Management style

“What’s your management style?”

It seemed like an innocent enough question. After all, I’ve been managing teams of engineers on and off for fifteen years, and have spent the last two and a half years organizing my thoughts on the subject. Easy.

“Well, you know, I’m, uh… Hmm.”

Yes, that sound you just heard was all of my vast and impressive mental machinery grinding to a sudden and catastrophic halt. What is my… management style? What does that even mean?

Please, pay no attention to the smell of ozone.

Listen, I know that the canonical answer is, “I put great people in the right positions and get out of their way,” but that’s really just manager-speak for “I like to manage really easy teams.” I mean sure, you’ve got great people, you put them in the right positions, you get out of their way, BAM, magic, right? But if that’s all you can do, then you aren’t really earning your keep. You also need to be able to manage under-performers, touchy over-achievers, overworked, under-appreciated teams on low-visibility but necessary projects, and so on. You need to be able to hire, fire, promote, develop, and mediate. Sometimes you have to have difficult conversations. Sometimes, you need to let people do the wrong thing. Managing is hard.

Naturally, different managers have different ways of handling these situations. There are lots of ways to screw up, of course, but there are also lots of ways to succeed. And as I’ve been thinking about the question (what the hell is my style?), I’ve found that it’s easiest to think in terms of archetypes. Any manager will be a mishmash of different styles – will have to be, depending on the situation – but we each have our preferred style of getting things done, and this is as good a place as any to start. As for which kind I am? Well, you should probably ask my team.

At a high level, managers are typically grouped into two main categories. First you have the player/coaches, who mix management with individual contributor tasks. As a team grows, though, it becomes more important to focus on developing people and processes, and managers generally move more toward 100% people management. Although some people try to hold on to the player/coach model for longer than they should, in general the role is more a matter of a manager’s place in the organization, not personal style.

Now, on to the types.

The Expert

Frequently an engineer who came up through the ranks, the Expert understands the underlying technology/code base at a deep level. She exerts a powerful technical influence on her team, and is generally a member of her company’s technical council. Experts often hold on to the player/coach role long after their management responsibilities require more attention.

The Autocrat

Bullying, demanding, and manipulative, the Autocrat will do whatever is necessary to get things done. Shouting, threats, public humiliation, demands for mandatory overtime – all are fair game in order to get what she wants. Autocrats can be successful in completing individual projects, but have difficulty building teams for the long haul.

The Collaborator

Favors consensus-building as a way to build a sense of ownership. Works well with business partners, who appreciate the opportunity to be involved in a process that can otherwise be opaque. At their best, skilled collaborators are able to build teams with strong common purpose, and move groups to good decisions quickly. At worst, they can be rubber stamps for bad decisions, or enablers of death by meeting.

The Buddy

Everyone likes the Buddy. Genuine and likeable, her ability to succeed is rooted in her team’s desire not to let her down. Buddies can have difficulty exercising their power, though, which in turn can lead to difficulty managing poor performers or making unpopular decisions. Likewise, their strong people skills don’t necessarily translate to organizational ability.

The Bureaucrat

Bureaucrats are good at core project management skills – scheduling, task assignment, time estimation, communicating with stakeholders, etc. They know how to get things done within the system, but can be rigid and rules-bound when flexibility is called for.

The Cult Leader

The Cult Leader forges dedicated teams through pure force of personality, setting ambitious goals and receiving tremendous effort to the point of self-sacrifice on the part of her team. Charisma does not equate to an ability to plan or organize, however, and cult leaders frequently have difficulty translating their goals into effective plans, following up on tasks, status reporting, etc.

The Politician

Politicians actively make friends throughout the organization, and are frequently able to short-circuit problems with a quick email or phone call. This can be an extremely effective tool for getting needed resources quickly, or organizing cross-team efforts. It can also be viewed as manipulative and sycophantic, and/or cause bad feelings when gains come at another team’s expense.

As should be clear from the above descriptions, each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages. Very few people are pure examples of any one style, and effective managers are able to employ different styles in different situations. A great manager needs to be able to understand her team’s work, get buy-in on difficult issues, but make tough decisions on her own when necessary. She needs to be able to deliver tough feedback and make unreasonable demands when the situation calls for it, but also needs the team to be on her side. She has to be able to schedule, write up and deliver performance reviews, report status, and all the other administrivia inherent in the role, but also lead her team through difficult times. She needs to be able to work within the accepted processes, but also pull favors when necessary.

Each of us naturally gravitates toward one or another style (or styles) – when we start out, that’s all we know, and it’s easy to view other styles with suspicion. As we get more experienced, though, we learn how to borrow from styles that initially seemed alien. Success, then, comes from understanding the different options, practicing them so that they become (more) natural, understanding when each is most appropriate, and learning to control ourselves in the moment so that we can choose.

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