Like standing on the edge of a cliff, when you’re a new manager, it can be hard not to look down.
It seems obvious that your primary concern should be your team. You’ve just been promoted. Their careers are in your hands. There’s so much to do and think about.
This is particularly true if you’ve been promoted from the role that the majority of your team still occupies. For example, from a business analyst to team lead, from software engineer to engineering manager, or from content writer to marketing manager. You know the pain points in the role and the team first-hand.
You’ve been watching the previous boss manage poorly, and thinking about how you’d do it differently if you had the chance. You might have thought about how you’d allocate projects better, give more constructive feedback, hold meetings people actually liked, treat people better, argue for deserved raises and promotions.
And now you have that chance.
We’re not here to say you shouldn’t do those things. But we are here to say it’s only half the story.
To be a great manager, you need to be looking up and sideways to understand your organisation as much as you look down to understand your team. This is particularly true as your organisation grows, lines of communication become stretched, and you become more distant from senior leadership. Building up this understanding is a key part of becoming the best manager you can be.
For some this might sound obvious, but we’ve seen numerous new managers not strike this balance. So we wanted to explain why we thought it was important, and share some tips for getting you started.
You’ve probably been told about the importance of aligning your team with the needs of your organisation. When it’s put like that in consultant-speak it doesn’t sound very exciting. So we wanted to unpack ‘alignment’ into what it can actually do for you and your team.
At the core of this is whether you know what your organisation really values and how your team fits into that?
And when we say ‘do you know’, we mean do you actually know. ‘You’ because we don’t mean your boss’s understanding (they might be wrong/incompetent), and ‘know’ because are you absolutely confident in your answer?
If you run a team which provides research reports, how do those contribute to your company? Which clients are they vital to? Why do they value them? What proportion of the firm’s revenue comes from those clients? Is that likely to change?
If you run an engineering team, how do the features you’re building contribute to the overall product’s success? Which customers do they matter to? Why are those customers important in the context of your company?
Again don’t just take others’ word for it. Netflix famously tells employees not to seek to please their boss. Your boss could be wrong. You need to have your own independent appreciation of how your team creates value for your organisation.
Why is this important?
First, you will only create great opportunities for you and your team if they are doing work which is genuinely valued. It’s how you get funding and buy-in for projects, and how you ensure your team members have portfolios of work they can rely on to get them promoted. This feeling of being valued and the thrill of success breeds further momentum which will only improve the performance of your team.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If you just focus on what your team values, and not your organisation, you can end up with a mismatch where team members work incredibly hard and don’t get the rewards they might be expecting.
Jean-Denis Grèze is the Head of Engineering at Plaid, a multi-billion dollar fintech startup. He noted this in a recent interview:
“I came into management a little bit later into my career, and the hardest part of management is to manage the times when the expectations and hopes of individuals don’t match the expectations and hopes of the company. That’s when management gets really, really difficult”
It’s true, it does.
By being crystal clear on what your company values, you can make sure that your team focuses on these areas. If you do, your organisation becomes an incredible point of leverage to create opportunities and grow your team’s careers.
But, you might say, I don’t know precisely how my team fits into this company? My boss doesn’t really talk to me and we don’t get briefed properly on the strategic direction of the company.
All the more important to spend more time looking up and sideways rather than down.
"My educated guess is that 50% of my job as a manager is information acquisition, assessment, and redistribution. It is my primary job and the efficiency with which I do this is a direct contribution to the velocity of the team." Michael Lopp, Engineering Leader, Apple
It will depend on the size of your organisation but generally-speaking, every day two things are likely to be true:
This. is. Very. Irritating.
Most of the time, it’s not the big strategic stuff. It’s a new project being staffed which would have been great for one of your team but they were overlooked; it’s a discussion of minor compensation and benefits changes which have an outsize effect on your team; it’s a hamfisted DEI initiative which someone is trying to drag a team member into. Cumulatively, these decisions can have a significant impact on the progress and wellbeing of your staff.
Needless to say, ideally, you want to know about anything relevant as soon as possible.
There’s no shortcut to doing this but to working out what information you need to know to run your team effectively, where/who has it, and how you get access to it.
Sometimes this will be a case of ensuring you’re copied in on correspondence or lurking in Slack channels. Others it will be building relationships with those who have the information.
It’s a long-term project. But the benefits to your team of doing it successfully are immeasurable. It takes a deliberate approach and you’ll need to keep working at it.
"“Relationships are core to your job. If you think that you can [fulfill your responsibilities as a manager] without strong relationships, you are kidding yourself." Kim Scott, Radical Candor
We hate to break it to you, but companies are full of people. And people are political and complicated. The best decisions don’t always get taken, the best people don’t always win, and the best teams don’t always get rewarded. Shocking, we know.
Well, we say that sarcastically, but we’re amazed at the number of managers who behave as if that is shocking news. Who are stunned when their teams don’t get allocated the plum projects; or when their star performer doesn’t get promoted; or when they’re left out of a key meeting.
"I’m glad you’re a C++ rockstar, but the problem is, your manager is a passive non-communicator who doesn’t take the time to grok the political intrigue that is created by any large group of people. I see him as a non-factor and you’re living in the shadow of a non-factor." Michael Lopp, Engineering Leader, Apple
You can ensure your team creates significant value and gather all the information you can, but you’re also going to need to know how to actively engage with your employer to ensure the outcomes you want.
"It’s usually more important to be in the right room than to be the smartest person in the room” James Clear
A recent joiner at Shopify, one of the world’s top e-commerce companies, said the best advice he got was this:
In your first 6 months here, here is your number one job. Familiarize yourself with the dozen senior people at Shopify who have the final call on really important decisions, from Tobi [CEO] and Harley [President] on down. You need to familiarize yourself with their operating philosophy around business and around how Shopify works. Go consume every written memo and every podcast episode (we have a great internal podcast called Context) they’ve ever done, get inside their heads, learn their perspectives and their preferences, and learn what gets them to say Yes to things."
This advice is gold dust for any manager.
Similar to your approach to information gathering (and there may be some overlap), ask yourself who are the decision-makers who are going to have the most influence over the success of your team?
Your immediate boss is likely to be key, but there will be others. Perhaps there are leaders in other departments who define the flow of your work to your team. Or other teams that you depend on to deliver your results. Or particular senior managers who really make the promotion calls, despite what everyone says about the integrity of the performance review process.
As in the Shopify example, you need to identify who these people are, and then work out how to build relationships with them to get them to say yes to things (how precisely to exercise influence will have to wait for a future post). Again, this will be a long-term project.
So, with all that said, what can you start doing to improve this aspect of your management:
A quick footnote.
We’ve spoken a lot about how aligning your team, gathering information and exerting the right influence can have a dramatic impact on their success. But it also has the handy side benefit of demonstrating that you’re the kind of manager who appreciates how to create value, and has built relevant relationships throughout the business.
It will position your team for success, but it should also position you.
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We’ve compiled a list of questions you can ask your managers and team members to identify the challenges they face, and help you pick the right solutions.