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This is complicated. It can be very difficult to make management into a sustainable role when you're trying to be the kind of empathetic and thoughtful manager that people deserve. I'm taking a break from it right now due to burnout. But here are a few thoughts.
The role of management is changing. I don't know how long this has been in progress, but the pressure on managers in tech has gone up sharply in recent years. Seemingly spurred on by the movement towards increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
The thing that makes the new management difficult is that you're likely to be caught in the middle of parties that have competing and even contradictory incentives. Your direct reports, your executives and sometimes, your peer managers.
It's has always been the case that alignment between execs and individual contributors (IC) is hard to come by. There is too much lost in translation. But part of the job if the new manager is to facilitate that translation on both sides.
The leadership team often needs help really hearing and understanding the challenges that people in their company are facing. But ICs also have a hard time empathizing with the role of managers and executives. At various points, they will all blame you for things going wrong.
In a nutshell, that's why this role can be so draining. You want to care about people and help them be productive and happy. You also want to care about the success of the business and being successful by creating impact there. Those things will often feel at odds.
Execs are going to ask for ridiculous things. That's their job. Running a company is very hard. One of the hardest parts is that you can't actually be personally responsible for anything that needs to get done. You have to depend on others to do it.
Have you ever tried to get 10 people to try to do the same thing at the same time? imagine doing it for a company of 100, or 1000, or 10000. Most of the time, all they can do is give vague high level plans. The rest is up to the smart people they hired to figure out.
Conversely, as an IC, you will almost never feel like they have enough information to make smart decisions. Instead it feels like nobody has concrete answers to anything and nobody will take the time to find them. Yet you're still on the hook for being "productive".
There's a bunch of people in the middle who *might* have access to many different pieces of the puzzle. Both from those above, and those below. When asked what managers do, a friend of immediately snapped "absorb the cost of communication overhead".
That's you by the way. If you're a manager, you're gonna frequently find yourself in conversations with many different people who need to get things done. But none of them are talking to each other. They're hoping you'll make sure the right info gets to the right people.
I also mentioned your peer managers. Not everyone has gotten this memo about doing better for ICs. You'll also have to deal with other managers who care less about that. Instead they continue to respond to the same incentives as most people do. How to please their bosses.
While you're working so hard to find a way for everyone to collaborate, you should expect to be frustrated with other managers who aren't working as hard. Playing politics, or sacrificing their team to rack up wins will still get them ahead. And you'll have to deal.
So all of this being said, we can come back to the original question. Is there a way to make this job more sustainable? I think so. Many people I know and respect as managers seem to be able to keep doing it. Here are some things I'll probably do next time.
Accept that your job is not to "make people happy". This is tough, but you have to start here. It's not your role to make people happy. But it's also impossible. You can create an environment where they feel psychologically safe and productive. Happiness is up to them.
So tip number one is to give yourself a break. You can't win them all. Sometimes it will feel awful. But if you take too much responsibility for other people's decisions onto yourself, you're on the road to burnout. You'll get another opportunity to do better.
Tip number two is related to tip number one. You'll be more effective at this job if you find a way to let others share their problems with you. Obviously your ICs will tell you when they're unhappy. You can't always fix it. But listening and trying to help them matters a lot.
Execs will also complain to you. And it'll suck because you'll be thinking they have it all wrong. They don't know the people on the ground. They don't know the details. But resist the urge to try to correct them. Build trust and you'll get your chance to influence them.
If you spend all of your time trying to tell your bosses that they have it all wrong without taking responsibility, they're gonna start wondering why they need you.
The next thing you can do for yourself is to delegate more. Yeah you've heard this one before. But I bet you're not really doing it. We often have to fight against the instinct that tells us our ICs have to stay focused on their primary responsibilities.
The reality is that it's the modern manager who has way too much to do. Our role is often defined as "anything that is not the explicit responsibility of someone else". We can do it all. So you have to find *strategic* ways to either delegate, automate or drop things.
This is where a manager needs to develop a lot of unique skill and experience. Knowing who is appropriate to delegate to and how often. Knowing which things can be dropped without repercussions. This will do a lot to reduce your stress.
The last tip I have is to cultivate wins for yourself. Not to show other people, but to sustain yourself. One the hardest parts of this job is that you pretty much stop getting any positive reinforcement whatsoever. It's easy to start to feel like there are only problems.
But good managers do a lot of good. A lot of things that go well are because of what we do. It's okay to acknowledge that and feel good about it. We often have to give away credit publicly. But own your wins. Even if the only people you can tell are other managers.
My final tip. In order to cultivate those wins, you may need change your expectations of how long things take. Changing things for the better takes time. Just like anything worth doing. Good management is more about gardening than firefighting.
If you can change your expectations to really accept that things won't change right away, that'll create space for you to notice the *progress* that is being made. It happens little by little. Rarely do things change all at once. (Except for reorgs, which aren't your fault).
You'll also start to be able to change other people's expectations about how long things take. I've talked to a lot of managers who are making themselves feel awful. Because their reports are unhappy today and they're afraid they can't fix it before people quit.
But if you can start to convey to people how things can change over time, and why it *has* to work that way, you'll be doing yourself and them a favor. If you don't help people be okay with longer time horizons to see results, you'll continue to feel stressed.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I remember when I knew how to fix everything immediately and all people had to do was listen to me. The problem is they don't have to. Because who the fuck am I? Anybody can be right as long they ignore what other people need.
I hope this gives people some perspective on what this job is and how to prevent it from eating you alive. It's just a job. An important one to be sure. But you don't have to sacrifice all of yourself too it. Do your best. Get better at it. Don't forget to take note when you do.
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