My brother called me out of the blue the other day. "Hey, I got something I want to run by you real quick," he said, "I'm applying for a manager position and could use your perspective on some stuff." In all honesty, I was a little surprised. We had talked before about management positions, the transition from individual contributor (IC) to management, and a few other related topics, but he had been pretty adamant about staying as a regular engineer in more of a Tech Lead position. So to hear that my brother had decided to take a step into people management was certainly a surprise, but at the same time, I felt that as someone who had made that transition myself a number of years ago that I was in a good position to help him. I started thinking about all of the things that I wish I had known when I was becoming a first-time manager and distilled it down to a few points that I hope will help my brother and everyone else making or thinking of making the career move from engineer to manager.
Being a Manager and Being a Leader Are Two Different Things
To be an effective manager you need to be both a manager and a leader. While being a manager and being a leader certainly do have some overlap, they are wholly different concepts, and only by understanding how they are different and how to embody each one can you be effective.
An effective manager is one that can accomplish the organization's goals and organize a team of people toward a common goal. Think of effective management as completing deadlines, staying on budget, paying attention to details, etc. Managers are technically proficient at the job function; at organization, task management, and the like.
In contrast to management, leaders are focused on people. Leaders are people that other people want to follow because they know the leader has their best interests in mind. Leadership isn't necessarily as focused on organizational goals as much as it is focused on creating culture and embodying principles. Leaders are people who say "follow me"; who can take the team or the organization on their back and carry the group to success.
I think the best way I can illustrate this is through the lens of American Football. Yeah, I know, I'm going to lose some of my readers with this section, but I promise it's worth it.
In order to be an elite-level quarterback in the NFL you need to be both technically proficient at the position of QB and be a vocal leader in the huddle and locker room – players on the team need to buy into their QB and be willing to battle for them. Many mediocre QB's are good game managers and bad at being a team leader, or great leaders who have trouble with managing the game. Players like Kirk Cousins, Taylor Heinekie, Mitch Trubisky, Russel Wilson, Joe Flacco, and many many others fall into this category. Some QB's are bad at everything; your JaMarcus Russel's and Carson Wentz's. And some QB's are truly elite and are oustanding at both managing and leading: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and a very select group of others.
The good news is that both management and leadership can be learned; some people might be born natural managers or natural leaders, but just as many, if not more, have to learn to be great managers and leaders.
Being A Manager Can Be Lonely
This was something that surprised me when I became a manager. As an IC (or non-manager) you don't have to worry as much about the relationships you form at work. By that I mean your pool of peers is wide and the differences between IC levels are less relevant. But all of that changes as a manager. Your pool of potential work friends shrinks considerably to the people at your level, your direct peers. Why? Well, there are two real reasons for this:
- Your Job Is To Hold People Accountable
As a manager and leader of a team, part of your job is going to be holding your people accountable for their actions (or lack of actions, oftentimes). This means that on a certain level, you need to maintain a little bit of formality or distance from your team in order to maintain objectivity. This doesn't mean you shouldn't get to know your team and that you can't have fun with them, but you have to be "the boss" and be able to give that feedback objectively and without suspicion of favoritism.
- Your Job Is To Be A Role Model
As a role model for your team and the one that sets the tone managers don't have some of the same luxuries that IC's do. For example, you don't get to openly gripe about management decisions anymore, make snarky comments during all-hands meetings, or joke around about certain topics with your team. You set the tone, you create the culture, and you are the example to follow.
Because of these two reasons, if you need to blow off steam at work, or have something you want to discuss that contradicts messaging from leadership, you need to do so behind closed doors with either your boss or your peers, or the leader of the party or group you have an issue with. Shit should never roll downhill, including your personal shit.
You Don't Have to Be Perfect, You Just Have To Be Human
Oftentimes we have this picture of leaders in our heads of unwavering, unflappable, near-flawless people who have it all figured out. But that mental image couldn't be further from the truth. The truth is that great leaders are people like you and I, fallible and flawed, with blind spots and biases, warts and bruises, egos and issues. When it comes to leading a team you don't have to try and be that perfect leader, steadfast and unwavering, you just have to be a human. Your team doesn't want perfection, they want honesty; they don't want a know-it-all, they want someone who knows their limitations. Your team doesn't expect you to never make mistakes – mistakes are a part of life – what they want and what they need is someone who owns up to those mistakes, learns from them, and pushes forward. This is what separates manufactured leadership from humanized leadership: vulnerability. When mistakes happen (and they will), the respect of the team hangs on your reaction and how you handle those mistakes, not whether mistakes are made in the first place. A leader who is vulnerable with their team, who doesn't try to pretend to be perfect, will earn the respect of their team, their peers, and their supervisors.
Bring Your Real Self
Much like being vulnerable with your team, you have to be real with your team. Putting on a fake persona because you think that's how a leader acts is a surefire way to lose the respect of your team and your peers. To borrow from the NFL again, I think the 2022 season has been a great illustration of the difference between manufactured leadership and humanized leadership.
On one end you have someone like Russell Wilson who, by accounts of his current and former teammates with the Broncos and Seahawks respectively, puts on the leadership mask and tries to faux his way through leading his teams. Instead of being inspiring or rallying his actions just come off as an act and inauthentic, annoying and weird. From doing high knees on the team plane while his teammates are trying to sleep or relax to the whole "Broncos Country" cheese, this season we've seen the unmasking of Wilson's leadership style, and what we saw wasn't pretty.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have someone like Taylor Heinicke. He's not the most gifted quarterback in the league, and by all accounts, he shouldn't even be playing (his story is WILD). But when he's on the field he plays with an energy and magnetism that is impossible not to cheer for. And his teammates have rallied around him because he's demonstrated his willingness to put it all on the line when it mattered, to hustle and grind and do whatever is in his power to get his team a win. He doesn't have to put on a mask or manufacture leadership because his actions have proven to his peers that he is a leader worth following. He didn't come into the organization saying "I am the leader", he came in and gave his team reasons to trust him, and as a result, his teammates have rewarded him by following his example.
The lesson here is to be yourself. Be your authentic self. You don't have to change who you are or pretend to be someone else to be an effective leader, you just have to be yourself and show that you care.
You Can Always Go Back
I don't think I've ever heard anyone talk about this point when discussing career tracks, but I think it's very important to not overlook: your decision to transition into people management isn't permanent. There's nothing that says once you become a manager you have to stay a manager, no one is acting as a gatekeeper. If you decide that management isn't for you, or you find yourself in an organization that doesn't support its new managers effectively, then you can always go back to being an IC. I would actually encourage everyone to explore people management and give it a go; you might be surprised and find that management suits you, and for those whom it doesn't they'll walk away with a greater appreciation of the type of work managers do and what managers care about. That greater context can be key to unlocking your full career potential.
My only word of caution is to be sure to give management a good college try and not bail too early. Remember, you're learning an entirely new position, one that has little in common with your career path thus far, so be patient and enjoy the ride.
Was there anything I missed? What are some important lessons you've learned as a manager? Let's talk about it in the comments!