Management competencies

It’s been a couple months since I got back to TripAdvisor, and while in some ways it’s been as comfortable as slipping on an old shoe, my time in startup-land has given me a new perspective, especially with respect to my own role. What, after all, does a middle manager do? I’m not the player/coach I was at Scratch, not writing code, not managing our devops infrastructure. I’m not the senior engineering leader, working directly with the CEO, interacting with investors, responsible for defining technical direction and overall site performance and stability.

One of my Trip friends likes to tease me about my title, and wonders aloud what it is that I spend all my time doing. Surely it can’t all be about lying on a divan eating bonbons and peeled grapes? Some of my team members have also asked me this question, as they’ve tried to figure out how they should use me, as opposed to their direct manager. And as I considered the question, and talked it out, I realized that my activities generally fell into three main areas.

First are the nuts and bolts. Writing status reports, breaking large initiatives into phases and tasks, scoping, prioritizing, delegating, and so on. Junior managers tend to focus on these things because they’re easier to identify and track, more amenable to individual action, and easier to learn. You can (and should!) make a checklist of management tasks every morning, and check them off over the course of the day. Direct interaction with other people is a contact sport that can turn on a dime, but it’s possible to sit alone in a room and decompose tasks, groom your backlog, write status reports, or think through risks to a project. There are plenty of books that will teach you how to do this stuff, and while they aren’t always easy or fun, they make up a manager’s basic skill set.

Next are the people skills, or emotional intelligence. Presenting in front of groups, giving your team members feedback, getting them to open up, learning to listen – sometimes it’s about being quick on your feet, sizing up a situation, and understanding what an individual or a group needs to get back on track. Sometimes it’s about self-control, not blowing up or freezing up, knowing how to apologize, and how to throw away the angry, defensive first drafts of an email. It’s knowing that you’ll never be a part of the team in the same way as your directs, and helping it to gel while being OK with standing apart from people you genuinely like and respect – but whom you have to direct, and nudge, and whose livelihoods are ultimately directly tied to your decisions and judgments. The stakes are higher here, since one bad interaction can be enough to demoralize your team and cause people to quit.

Last is politics, or more appropriately, organizational intelligence. Of course we’ve all read Dilbert and watched Office Space, but this isn’t about TPS reports, pointy hair, and pressuring people to come in over the weekend. It’s about how you get things done in a dynamic system with limited resources. How to manage up, how to work effectively with business counterparts. How and when to communicate, how to build relationships throughout the organization, and how to manage conflict without damaging those relationships. Knowing when to fight for a person or initiative, knowing when it’s a fight you can’t win, knowing when you should fight anyway. Keeping focus on your team’s priorities, while not taking your eye off the larger organizational goals. Sometimes you need to hit a sacrifice bunt to get a runner into scoring position, and sometimes you should volunteer your best resources to another team to keep important initiatives on track.

It can feel like some people are natural experts at all of this, but no one’s born this way. It isn’t normal to be able to do all of these all the time, and it’s easy to screw up and revert to an instinctive response in a moment of distraction or stress. Successful managers read management books, take classes, and have had a tremendous amount of feedback over their careers, including 360º reviews, mentoring, personality profiles like DiSC and MBTI, and coaching. And, of course, the most important feedback – the many, many mistakes made along the way. The good news is that most of this is learnable, if only through practicing, screwing up in different ways, and doing better next time.

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