Good Managers Are Made, Not Born — And Other Discoveries.

by jennifermshoop

I went on my first run in over 2.5 months this past week while visiting family in Naples, FL for the Christmas holiday.  Earlier this fall, I struggled with an unfortunate health situation that prevented me from exercising.  It was simultaneous torture and joy to be told, frankly and dispassionately by my doctor, that I could not run for the next three months.  I actually despise running (“How can I have only run .63 miles?  It feels like I’ve been out here for hours!”) but know that exercise is good for body and mind and have the Catholic discipline to force myself to do it.  My father one time told me: “You can cure almost anything with water and exercise.”  I’ve clung to that potentially spurious adage for years, likely to my own detriment at times.  (I’ve prolonged many a cold by running in frosty climes prior to recovery.)

At any rate, on the four-mile loop around my parents’ neighborhood, I found myself stopping multiple times to jot down things I’ve learned at work on my iPhone notepad to bring to bear here in this toolshed over the coming year.  Some of them are bits of wisdom I’ve inherited from folks much wiser than I; others are half-formed observations and intuitions from my own direct efforts — flotsam and jetsam circulating and surfacing, some of dubious use and others, likely, a meaningful component of the lifelong professional credo I suppose I’m seeking to build through this blog.

At any rate, my taking stock from this past week:

1.  Good managers are made, not born.*  At my previous place of employment, the sharpest tools in the shed were promoted quickly to managerial roles.  I recall an HR consultant that was working with us on a range of unfortunate (and, in retrospect, petty and frustratingly time-consuming) personnel issues saying to me: “You know, too often, people that are good at what they do are promoted to a management role.  But what few realize is that management is a skill, and many of these people need support and training to be effective supervisors.”  I internalized this for some time.  On the one hand, I felt foolish for not recognizing this myself.  On the other, it made me feel relieved — I made so many mistakes as a green manager that I almost want to send thank yous and apologies now, five years later — and this wisdom made me realize that no one can be expected to knock it out of the park as a manager right out of the gate.

*Except for maybe my husband.  My husband may defy this truth.  He is a seriously talented people manager, and has always been.  It exhausts him, but he is wicked good at it.  He has incredible intuition when it comes to addressing people and situation in the workplace.

2.  A managerial promotion should not necessarily be a reward for good performance.  Related to the above, I read this fascinating post that makes the case that, especially in technical environments, management should not necessarily be the reward for strong performance.  I asked a friend of mine who works at Yammer about this, as I knew he’d been promoted from a senior programming position to management recently, and had encountered some challenges in the transition.  (We’d talked previously about the gaping differences between maker’s time and manager’s time.)  He had some interesting corroborative thoughts:

“About 3-4 years after college, I had the opportunity to manage people probably due to similar circumstances outlined in the blog post. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing and, now after looking back, know I definitely did certain things very poorly. At Yammer, I passed up my first opportunity to manage because of my first experience with management. I had a second opportunity at Yammer and decided to jump into it because I made a decision that I didn’t want to code my entire career. I went in knowing that I would have to learn how to be a good manager, so I had a different perspective than my first foray into the role. Going back to the blog, there are definitely senior coders that never want to manage. I have a few on my team. I tend to “reward” them through similar means (give them the projects that have a lot of impact), but I also force them to grow by challenging them to not be “owners” of the code. There are definitely some truths in that blog post, but everyone is a snowflake and sometimes people need to learn by getting burned (like me).”

3.  We may need to think outside the box to imagine an org structure not oriented around the idea that management is the only path for career progression.  When I first heard Matt Mullenweg, CEO of WordPress, talking in an interview at last year’s Lean Startup Conference about his truly distributed, remote, and flat organization, I probably shared the same amount of confusion and bemusement that his interviewee, Sarah Milstein, displays.  At times, Mullenweg comes off as a disconnected and spacey hippie, but there is some beautiful synchrony and integrity between his open-source product and his organizational ethos.  At WordPress, everyone works in small and fluid teams, and team leaders occasionally emerge and then step back.  There is no rigidity or structure to this, and becoming a lead does not mean higher compensation or my authority.  It’s difficult for me to imagine this sort of organization working well in any industry outside of technology, and even within technology, it makes me wonder about productivity.  But still, there’s something intriguing about his anti-hierarchical tack that resonates with the above observations.

4.  If someone else can do it 70% as well as you can, you should delegate.  I have to admit that my main struggle as a manager is relinquishing control.  I am a perfectionist and I will embarrassingly admit that I occasionally hold the unhealthy, rude, and overly egotistic view that I can do certain things better than the people reporting to me.  That’s why this bit of wisdom I picked up from a blog I read a few months ago was incredibly useful in terms of making the judgement call as to whether to delegate or own it yourself.

5.  A start-up is a human institution developing something under conditions of great uncertainty.  This comes from the maestro, Eric Ries, and I think this will prove to be a useful definition to have on hand.