Dan Cowell Engineering Manager
Osaka, Japan (mostly)


Stepping into management

Published Tuesday the 17th of August, 2022

When you step into the management career track you need to pick up new responsibilities and adopt a radically different style of work. First-time managers can feel pressured to take on all their new responsibilities in addition to retaining their previous duties. This approach feels virtuous in the moment (I'm leading from the back! I'm in the trenches with my team!) but runs the risk of alienating your team, or stunting their growth.

The good news is you can start off on the right foot by making some small changes that will help you see your work (and your new team!) through new eyes.

Stay off the critical path

"Stay on the critical path" is great advice for nimble teams of makers, so this may seem counter-intuitive. As a manager, you need to step out of any work that is on the critical path.

Paul Graham wrote a famous treatise on the Maker's Schedule and the Manager's Schedule. You're now on the manager's schedule. If you try to join your team in doing critical work they will eventually wind up fighting with your calendar to unblock themselves.

Your new job is to lay out the critical path to your team, equip them to travel it and identify and remove obstacles in the path ahead before those obstacles disrupt your team's work.

Manage the distractions and respect your team's makers' schedule. Give them the space they need to focus and execute with excellence.

Work on your team

Your team is working on the product, you need to work on your team. Building people is your number one priority as a manager. Take the time to understand all of your direct reports, what motivates them and how they like to receive feedback and coaching.

Think about your team as a whole, not just a collection of individuals.

Well-balanced teams are composed of individuals of varying experience. Veterans teach newcomers, and newcomers bring fresh ideas to the team.

Teams composed exclusively of veterans or junior staff can become blind to new ideas, or struggle to build the skills required to succeed. It's your responsibility to balance your team composition through recruitment, promotions and transfers.

You won't be with the same team forever. Be mindful of succession planning. Create leadership opportunities within the team by sharing responsibility for coordinating and facilitating team activities. Identify people who embrace these opportunities, and use this as a tool to guide their career path.

Build a strong team of peers who can grow together and support each other. Identify future leaders by giving them leadership opportunities. Coach and guide your team members and set them on the right path according to their strengths.

Manage up and out

If you're a manager in a company of reasonable size you have a new "first team." Your peer group has changed. Get to know the other managers who report to your new boss. You may not work in the same areas of responsibility, however you are all working towards a common goal. If you're not sure what that goal is, talk to your manager and find out!

Cultivating relationships with your fellow managers will build the support network you need to tackle thorny problems across team boundaries and open doors to pair swaps, intra-team transfers and temporary secondments to help solve structural problems in your team.

Spend some time understanding your new boss's needs and priorities. As a manager of managers, their time and attention is split across many concurrent projects and teams. The communication patterns that worked with your direct manager won't necessarily work in this new setting, so ask how they like to work and don't be afraid to overshare in the beginning.

As your team's champion in the organization you need to be connected up and across the company. Take the time to build and nurture these relationships so that you can call on your peers for support when your team needs it.

The path to becoming a great manager is a long one. Very few rules are absolute, and the advice above does not apply to all teams and circumstances. Notably, many highly successful teams have been composed entirely of renowned experts in their respective fields.

As you grow into your role, you will find your own style. You will learn what works for your team, and that understanding will evolve over time. Adapt to those changes, keep learning and growing. Expect the unexpected. Welcome to management!