salary that is perceived as unfair (usually when compared against others or the market average) can be a massive demotivational factor, and in the worse case, can ruin a professional relationship.

Keeping the two things separated is difficult (and honestly, a complete separation is probably impossible), but you should still aim for it all the same. The last thing you want to happen is for people to withhold information about their weaker areas (prime targets for improvement and growth) because they know that you’re going to use it against them later when you start talking about money.

Conclusion

Being even slightly responsible for the well being of another person with respect to their professional life is a big responsibility and should be treated with an immense amount of care, empathy and respect.

That is not to say that you should be soft or impotent in your approach.

You need to be strong and decisive (when necessary) and give people pokes if they need them. Be aware though, not everyone responds to the same feedback mechanisms in the same way, and you will need to be mature enough to understand that and adapt accordingly.

To end on a fairly trite note, at the very least you should aim to be the sort of person you would look towards for professional guidance.

If you’re not at least doing that, then its worth reconsidering your approach.