I’ve been in quite a few conversations lately about the role and questionable necessity of management. From new startups to established companies like Valve, lots of folks are wrestling with the idea of hierarchy vs. flat vs. insert-hot-new-organizational-structure-here. As a result, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my role as a design manager at Etsy and how different it is from the dirtiest-term version that’s come to represent the craft.
What management is not.
The subhead to Valve’s employee handbook reads: “A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.” We all know the what they’re talking about. I’ve seen many managers make the mistake of hoarding information, being unnecessarily cryptic or, yeah, flat out telling folks on their team what to do. And honestly, I get it, I really do. A lot of company cultures not only accept, but enforce these layerings. So when someone gets promoted to being a manager, they feel like they’ve joined a club of sorts. They have direct reports! They’re finally in cross-functional meetings with lots of information they were never privy to before. It’s easy to try and prove your managerness by declaring a new direction for your team or “strategically” doling out information.
When managers do this, the end result is the same: resentment and distrust from their team, as well as a decrease in the quality of the work because, surprise, when people don’t have a voice in the direction of the product, they believe in it less. And that always, always shows up in the work. A bad manager is single-handedly capable of taking a great team and producing mediocre (or just hands-down terrible) results.
Sounds awful. Shouldn’t we just get rid of managers?
I used to think so. And then I had my first great manager while I was still at Amazon, Aaron Donsbach. All of a sudden I was given a lot of room to make decisions. And while I was still shielded from a lot of the cross-org meetings, there was so much transparency from my manager that I knew exactly what was going on at all times. I was able to design against reality and not a twisted version of it.
And when I had a problem or question? I had a for-sure person to go to for support and clarity. If he didn’t know the answer, he’d go find it. If I was frustrated or struggling, he’d corral the right folks together and help all of us work through the design problem or blocking disagreement together. He was patient, available and, above all else, treated me like a partner. The result was the best design work I’ve ever done, as well as some of the smoothest “Jeff Reviews” in my time at Amazon.
Enable, support, resolve.
I’ve tried my best to emulate Aaron’s management style as we’ve brought on more folks at Etsy. And while, of course, each individual has their own strengths, as well as personal and professional goals, I find that I can generally frame my involvement in one of three ways:
Enable. Make sure that people are free to do their best work and have a clear path for growth. Does everyone have the tools and information and time they need for the projects they’re on? How can you provide as much transparency and clarity as possible? Are the people you support paired with team members who will enhance their skill set? Can you predict future needs and fill them right on time or, even better, earlier than expected?
Support. Make hard things easier. Is someone in too many meetings? Take some of them on yourself. Had a hard time hiring extra help and now someone you manage is overwhelmed? Pitch in or work with the team to shuffle the roadmap to provide relief and buy yourself a little more time. Did someone ask for more opportunities to push their own boundaries? Don’t just throw it on your mile long to-do list. Make it a topic for your 1:1 regularly. Hold yourself accountable.
Resolve. This part of the role is 50/50 direct mediation and guidance. Every project has hard moments that, once in awhile, escalate into voiced frustration. The two types I’ve typically seen (even in myself) are either people having trouble communicating, or people just not communicating at all. In each instance, there’s a fine line between someone just needing an ear and some guidance, and a situation needing a manager’s direct involvement. I am still finding my way here and figuring this stuff out is a topic for another post. But the umbrella theme remains: when things get tough, it’s on you as a manager to make sure there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
People you support instead of reports.
I feel dirty every time I use the term “direct reports.” I get that the concept is necessary organizationally, but the reality is that it’s actually me who’s accountable to them. My job doesn’t exist so that I can know more, or so that I can tell others what to do. My job exists to cultivate a healthy and safe environment for amazing people to do the best work of their lives. My job is to make sure that people feel supported and have a clear path to success and growth. And when things get murky or confusing, it’s my job to assist in finding clarity again, to reframe the conversation.
My job is to be the manager I always wished I had.
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