ManagementSoftware Development

Questions my mentees ask me

I’ve been mentoring a few people who are interested in moving from an individual contributor to becoming a manager and they tend to have similar questions. Switching from working on individual work to managing a team is a massive transition, and one most companies don’t quite know how to manage. These people tend to be excellent performers at the individual level and are looking for new opportunities to grow and try something new, but the skills they honed as an individual don’t always translate well to a people manager. I know I personally struggled with this when I started managing.
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Well performing individuals tend to think they can just pick up management and excel with it. Often times, they’ve grown and matured as an individual and learned technical skills and delivery over their careers and believe management will be just as easy. The problem is, it’s an entirely different set of skills and techniques that make effective managers. Training even only goes so far as most of the skills need to be learned through practice and developed through the opportunities and challenges that managers are put through.
The most effective way for new managers, or those on the path to begin managing is to find a mentor. Ideally, this can be someone who has gone through a similar experience of moving from individual contributions to managing in the same field. If someone isn’t available in the same company, you might have to look elsewhere. There are great professional mentoring groups and meet ups in most cities. Or just ask friends if they know someone, often a friend of a friend is a great resource as there is no previous baggage to worry about. A good mentor can help provide examples and feedback on how to deal with these challenges and where to focus growth.
I am by no means an expert, having only managed for about three years now, but for those looking for help, support, and guidance, even a junior manager can be a good resource. I mentor four individuals fairly regularly these days and have learned a ton about myself and how to be more effective as a team manager through this mentoring. I’ve found that the questions and challenges new manager face are often similar and break down into the same areas.

How to be effective when the team still sees you as a peer

Many of these new managers have proven themselves on their team through being an effective team member and in some cases, showing some aspects of team leadership. However, they often haven’t had any people management experience. As a result, fellow team members still see them as a peer and are hesitant to defer to them. They don’t believe they should report to them directly and may see it as a step down in their own careers. However, in order to be effective, they need to earn the trust from their team members as a manager as well. While many HR departments won’t let those not yet categorized as managers have direct reports officially, it’s good to get them involved in conducting one-on-ones and working with future reports to set goals and deliver feedback. Existing managers can still run these meetings and sit in to ensure things are communicated well as the new managers take on more and more of an active role in these interactions.

When to delegate

Again, most individuals making the switch over are effective contributors and know how to get things done. They have high standards and know how they think things should be done. As a manager, they need to learn how to effectively manage their own time and delegate appropriately. Teaching and empowering team members to take on more ownership within the team and with picking up things the individual previously did actually helps the health of the team and helps grow the individual. With critical projects, there is a strong temptation to just jump in and do work themselves so they know it gets done quickly and how they think it should be done, but this is detrimental to the team in the long run. Managers need to give their teams education and opportunities, not rush in to do things at the first sign of trouble. This provides the team member a chance to learn and grow and the new manager a chance to practice giving direction and feedback.

How to communicate with non-technical stakeholders

This is probably the most difficult challenge for new managers coming from a strong technical background. They know how to communicate with technical team members and even those from other teams, but really struggle when talking to stakeholders. Stakeholder management is perhaps the most important and impactful part of a manager’s responsibilities – poor management results in churn and noise to the team and keeps the team spinning rather than pushing forward – so doing it effectively is a key skill to learn quickly. It’s the area I most often see new managers struggle with. A technique I like to suggest is to write up communication first, going into the detail they think is appropriate. Then, take this and distill it up into bullet points. If something cannot be communicated in 2-3 bullet points, the message won’t be received and it will cause confusion. A similar approach works when talking in person. Often times new managers feel the need to immediately jump in and answer a question. They don’t realize they can take a few seconds to compose their thoughts and formulate a message first. This is harder than in writing when there is more time, but the same approach applies.

How much should they know

New managers also tend to struggle with knowing how much knowledge they truly need, especially when it comes to going deep on technical areas. As individuals, they are rewarded for going deep and knowing every possible detail. As managers, they need to learn to give up some of this control and let the team do the deep diving. They instead need to focus on breadth and understanding the business of their area rather than the specific implementation details. They need to know their own strategy and have a general sense for how things work, but it’s fine to defer details to the team and request more time to come back with an answer. Early in my management career, I often thought I needed to jump in an offer an immediate answer in meetings and to emails. It took time to realize others were fine with me taking additional time to get answers and confirm with the experts in the team in order to get a fully correct answer rather than a best guess immediately. My approach is to know the domain well, do as much as I can to understand the details of what the team is doing, and learn about new technologies and tools out in the industry so I can suggest them to the team, but I defer to the team to make decisions and know the full details.

How to hire to grow the team

Some new managers may come in with experience in interviewing and the best will know what to look for in candidates for the team. But none have experience in actually building a team. This requires a specific vision of what skills are needed to improve and grow the team. I often see new manager struggle on both the low end and higher end of experienced candidates here. On the low end, they are hesitant to bring in junior candidates right out of school because they feel they need senior leadership in the team. I’ve found that finding the leadership, while possible and definitely essential when building a team, can take a long time and doesn’t always work out well. Junior candidates can bring in new energy and ideas that experiences candidates don’t have and have more of an impact on the direction of the team than new managers may think. On the experienced end, they have a hard time disassociating from their individual contributor days and see smart, experienced candidates as threats to themselves instead of the potential game changes they might be. Even on small teams, new managers should be open to expanding their criteria for candidates and looking outside of the normal pipeline for candidates with diverse and unique ideas and experience.
Changing to management is a herculean task with so many challenges. The skills needed for success are dramatically different, and even those that are similar require looking at things differently. New managers need to let go of the behaviors and attitudes that made the successful previously and seek out new challenges and opportunities. Finding a good mentor helps understand that they are the only ones who have faced these difficulties and challenges and that there is a path to success. With good feedback and guidance, strong ICs will be able to deliver well as managers as well, as long as they are willing to change their outlook.