Made it

One of the things that new managers often find distressing is the sudden inability to identify the progress of their own work. When you were an IC, you could say you shipped code that worked, or designs that users met with delight, or a plan that successfully brought a product to market. But then you become a manager and suddenly the measure of your success is…what, exactly? Your team’s morale, their ability to name and resolve conflict, to grow in their own careers, to tell you what they need even when it’s not what you want to hear. It’s not that these things can’t be measured—or that only things that can be measured have value—but it’s a big mindset shift to see the outcome of your work move from stuff to humans.

On top of that, you made it to management because you were good at the stuff. And when you first become a manager, you’re just not that great at all the things humans need. You’re a beginner at that work. Which doesn’t mean you’re inexperienced—your experience as an IC is an important foundation to draw from, and you wouldn’t have made it into management without it—but it’s the foundation, not the house. When you first come into management, you’re still putting up walls, still deciding where the windows go, still sitting on an upturned crate under a tarp. It’s uncomfortable.

Some people never quite make it out of this stage. Either they return to IC work (a move in which there should be no shame—not everyone likes being a manager, or should be one) or they stay on as a manager but persist in the (often unacknowledged) belief that the work that concerns the stuff is more valuable than the work that concerns the humans.

It’s this latter perspective that lingers behind a lot of other rhetoric and decisions, sometimes insidiously. It’s underneath the language of “soft” versus “hard” skills—humans being soft and squishy, you see, as opposed to code, which has abs of steel. It also feeds into ideas about what it looks like to spend your time well: lots of hours heads down writing code or designing prototypes is good; the equivalent time talking to a group of people in order to get everyone on the same page about what you’re doing or clarifying the boundaries between roles or working through an issue that’s bothering everyone—well, that’s not the work, that’s a distraction from the work.

This is one of the ways that the adage about “maker time” versus “manager time” does harm. Setting aside the fact that it’s not even coherent—managers make decisions and plans and systems and visions all day long!—it also serves this notion that the stuff is what matters and the humans are just an unruly mess that gets in the way of the stuff. This is a self-defeating story, inasmuch as you don’t get good stuff without a system that takes care of the humans.

Here’s the thing: the people are the work. They aren’t the only work, of course. But then neither is the stuff—not the code, not the pixels, not the plans or spreadsheets or data analyses or dashboards or budgets or whathaveyou. The stuff gets no where and accomplishes nothing without the humans, but the humans need human things to make the stuff. They need collaboration and conversation and connection, they need boundaries and clarity and purpose, they need autonomy and safety and compassion. They need to talk to one another, in groups and one-on-one, both face-to-face and asynchronously.

And all that collaboration and talking and—gasp!—meeting is not only work, it’s difficult work. It’s hard to get people on the same page and keep them there. It’s fabulously challenging to get people using the same words to mean the same things without losing tons of signal every time they talk to one another. Building the maturity—both as an individual and as a team—to be able to name a conflict and talk it out humanely and productively is a brutally hard skill that requires a ton of self-awareness and humility and compassion and—no offense here, but you cannot look up how to do this on Stack Overflow and then copy some code and get on with your day.

It’s tempting to just retreat from all this hard work. It’s tempting to say, let’s just do the stuff. But the idea that the stuff can just magically appear without any humans—or any of the things humans need—is a fantasy.

You can’t get good at something without first acknowledging that it matters. And then agreeing to be a beginner at it, even though it’s uncomfortable, even though it’s difficult. By all means, cancel some meetings that are no longer needed, or set a reminder to revisit the purpose of a recurring meeting in a few months so it doesn’t linger past its usefulness. Set parameters around meeting time versus heads down time so people have enough of both. But also, ask yourself or your team, what do we need from each other? What’s being left unsaid? Where are things sticky or confusing or painful, and what are we doing about it? Then go make the time to talk it out. Even if you have to sit on a crate.