I had a persistent feeling not long ago that I’d finished one phase of my career and that I’m transitioning into the next. That caused me to reflect on what has passed so I could think through how to handle what’s to come. Below are my general reflections.
*The header image was taken at in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America and one of the first truly amazing things we saw after we moved to the US. It looks like a lake but the water is only about half an inch deep and you can easily walk over it.
Don’t expect the moon on a stick from your manager:
From the start of my career to now I’ve revised down what I expect from my manager to three basic things - 1) some level of interest in what I’m doing, 2) predictability in the relationship, and 3) just one other thing.
Hopefully expecting some level of interest in what I’m doing and who I am goes without saying. Everybody deserves that. Predictability because I don’t want to be second guessing how each interaction is going to go - quickly setting baseline expectations, ways of working together and boundaries helps remove uncertainty and doubt.
That ‘other thing’ can be anything - subject matter expertise or a perspective I don’t have, people in their network they are willing to connect me to, the ability to problem solve or think through an issue, willingness to flag wave for me and my team…whatever, that list is long and I don’t really care which one(s) they can bring to the table. But there has to be at least one other thing beyond showing interest and being predictable.
Those managers I’ve had who are themselves very clear on what they are good at and not good at and are predictable in how they bring that value to the relationship, and how they have helped me find answers to the things they can’t help with, have been the better ones.
After almost twenty years and eleven different managers this feels realistic to me.
As a manager be clear about what you are good at and not so good at:
Having people report into you is hard, there are so many dimensions to doing it well, you’ll get good training or see good real-world examples of being a manager if you’re lucky. I’ve worked for three medium sized companies and two multi-nationals. Good managers in my experience aren’t the norm, neither are bad managers. Average managers are. It’s a difficult thing to do - I am one so I know from first hand experience.
I guess I try to follow the three things idea I stated above - I definitely have interest in my team’s individual work, they are all capable, intelligent and pleasant people, they are all strong contributors. I’m also just interested in people, I’m sure I think way more about everyone I work with than they would assume I do. I’m not sure I’ll ever struggle with this one. Not everyone is like that, however. In my experience of being managed where there plainly isn’t interest from the manager in me or the work I do that’s almost game over.
On the dimension of predictability I’m decent at this, I always strive for self-awareness and have always had very collaborative roles in my career through which I’ve established my own modus operandi of working with others. Running meetings and check-ins are skills you need to practice and there’s always room for improvement there. Boundaries depend in part on personality and the length of the relationship, they can be dynamic and so need regular reflection. All this stuff needs to be worked on if you want to be good at it.
On the third dimension of other skills - as with everyone I have my relative strengths. In the career reflections section of this Coda profile I show my CliftonStrengths34 profile which is a good overview. I lead with Strategic and Relationship building skill sets.
Plugging my current employer S&P Global - they give very solid and regular training for people managers. They think progressively and with obvious good intent about performance, skilling and psychological safety. This should be a standard everywhere, that whole people-falling-into-management-because-they-were-a-good-individual-contributor thing is one of the biggest sources of team dysfunction and individuals becoming disengaged. Comprehensive and ongoing training for managers should be the norm not a nice-to-have. It’s an investment but it pays back.
Understand that leadership is different from management:
Thinking about the leaders who have led divisions I’ve worked in the good ones have been able to parse out and provide focus around shared goals and challenges, and the ability to bring people together to tackle those things.
That’s perspective, focus, the ability to weigh the relative importance of competing issues, it’s communication and collaboration, it’s trouble-shooting and problem solving, its persistence and being the one prepared to ultimately make judgment calls, and it’s providing a context for accountability.
That’s a fantastic skill set. There’s some overlap with general management skills but they aren’t the same thing. As a leader there’s only so many of those competencies you aren’t good at before you become a liability to all those under you.
Don’t overestimate others:
I took part in a fantastic training earlier in my career. The trainer had advised senior leaders through her career. She said they almost all have imposter syndrome, routinely doubt themselves and internally question whether they should be in the position they hold.
I don’t know whether that is actually true (I suspect it is and believe studies have shown as much) or whether it was just a very good Jedi mind trick for us aspiring junior managers taking her course. For me it definitely changed something internally in my outlook, it compressed the layers of management in my mind, made the upper levels seem less far off. That training was 12 years ago, the time since has done nothing to make me doubt this is true.
My takeaway from that is don’t be overawed, don’t overestimate anyone, don’t underestimate the contribution you can make. Also know that as you build whatever it is you are building - a team, a product, a business - doubt is natural and normal and not something it’s helpful to try and obscure.
People aren’t stupid - if you feel one thing but try and project another there will be plenty who can tell. Be authentic and look down for help as much as you look up. It can be a risk in some corporate cultures but if those around you are worth anything it’ll pay off.
Be skeptical of policies and processes:
Company and divisional policies and processes are there to bend, break, ignore or change at least as much as they are to be followed. If I had perfectly followed every one instituted by each organization I’ve worked for I would have been much less productive, much more frustrated, a weaker overall contributor.
Policies and process should ultimately give some value to every person being expected to comply with them, yet in my experience too often end up as black holes serving only a few people, if indeed they even do that.
A good policy should embody an idea everyone (or as close to) agrees on and an end value everyone actually gets. In my experience it often starts on a bad path when there isn’t even that original idea for people to align around. Maybe it exists but isn’t communicated, maybe an idea never really had consensus or was scrutinized enough, but was enacted nonetheless.
That’s largely my guide - is there a clear point and will I or my team get any value back from adherence - if not then I’m unlikely to follow along. That sounds a little radical but my feeling is that fewer and fewer people are willing to just go along with things especially where they carry the bureaucratic burden without advantage, people want a better day-to-day experience, they want more reason why they should do something, they want their time to be respected, they increasingly want the tools and clear governance to make and apply their own processes for their teams themselves.
Blanket refusal to follow any rule is probably not going to end well. However, blind adherence to every policy and process has the same negative impact, it just goes under the cover of everyone’s compliance becoming the hidden operational debt no-one wants to talk about. So, be discerning about what you follow along with using your judgment to weigh the potential impacts of your action.
Also, policy/process creators are often amenable to change if you have a good alternative. The investment of time to chip in with ideas on how to make a change, insofar as that’s in any way a possibility, may well pay off given how wasteful and destructive poorly conceived ones can be.
I’ve lived and worked in the UK and the US and travelled for work through Europe and in East Asia. I’m very fortunate in that regard. My stating-the-obvious comment would be that people are different and do things differently.
As a Brit living and working in the US for the past seven years I’m still at times struck by how different the respective cultures are - working cultures, and more widely. Language, habits, assumptions even between these two Anglosphere and long-allied countries are more different than you might think. I’m also always struck by how different it can be working with French companies, for example, as I’ve done in France and here in the US - that they are always better dressed and always have good coffee just two of the more superficial differences!
This applies to all manner of differences - in background, skills, perspectives and temperaments.
Trying to reduce the differences between people is unproductive. Better to embrace the opportunity to observe, learn, respect and adapt. It maybe requires a little more effort but you’ll get better outcomes and will likely have more fun doing so.
A lot of them, don’t be shy, just stick that hand up, say something. Maybe not just anything – try not to sound stupid, don’t do it for the sake of doing it, but it’s far better to get into a habit of asking questions than always being uncomfortable with it. This was a hard one for me in my twenties. It took practice.
Quite frankly I got fed up of having a fantastic question, not asking it and literally the next person to stick their hand up would always ask that very same question! What a load of pointless nonsense that was. If you need or want to ask something just do it. A little bit of practice and before long it’ll be a very powerful habit, more powerful than you may appreciate.
Be intentional with work-life balance:
Work-life balance is everything. Without it you seesaw between highs and lows, you’ll struggle to develop a sense of perspective, you end up firefighting more than you should, your chance of burn out is also higher, your energy will be flat, you will begin to dislike your job or your life and maybe both. At least a couple of these will happen to you. Trashing your energy and morale just isn’t worth it. As one of my school Chemistry teachers (shout out to Dr Fair) used to say - “you don’t ever want to be on the downward spiral, Marsh.”
Balance isn’t just a consequence of good time-management, it needs to be a more intentional and purposeful practice if you want to stick it as a habit. In this regard I’ve found self-imposed constraints useful - if I say to myself that other than under exceptional circumstances I’m not going to work beyond a certain time then the scary fact of having to get done what you need to get done by that time usually helps me maximize how I spend my time.
That constant tension between workloads and limited time has over the years helped me improve how I prioritize work, how I focus and manage my energy over the week, and my ability to delegate. As soon as you make a habit of occasionally opening the flood gates a la “I’ll just do a couple more hours”, “I’ll go out on my bike tomorrow, it can wait”, “we’ll get takeaway, I don’t have time to cook” etc., it quickly takes over, your morale will sink as will your effectiveness at work.
Normalize giving compliments:
It has always surprised me when someone does something good that more people don’t say well done, and when someone does the recipient of the compliment always seems surprised. What’s that all about. Can we all just normalize saying good job, nicely done, that was great, you’re good at this and that, etc. when it’s merited. Everyone likes receiving compliments and most know it feels good to give them.
One of my colleagues makes it a point, it seems, to tell me a couple of times a year that she enjoys working with me when our paths cross on projects. At this point it’s not a surprise but each time I beam from ear to ear, the rest of the day is better, and I look forward to working with her again. Those few words have an outsized impact. Imagine if that was commonplace.
Use your unique perspective:
When all is said and done so much of professional growth comes down to understanding your own perspective and intentionally evolving that as you go through your career.
Work life isn’t just being an automaton executing on goals. Everyone brings unique personal and career experiences, values, strengths and weaknesses, biases, their different states of mind and assumptions into their work all of which shapes your overall perspective. We aren’t always conscious of this stuff.
I’ve found it helpful to try and be conscious of as much of it as I can as I go through my career to the point where it becomes a tool - I can act and make decisions on more solid footing knowing why I think the way I do about things. Trying to understand why others around you think the way they do is obviously also helpful.