Reflections from a First-Time Manager

One of the big reasons I joined Etsy back in November was that the gig included my first chance at hiring and managing designers. Managing people was something I had never done before (not a lot of need at startups, and there wasn’t really that opportunity for me at Amazon) and, honestly, the prospect was pretty terrifying. Which, of course, drove me to give it a whirl. I took on my first report in the early part of this year and am now responsible for four designers in total.

Lately, I’ve found myself reflecting on what I’ve learned (or think I’ve learned). So far, I’ve come to believe that managing people can be boiled down to a couple of high-level goals:

  1. Make sure people have what they need to succeed.
  2. Help people get where they want to go.

With that in mind, here are a few things I’ve been trying that, holy crap, seem to be going pretty well:

Manage the person, not the work.

The best gift you can give yourself is hiring designers who you trust to do the work. If you’re making a hiring decision and thinking about how much oversight that person will need, don’t make the hire. Even a junior level hire should be capable of doing junior-level work without supervision. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do regular check-ins and give feedback, but if you’re worrying about if work is getting done or what kind of work is getting done, you’re in a bad place.

The lovely thing about managing self-sufficient people is that you can spend more time focusing on your reports instead of their work. Instead of spending your one-on-one talking about what they’ve been designing this week, you get to talk about helping them improve and advance toward the future. Or you get to find out what’s got them worried or nervous about the project or team they’re working on. You get to focus on people. Which, hopefully, is why you got into this management thing in the first place.

Forget annual reviews.

At Etsy, we recently made the decision to decouple compensation/promotion changes from our annual review process. This is totally awesome, since it a) allows promotion/salary conversations to happen year-round and b) reduces pressure at the end of each year. I mean, honestly, I can’t remember what I accomplished six months ago, much less a year. And asking someone to list all of those things, receive feedback and also hope for a not-until-next-year-if-not-now pay increase or promotion is a heavy thing.

As a result, I (and many others) have set up quarterly mini-reviews with my reports - extended one-on-ones where we look back over the last few months and adjust, remove or add to their personal/professional goals. It’s actually great because we leave those reviews with a framework for how we’re going to approach and talk about the next three months instead of the next twelve, and pushes me to think about how my reports are being advanced and compensated at regular intervals instead of once in awhile.

It also allows for an environment of constantly changing projects and circumstances. Did you join a new team recently and realize you’ll need to lead a little more than on your previous project? Did the entire scope of your work change? Did you wake up one morning and realize you wanted to someday be a PM instead of a designer? No need to wait a year to add that to your goals. Let’s add it now and tee up a deeper discussion sooner, rather than later.

Act as a source of clarity (not added complexity).

In the past, I’ve experienced managers who tend to leave things more complex than simple. I dreaded conversations with them because I’d leave with way more questions than when I started. When I began managing people, I really wanted to have the opposite effect. Instead of adding to the complexity of their jobs, I want to add more clarity. Instead of being yet another signal to parse and try to reconcile with the dozens of other voices, I want to help frame the other signals into something cohesive.

A lot of that boils down to empowering more than deciding. The entire point of hiring smart people is that you can trust them to work through problems on their own. By simply being available to reframe or talk through problems my reports face, my hope is that they’ll walk away feeling that, ultimately, the decisions and solutions are theirs to make and that I trust them to make the best stuff they can (and I have never once been let down on this count). Of course, I’m there if they reach an impasse and need extra support. But I’m supporting their design and intuitions.

So far? I’m loving it.

Despite my trepidation going in, I’m ridiculously happy with how this role has turned out. The people I’m managing are top-notch designers, who consistently blow me away with their energy, drive and willingness to go to bat for design solutions they believe in. I can only hope I’ve been as helpful to them (and continue to be) as they’ve been awesome to work in service of.


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