How to become a manager

Quite a few front line employees, after a number of years with the company, begin to think about a manager role. After all, they know the product, they can do their job better than their peers, their boss shows appreciation and some of their friends have moved up the ladder. Move into a manager role is a promotion – it is a recognition of years of service and contributions to the growth of the business. When they become a manager, they can forget about coding and sleepless pager duties. Their job is now to think big and plan for the future. Is that about right?

As you have surely picked up on, my previous paragraph is full of sarcasm. When people joke about manager promotion in the hallways, they typically portray it in similar colors. It is just a way to give your buddy a friendly pinch to keep him or her grounded.

In reality, there are many people in transitional period. They want to become managers, but that call isn’t coming. Or, perhaps, they have recently been promoted to a manager role, however due to personal or organization reasons they ended-up leaving it. They don’t yet have enough experience to call themselves managers in bold letters, but they really want to be ones in the eyes of future employers.

If you happen to be one of them – this post is for you. I will break down Management word crossed outleadership role and how to become great at it.

Leaders and Managers

Internet is full of memes portraying a difference between a boss and a leader. This is not what we’re talking about, but if I didn’t show one of them, this post would be incomplete.

There is a distinct difference between a leader and a manager:

  • A manager is an administrative function that individual performs to keep business organized.
  • A leader is a natural trait of an individual to rally the troops and conquer new grounds.

I have come across a few good managers that maintained business in status quo or made incremental improvements. However they lacked vision or power of will to make radical changes. Managers aren’t evil or incompetent – that’s completely not the point. Managers exist as a formal designation in the organization of who is accountable for business results, delivery of annual performance evaluation, team rhythms, tracking of the budget, etc. Without managers, organization is not possible.

On the flip side, when you’re in the presence of a leader, you feel it. It is a wild biological sensation. Animals organize around leaders, not managers. So do humans. You can pick a 10 year old child, put her in a group of strangers and she’ll point out a leader within a few minutes. You have leaders among your peers – they are the ones always gathering everyone for lunch. If you observe dynamic of a conversation in a group of friends or coworkers, you’ll notice that people tend to look at one individual, seek his or her attention or want to sit next to that person at the table – that’s the leader of the pack.

When a leader becomes a manager, it is a natural change for a team and everyone is receptive of it. Team can function equally well when a leader and a manager form partnership and rely on each other to move the team forward. For example – a manager seeks leader’s input during performance evaluation for employees. In return, a leader relies on manager to source talent for the team so that he or she could select the best ones.

Things go south when a leader and a manager don’t get along or there are two leaders on the team. If team breaks apart – people follow the leader, not the manager.

Are you a leader?

Some leaders reveal themselves early in their lives and some take time to come through. If you haven’t determined if you’re a leader – I can help. Think back for the past few years and answer honestly.

  1. Do you feel comfortable in the presence of another leader?
  2. Do you blame yourself for failures of your team?
  3. Do you enjoying public speaking or presentations in front of a group of people?
  4. Do you encourage and support people around you when they make mistakes?
  5. When group is unclear what to do next, do you step in and take control of the situation?
  6. Are you supportive of your peer’s promotion to a level above yours, when he or she deserves it?
  7. Do you resolve conflicts within your team, if those conflicts do not concern you personally?
  8. Are people looking up to you?
  9. Do you think a few steps ahead of where the team is currently executing on the project?

If you answered Yes to most of the questions above – you exhibit leadership behavior. Being a leader doesn’t require being the loudest in the room or speaking over other people. I have met a few thought leaders in my career who almost never speak – they often sit quietly in the room and observe. However, when they do open their mouths and say something, people are blown away by the quality and depth of information they convey. You don’t have to be an extravert to be a leader, but it helps.

Managers and Individual Contributors

Role change from IC to a Manager is viewed as a necessary step to advance in career. However, I have seen that after years of being managers, some people chose to return to IC role to be more productive and focus on what they really love doing. Transition back to IC happens as individual matures and realizes that impact, influence, reputation and money are not dependent on whether you are a manager or IC.

Upside of being a managerDownside of being a manager
You have resources available to do what you think is right, without depending on anyone else.You have to manage people and give hard messages face to face. Sometimes you have to manage someone out.
You have significant influence on business direction.Your only tools are people, process, and organizational structure. No more coding for you.
You get rewarded when business is doing great.You are reprimanded when business stagnates or fails.
Your decisions and actions impact people lives and careers.You have to deal with HR complaints, conflicts of interest, lack of integrity of individuals, legal issues (including immigration).
You build a team exactly as you want it, selecting individuals and cultivating culture. No one will force people to be on your team if you don’t want them.You have to wrestle with other managers (peers and above) that have connections with people on your team.
You have a finite budget and have to make prioritization decisions that you don’t like.
You do not have time to dig deep into the product because all your time is spent on meetings, spreadsheets, kanban boards, customer engagements, 1-on-1 with your people, etc.

There are industry icons, who are individual contributor – for example, Bob Ward, Conor Cunningham. They are treated like Gods by SQL Server DBA community. They wield more power and respect than entire organizational leadership of Microsoft Azure SQL DB combined.

Upside of being an Individual ContributorDownside of being an Individual Contributor
You get to dig deep into the product and learn insights that make you valuable to the business and customers.There is only so much you can do with your own time. To do more you have to negotiate with managers and other individual contributors.
You do not have people management responsibilities – you only have to manage yourself.If you manage other people in your organization, unofficially, it is perceived as added value and you are rewarded for it.
You make the same money as managers at your level.You cannot reward others, who, in your eyes, are not being fairly compensated.
As you progress in your career, you start participating in the same business and customer meetings as your peer managers. Your awareness will be identical to organization management, if not greater.You can’t delegate your responsibilities when you get overwhelmed, which will inevitably happen.
You get things done using your reputation and respect of others.You can have a horrible boss. However, this becomes less of an issue as your reputation spreads in the organization laterally and vertically, two-three levels above your boss.
People managers have to consider your input more and more as your reputation and influence spreads in the team.

Your move

Now that you’ve consumed all the information in this post and you are still determined to move into a manager role. What’s your game plan?

“Leaderize” yourself

The most effective path to a manager role is to pick up leadership responsibilities and take the burden off of your manager. It is very important – start acting before you start talking about it. Start doing things listed as questions in “Are you a leader?” paragraph.

You want to start subtle – don’t jump on all of them at once, before you gain recognition and approval of the team to act as leader. You will get a sense whether other people have been thinking about leadership role and how they feel about you infringing on their turf.

Be persistent and helpful:

  • Volunteer to run a team meeting.
  • Publicly recognize someone who checked in a great piece of code.
  • Participate in more code reviews and leave valuable feedback (no “nit” comments please)
  • Suggest morale events and organize them

Over the course of a few months you will likely gain acceptance by the team and they will not think of your leadership as intrusion. They will appreciate what you do.

This is an impotent “mind trick”, so to speak. Doing “leadership things” before becoming a manager of the team will ease people’s transition when you get promoted. They will see writing on the wall and will have to either accept it or move out. If someone doesn’t click with you – do your best to settle the conflict without losing that individual from the team.

Announce your intentions to your manager

Transact your intentions with your manager after it has become implicitly clear to everyone that you’re a leader. He or she may have already been working behind the scenes on this move and you want to help him or her.

It is also possible that your boss will be surprised, if he or she was blindsided by your impact on the team. Your manager can be busy and not paying attention to team dynamic. If that is the case, your announcement may expedite transition.

When talking to your manager you don’t want to force this move. Explain that you are interested in formalizing your leadership of the team as a title change and let your manager work the timeline. Be prepared, it may take a year, so be patient.

Take a few responsibilities officially

Once your manager comes to terms that you need to move, ask him or her to make you his/her right hand man/woman (too much political correctness in this post, isn’t it?). Have your manager announce to the team that you are taking on certain duties, for example:

  • Report project status up the management chain on behalf of the team.
  • Represent the team in select customer engagements.
  • Drive an initiative to increase quality, reduce incident volume or something that involves more than just yourself.

Get exposure to managers and key engineers

Schedule a round of introductions with your manager peers and setup a recurring 1-on-1 with your skip-manager. Even if your skip can only see you once every quarter – that’s better than no exposure at all.

It is important to start building your support network – ask every manager you meet about his or her key people. Schedule introductions with key people, get to know them and introduce yourself. Every time you meet key people, figure out how you can be useful to them, not the other way around.

  • Spend time understanding their design proposal and throw your support behind it, if it is truly worth it.
  • Negotiate with your manager to help key people get something from your team, if they have been blocked on you.
  • Connect them with people in your network they’ve been meaning to know but had no path.

During this phase you have to add value. It may be small, but you must add value. People will judge you by contracting your promises to your results. If you overpromise and underdeliver you can guess the impression you will make as incoming manager.

Execute

You’ve been given the opportunity, you have support of your team and key people in the organization, everyone knows who you are – this is great. Now, make things happen. You have to work harder during this period to deliver everything people expect of you, and then some. Beat people’s expectations and you will shorten your promotion timeline.

You made it

Congratulations, your efforts have paid off. The life is going to be different now right?

Word of caution: Do not lose your authentic self.

People who move into management role make mistakes that cost them dearly over their career:

  1. They stop coding immediately. That’s a big mistake – the moment you lose connection to the product, you lose the reason you were made a manager in the first place. Once you grow to a team size that needs another layer of managers then you can start distancing yourself from the product. However, remember, your value is in your knowledge, until you develop your management skills that will dwarf product connection.
  2. They pick up corporate jargon. Another personal pet peeve of mine – people who start using big words to inflate their value. As a new manager, you have to stay true and simple, people should be able to understand you easily. Don’t write large emails that could be distilled to 3 sentences with numbers. Be who you are as a manager. Corporate jargon does not make you important.
  3. They use title. A great way to build animosity in the group is to add your title into your email signature or start throwing it around as a leverage. The best leaders are humble and use individual reputation to convince others. They do not use “Senior Vice President” title to underscore that they are a boss now and everyone is an employee. Don’t be that guy.
  4. They stop doing dirty work. Every team has some kind of work that is not attractive – like certificate rotation. Team members have to pull straws to pick who will do the work. I see young manager remove themselves from the straw roaster as soon as they get promoted. People will see their new managers as elitists who distance themselves from the crowd. These managers lose support they worked so hard to build, by the mile.

Now that you’re a leader and a manager – there are a lot of expectations on you. You must continuously learn and bring new knowledge into the team. You have to scout how to build better teams, do things more effectively, adjust product direction in anticipation of market moves, the list goes on.

You will work harder than hardest working individual on your team, because you have to be always ahead of the curve. Be prepared to make personal sacrifices around sleep time, vacation and family.

On the positive side – a whole new world of opportunities awaits you. Good luck, my friend.