Give them wings!

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In the previous article, Little Giants of Tech, I took a stab at arguing for the need for quick and decisive action to create a first-line management layer that will define whether a change driven by a senior leader of the tech organization will be even remotely successful.

In this post, consider it Part 1.5, I would like to take a deeper look at some specific aspects of onboarding a first-time manager, whether by internal promotion or giving an outsider a chance to fulfill their dream of becoming a manager. A dream so often rooted in wholly disconnected from reality suppositions. I will also give a pinch of practical advice, acting upon which will have a dramatic change.

Although there is a fundamental difference between the internal promotion of an individual contributor to becoming a first-time manager in the organization from hiring one externally, the challenge is similar. Let’s throw away the fluff and call this challenge by its name: an organization needs a manager that will lead a team of a certain size to deliver on business objectives. Do it fast and with the highest possible, within internal constraints, quality. Making people happy, developing themselves, a safe environment, having diversity, clear expectations, and goal setting - are all means to an end. Happy people with clear answers to “why we are doing what we are doing” are motivated and productive. Creativity thrives in safe environments and diversity contributes immensely to it too. And yet, none of those are the real goal. The organization, represented by a senior leader, is trusting this goal into the hands of the first-time manager, while providing them only a partial set of expectations, setting them up for a very bumpy road ahead.

There are two fundamental mistakes that I have seen being made when turning an individual contributor into an engineering manager:

  • Misplaced recognition - the common. You see a person with leadership capabilities, perhaps an exceptional senior IC. They have solved numerous technical problems with an impact radius significantly exceeding their team’s allocation. They are considered a go-to person and a subject matter expert. Deep inside you really wish that EM’s in the org would exemplify at least part of what this person does. So you offer them a managerial track. Typically, they would start with a small team first, ramp up, and cruise smoothly right? Despite the existence of a senior IC path in many places, many more still don't have it. This, and the natural human inclination to structure and hierarchy make the manager role look like a great jump forward. After all, one can only become an SVP but start as EM, at least in theory. So they take it. Congratulations! Most chances are that not only you have lost your best engineer you have also gained a very bad manager. Don’t underestimate the power of ego and the fear of “losing face”. Many companies offer an option to move from EM back to IC path, but the vast majority of people who move back, don’t stay long. Deep inside they do consider this move a recognition of failure. Don’t put people in this situation in the first place.
  • Retention - the horrible. With fixed salary bands in place, tenaciously protected by HR but chronically outdated, at some point the senior leader faces a situation in which they are “forced” to promote an IC to a managerial role, just to be able to justify a hike in salary they deserve or to fulfill the caprice. You might turn a blind eye to capabilities that would make this person a great manager and proceed. Not only you have created a mediocre manager that will damage the team assigned to them, but you have also lost a huge chunk of credibility as a senior manager, showing that you can be blackmailed and that you are a coward.

None of this should be new, yet everywhere I worked, I have seen both of those scenarios playing out numerous times. Not holier than thou, I have made both mistakes in the past, and now looking back, I recognize how damaging they were to the promoted individual, the organization, and how the group perceived me.

But let's assume you have successfully avoided those pitfalls and promoted a person into an EM role based on the right mixture of capabilities and potential. We won’t go into what this mixture is as it is subjective, contextual, and situational. Let's switch chairs and look at this glorious promotion moment from the receiver’s point of view.

This was their aspiration, something they worked hard towards. They were recognized, appreciated, and offered the position of a manager. A person that leads a group of other people and manages it. What a joy! Having a wonderful rest of the day and rushing home to their significant other, or a loving pet, they celebrate. Once this is over, a natural question that usually occurs in their mind is:

“What kind of manager would I like to be?”

Swirling a glass of wine they embark on a mental journey into their past as individual contributors and skim through all the managers they had in the past. The one that had an annoying voice, the one that asked them to always be in the office at 9 am, the one that had a very dark sense of humor, and so on. Ending up with a short list of those who they liked. “What made me like them?” - they ask next, “What made them good managers?”. And here, dear readers lies the fundamental problem that must be addressed.


Just like the happy but slightly confused toddler in the picture above, the majority of soon-to-be managers have a limited point of view - bottom up. What they liked about a role model of a manager is the aspect that made them feel good. "Good managers" made our imaginary toddler feel protected, cozy, listened to, and cared about. That manager was a friend, didn’t get pissed off, and was really investing extra effort to fulfill any request or a cry leaving the toddler’s mouth. Seldom there was a “No”, but even then the manager made it look like their’s fault for not fighting hard enough, blaming the system, and empathy was overflowing. It is an exaggeration solely made to ensure the clarity of a message. Did you notice the fine line that is being crossed numerous times in different directions? Some of the behavioral patterns listed above are indeed valid means for creating a highly productive team through a safe environment, but the majority of them are not healthy. Not healthy for the team, the individual in the team, and not healthy for the manager themselves.

The soon-to-be manager does not think about the other side of a coin, mostly because they have never experienced it clearly. They don’t fully comprehend, even if heard about it, what dual loyalty to the company and to the team does to people. They don't think about continuous improvement of the skillset and productivity of the team and its components - the individuals. They don’t see a single person with a piece of key knowledge in the team as a danger, but rather a blessing. They don’t do mental stack ranking of the people (yes, some say we shouldn’t stack rank people, but in fact, every manager should keep this dynamic list in their head). They do not comprehend that all those qualities they praised the mythological manager for, are not the real goal, and what a manager needs to do sometimes to “fake” it, especially when the toddlers are super annoying that week.

Without this information, the newborn manager is naturally copycatting and focusing on the protection of the team. Protection from the skip manager, the C-level, from the people in other teams that could disrupt the cozy, comfortable environment. They sugarcoat feedback, try to be friends with team members and create a gender-agnostic-boy scout camp environment where everything is peachy, thus recreating that lovable environment they cherish and remember.

Once they walk a bit in those new shoes, and sit in some awkward meetings, they will adjust, they will learn, and they will see the dark, sometimes slimy, most of the times stressful part of being a manager. Some will like it, some will hate it until they retire. Regardless, this learning curve is too long for such a critical position (More about it in Part 1), and this is where onboarding comes into play.

For some reason, most companies do not have a proper training program for first-time managers. And those who do, outsource it to some 3rd party that does a basic management course detached from the realities of the company. Many senior leaders delegate the onboarding to the individual offering help on demand in the form of “being there when needed” promises. Well, this is clearly lazy, if you ask me, and of course, none of it really works. And in fact, there is no real need for fancy training, delivered by one of the “Big 4” and no need for weeks-long, slow submerging into the role.

What they need is truth.

Radical, brutal honesty shortens this ramp-up period dramatically. Talk to a newly promoted manager openly about all the darkest, most disturbing fragments of this role, about what they fear as well as what makes you hate it and what makes you love it. Explain the potential contradiction of loyalties, the real goal, and how the rest are means to achieve it. Tell them about those moments when you took the stress home and all you wanted was to pour yourself some amber relief in a tumbler glass without speaking to no one. They deserve it. They deserve to know what they are stepping into. Their experience will of course be different from yours, but being informed - is power. Give them that power, give them wings.

I cannot recommend “The Manager’s Path” book enough - it is a fantastic resource for all the current and future managers in tech, although it only mildly reflects on the emotional turmoil such a change of tracks brings. So if you don’t feel like being honest with the fresh manager for now, or afraid of showing vulnerability - start with buying them that book, at the very least.

Trust me, if you do it, most chances you will end up on the top of that list the new manager wants to be like “when they grow up”.  


Snarky Doodle

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