5 Things to Know Before You Pursue a Management Position

 I don’t know you, but I’m guessing that you’re considering a career in management. You probably wouldn’t have clicked on this story otherwise. Maybe you’re wondering if it’s the right call for you. Maybe you’ve started down the path and are beginning to have second doubts. Either way, it can be a big decision.

It’s also a difficult one because most companies don’t prepare people for it. We spend years going to school to learn engineering, accounting, or whatever. Then we spend more time learning specific jobs and refining our craft. And yet, think this process shouldn’t apply to management. They seem to believe people can snap their fingers and seamlessly transition into a new management role.

If you’ve never managed people before, it can be overwhelming. How do you create a compelling vision to motivate your team? How do you make decisions when there’s no clear answer and everyone’s split on what to do? How do you give people freedom and autonomy while also upholding high standards?

If it easy, we wouldn’t have so many bad managers out there. Yet we do, because it’s not. And while I wish that I could give you a recipe that would guarantee your success, I don’t have one. But there are a few things that looking back, I think would have made the jump into management a little less intimidating.

You don’t need to be a manager to be successful.

Too many people still believe that the path to success runs through management promotions. High quality engineers, designers, and technicians are incredibly valuable. Enough so that most companies offer career ladders where people can receive similar promotions, codes, and salaries within both technical and management career tracks.

Star individual contributors often become some of the companies most influential leaders. They mentor and coach others that are learning the job. They reinforce the right behaviors and cultivate the organization’s culture. They’re often closer to the work than managers, so they often have a bigger opportunity to provide timely feedback and help people grow.

It’s important to understand the options that your company has, but don’t assume that the best way to gain more authority and a higher salary is through management. It’s also worth remembering that neither choice is a one-way street. I’ve known plenty of professionals who tried management only to realize it wasn’t for them and move back into professional roles. So, it’s a big decision. But it’s not an irreversible decision.

Companies are beginning to realize that if management is a stepping stone to more salary or higher stature, they’ll have managers who pursue it for those reasons alone. And if stepping down is seen as a demotion, then they’ll have managers that stay in the role even when it’s a poor fit. Not only does this result in less effective leadership, it discourages people from investing in technical expertise and weakens the company’s position.

Great managers are in the role because they enjoy leading and developing people. If these aren’t the drivers, it becomes very difficult to deal with the headaches that come from managing groups of people.

You won’t be doing what you’re currently doing.

If you’re a great engineer, it makes sense that you’d be a great engineering manager. After all, you just need to help everyone else do the great work that you already do. That doesn’t sound too difficult.

Someone has a problem, and you dig into the weeds to help them solve it. You’re getting things done and making things happen. You’re busy and you equate that with doing a good job. Except while you’re solving every problem, no one’s learning to do the work themselves. Instead of building a team of high-quality engineers, you’re making them dependent on you. Plus, you’re stretched so thin doing the work of your team, no one’s leading. No one understands the strategy or priorities. No one’s looking down the road to the future.

The more things go wrong, the more you fall back on your strengths. And your strengths are engineering. Before you know it, you’ve turned into a dreaded micromanager. It’s an easy trap to fall into if people believe that their managerial job is to keep doing what they did as a professional.

Once you’re a manager, your job is communicating, developing strategy, building a team, running meetings, providing feedback, connecting people, looking across disciplines, seeking out new perspectives, setting priorities, hiring and firing, performance reviews, budgeting, mentoring, asking questions, coaching, conflict resolution, and acting as a technical backstop when needed. Your job is to lead a team of professionals and help them do great work. You can’t do that if you’re still trying to do all of the day-to-day work as well, regardless of how well you do it today.

As a guideline, if I find myself doing engineering work for more than 10% of a given week, it’s a sign for me to reassess whether I’m setting the right priorities for my time. It often means that I’m using it as a form of procrastination to avoid doing some of my actual management work.

Honest communication trumps any management style.

I tend to be loud, excited, and quick to react to a given issue. I’m occasionally criticized for not thinking things through before starting down a path or being too passionate in advocating a position, thereby scaring off potential dissenters. I know this doesn’t help in every situation, but it’s my default mode and the one that tends to come out most often.

One of my peers is the opposite in nearly every way. She’s quiet, reserved, and much more thoughtful in her responses. Each of us has a unique style and each works well in different situations.

The key that spans all management styles is effective communication. It’s okay to be passionate, but it’s important for me to communicate why I’m so excited about something. People won’t follow a leader that overreacts to every minor issue, but if they understand the reason behind that energy, they can generate it in kind.

Similarly, it’s okay for someone to be more reserved, provided she communicates why she’s taking more time to think through potential options. People don’t want to follow someone that they see as indecisive, but they will respect someone who thoughtfully weighs the risks and consequences before making a decision.

You have a style that fits you. Maybe it’s loud, excited, and passionate. Or maybe it’s quiet, analytical, and reserved. You can be successful with any style, provided that you prioritize empathy and honest communication. Tell people the truth even when it’s difficult. Help them understand the reasons behind your actions. And you’ll build the trust that underpins all successful managers.

Being demanding and having high expectations is not micromanagement.

If you ask a group of new managers about behaviors they want to avoid, without fail, one will be micromanagement. As many people have experienced overbearing micromanagers in the past, they’re especially keen on avoiding this behavior in their own leadership. Yet disengaging too far often brings about even worse results.

I once had a manager who took this to the extreme. At first it was great. We had complete freedom. But he was so disengaged that he couldn’t lead the group. He couldn’t provide meaningful feedback, dictate priorities, or differentiate between high- and low-quality work.

He was ineffective based on a lack of involvement. Our team resented it and stopped involving him. Which, of course, furthered his disengagement and made him even more ineffective. Which we further resented. Soon there was a complete lack of accountability.

Demanding excellence is not micromanagement. It’s your job to deliver a great product through your team. Having high standards and holding people accountable is a key part of the role. Setting expectations and enforcing accountability is not micromanagement.

Managers fall into the micromanagement trap when they stop focusing on the product and begin to mandate the process. It’s important to give people freedom in how they accomplish their goals. But it’s equally important to set and hold people accountable to the level of excellence that you know they’re capable of.

You’ll make a lot of mistakes.

As a new manager, you’ll make mistakes. Management and leadership simply aren’t as intuitive as we’d like to believe. You’ll make wrong calls. It’s unavoidable.

Don’t need to put so much pressure on yourself to have all the answers. No one expects you to and trying to fake your way through it will sacrifice your credibility. Tell people that you don’t know. Ask for their help. One of the great things about most people is that they want to help you. Let them.

Yet at the end of the day, you’re still the boss. And you’ll need to make the tough decisions. How do you prioritize your limited resources? Do you advertise bad news now or wait to see if you can turn things around? How do you respond when someone tells you something you don’t want to hear?

The first time you deal with these issues, you’ll probably get them wrong. That’s okay. Everyone does. The key is own your mistakes and use them to improve.

When you make a mistake, people generally know it. They’re just waiting to see if you’ll accept responsibility. If you do, you can restore trust and improve going forward. If not, you’ll quickly lose the confidence of those around you.

As you gain more authority, your mistakes will bring larger consequences. So, it’s important to make mistakes early when they’re small and recoverable. Look for opportunities to make small bets. Incorporate feedback mechanisms into the process to test whether you made the right call. Then, monitor your decisions so that you can course correct as needed.

Once you acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, you’re free to experiment with different ideas. You can challenge past assumptions and test new theories. Freed from the pretense of faking confidence, you can prioritize learning.

Remember that no one expects you to be perfect. They expect you to learn and improve. So, make mistakes. Ask for help. There’s no better way to learn.

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