Why do you want to lead people?
Understanding your motivations for a career change into management is vitally important to understanding what kind of manager you want to be.
When I made the transition into management, I didn’t have a clear idea of what my motivations were. I had vague feelings of wanting to explore the challenges of managing people. I also wanted to test myself and see if I could do as good a job as role models throughout my career.
But all of this was vague, unquantifiable feelings that took a while to get a handle on. Understanding, questioning, and clarifying my motivations was something I put a lot of thought into in the first year of my career change.
People within your teams will spend much more time than you realise looking at and analysing what you are doing, and they will pick up on what your motivations are, and where your priorities lie.
They will mimic these behaviours and motivations, both positive and negative. You are a signalling mechanism to the team about what’s important and what’s not.
This is a huge challenge for people making the career change! You’re still working all this shit out, and you’ve got the ever gazing eye of your team examining and dissecting all of your actions.
These are some of the motivations I’ve picked up on in myself and others when trying to understand what drew me to the management career change.
It is undeniable that there is a pay bump when moving to management. In most organisations, the pay ceiling is much higher in management than in engineering.
Many engineers who rise through the ranks get to a point where the only way they will earn more is if they switch from engineering to management, so that becomes the primary motivation.
The pay is higher for a good reason though - it’s actually difficult to do the job well! Management looks easy from the outside, but it’s difficult on the inside. Again, our friends Dunning and Kruger posit that for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill
Poor decisions are obvious and easy to criticise. Because we spend a lot of time looking at those in our organisation above us, we’re finely attuned to mistakes and inadequacies, and tend to glass over the good things they do.
Understanding what about those decisions and behaviours makes sense to the people making them is difficult but vital to effectively working with others, regardless of whether you’re in management, engineering, sales, finance, or operations.
More often than not, there are good reasons behind bad decisions. We are all locally rational.
The pay bump has strings attached - you’re going to be making plenty of decisions, both good and bad, and wearing the consequences of them.
You are being paid to be empathetic - to understand how people are feeling, how implementing change will affect people, how to keep them motivated and working towards the big picture goal. None of these tasks are simple!
If you’re primarily motivated to move into management by better pay, then you need to seriously consider how that motivation will affect the people that report to you, how mimicry of those motivations and behaviours by people in your team flow on other teams you work with, and what you need to do to meet the commitments you have to your team.
Will you be doing the bare minimum to collect your paycheck? What’s stopping you from becoming an example of the Peter Principle? What skills do you need to develop to meet your people’s needs and expectations?
The hard problems in tech are not technology, they’re people. That is why management pays more.
Being in management grants you power and influence in your organisation to build and run things as you see fit.
This is often a key motivation for people who want to transition from engineering to management - they have a clarity of vision and they want the power to mandate how things should be built, and implement that vision.
The motivation is always rooted in good intentions (“things could be so much more efficient if everyone just listened and did what I said”), and often results in a industrialist approach to managing people - “manager smart, worker stupid”.
The influence trap
Your influence can be wielded as a lever (leadership) or as a vise (management). Levers are useful at moving heavy objects but lack precision. Vises are very precise but a weight too heavy will slip from them.
Vises are an alluring way for first time managers to work. The vise management style is prescriptive, centrally co-ordinated, command and control. And if you watch carefully you’ll soon realise it limits the potential of the team.
Prescriptive, vise-like management assumes you are the smartest person in the room, and know best how things should be done.
It doesn’t multiply the teams effectiveness. The point of being a manager is to be a lever that multiplies the effectiveness of the team - to synthesise different and conflicting ideas to come to decisions and solutions nobody could have anticipated or come up by themselves. This is near impossible if you solely wield your influence as a vise.
Studies show people’s problem individual performance lifts after being exposed to teamwork situations and training.
Prescriptive management increases the gap between Work As Imagined vs Work As Done. While conceptually you may have a great idea about how to solve a problem or operate a system daily, the people implementing your plans always discover gaps between the concept and implementation. Over time these gaps become larger, to the point you have a distorted view of how work is being done compared to how it’s actually being carried out.
You optimise the effectiveness of the system by having tight feedback loops, open communication channels where people are rewarded for providing both negative and positive feedback about the design and operation of the system. As a manager, this means you need to be actively engaging with the people in your team - finding out what they think and feel about the work.
Finally, prescriptive management is an empirically bad way of retaining creative talent. Constant overruling and minimisation of feedback is a great way to piss people off. If you hire creative, intelligent, capable people and keep them locked in a box, they’re going to break out.
Multiplying, trust, and happiness
Maybe you are the smartest person in the room, but others will bring knowledge and experience to the table you simply don’t have.
You get the best out of the team by creating a safe space for people to put forward ideas, argue them without recriminations, and build consensus.
The goal for people leading high performing teams should be to have the output of the team be greater than the sum of the individual efforts of people in the team.
Your status as a manager grants you power within your organisation. That power must be wielded responsibly. You won’t know if you’re wielding that power responsibly in the first 12 months of the career change, at best.
You must constantly assess whether the decisions you’re making are the best for the people who report to you. It’s a constant tightrope act to balance the needs of your people over the needs of the business.
It’s easy to pass the policy buck and say “I’m just following orders” when implementing unpopular changes, but you do have a responsibility to identify and push back on change that negatively affects people before you roll it out, and minimise the unavoidable negative effects of that change.
It does not take long for things to come apart when you take your eye off the ball and stop looking out for the team. Trust is hard to build, and easy to lose. People spend a lot of time looking at you and analysing your behaviour. They will notice much earlier than you realise when you take your eye off the ball.
It takes at least 5 positive interactions to start re-establishing trust after you’ve breached it.
Being in a management position grants you the power to shape how people within your organisation do their work. This means you have a direct influence over their happiness and wellbeing. Blindly implementing policy and not empathising with the people in your team can cause irreparable damage and create emotional scar tissue that will stay with people for years, if not decades.
Your power must be wielded responsibly. Do not fuck this up. When you do (and don’t worry, you will, we all have), own your mistakes, apologise, and rebuild the trust.
Personal development / Career change
Personal development is a pretty good motivation for a career change to management! You want to challenge yourself to do a better job than those before and around you.
A huge personal motivation for me when moving into management was to treat others better than I had been treated throughout my career until that point.
Working in environments where the happiness of people was not the primary concern of those in charge is not a fun experience. Shared negative and stressful experiences helped me form close bonds and develop a camaraderie with the people I worked with. I couldn’t say the same about the people I worked for.
Those relationships are something I value, but I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to go through what we did just to obtain that sort of relationship.
The challenge for me was clear: was it possible to develop that camaraderie within the team I lead through purely positive experiences?
Looking back at how particular decisions and behaviours I experienced affected me and other people in the teams I worked in in these stressful environments, there were some obvious things that I could improve on.
There were other decisions I considered to be poor at the time, but after finding myself in similar positions I made similar choices.
I failed fairly terribly at the transition during the first 12 months of my career change. Someone in my team described my management style as “absent father”. That really put into perspective that my priorities were misplaced, and I needed to focus on the team and not my own individual performance.
My first experience working in tech was overwhelmingly positive. The working environment and management I experienced on a daily basis in the first 3 years of working in tech is the experience I aspire to create for people in the teams I lead every day.
The times I had a “good boss” are some of my best memories in my career. I was focused on the work, consistently delivered things I was excited about, and rarely worried about troubles elsewhere in the business (and it turned out there were a lot of them).
The enduring attitude from that time is the feeling of working with, not for my manager. We worked as a team to solve problems together, not as individuals off doing our own thing. That’s the feeling I want to create in the teams I lead.
Understanding what motivates your career change is not an easy task.
At the end of the first year of my career change, my motivations lay somewhere between influence and personal development.
These motivations have morphed over time. Today, my focus is the happiness of the people I work with.
You need to undertake a constant process of self-reflection and a space to develop your understanding of your motivations. It’s important you create the time and space to do this!
The simplest trap to fall into in your first year is to be focused on the daily grind, the tactical details, and not think about the bigger picture.
This is something that affects experienced and novice managers alike, and it’s important to establish good personal habits early on so you have time to reflect on what motivates you, and what sort of leader you’re going to be.