So, you want to be a manager

So, you want to be a manager?

In developing talent within an organization, there are times where an individual contributor , often one that has excelled as an engineer, may be interested in becoming a manager.

Naturally, we want our employees to develop and grow and explore unknowns in their careers, and we want them to set them up for success in whatever new endeavors they explore. Even if it turns out not to be for  them, there are usually lot of valuable lesson the walk away with.

If someone wants to move from engineering into management, it helps to ensure they aren’t doing this because they feel this is the path to upward mobility – there are others. They should also not feel this is a less challenging job – quite the opposite, they should be inspired by the complexities and uncertainties of helping diverse groups of humans navigate and conquer the complexities of systems for the business.

As a manager, they will have the responsibility and privilege to have a broader impact by motivating, growing and helping the individuals on their teams add more value to the business while feeling inspired in their work.

Here’s the first “trick” to test their resolve: tell them they should try before they buy and that you’ll choose management tasks they can take on to see if they like it and could succeed. In order to succeed, they need to devote some time to the chosen task and hence let go of some of their engineering work.

So, have them think over the weekend about all the things they do and which ones they’d like to let go to take on a management task and what they absolutely want to hold on to. On the following Monday, ask them what it was they decided they absolutely didn’t want to let go, and then tell them, that is what you’re asking them to let go. Yeah, that’s their first disappointment as a manager.

Now, tell them why: to succeed as a manager, you need to think more about making others successful than making yourself successful. If you were to give your least favorite task to another engineer, how engaged will they be and how engaged will you be in helping them? Presumably, something you really didn’t want to let go of, is something pretty cool to work on, something your passionate about, and something, as your baby, you’d hate to see fail is something you’ll be motivated to help someone else succeed at and something they’ll be excited to take on.

Also, this is your first opportunity to discover if you can find a passion for making someone else successful that exceeds your passion for doing it yourself. Here is one point where you might discover management is not as appealing to yours you first thought.

The other advantage of trial tasks, is that it’s much less painful than to put someone in the role of “acting manager” – if that doesn’t work out, it’s often tricky to step back out of that role. Basically, it’s better for someone interested in becoming a manager to try before they buy and first take on some managerial tasks. It could be project managing a project, coming up with a budget for the next quarter or year, mentor someone, … This allows them to learn on the job.

Note, there is value in making the first trial task/project an exciting and enticing one; however, after that, there is certainly also value in handing off a couple of mundane or rote tasks to ensure the manager to be appreciates that, as with most any job, there can also be things that are less appealing.

People Management: OK, so let’s say you succeed at a few tasks and tests thrown your way and you’re ready to try people management. It’s not ideal to use existing employees as guinea pigs for your fantasies of becoming a people manager – that may not be a nice thing to do to them. It’s less impactful to learn people management with interns. You need to commit to sticking with it through the internship. The interns gain the experience with a single manager for their internship. A good internship is also something that encompasses a project from concept to completion – another good experience opportunity for a fledgling manager,. If you take this on, you should have two primary objectives:

  1. At the end of the internship, the intern(s) should have so enjoyed their internship that they would be very excited about the prospect of coming back. You should leave them with this desire regardless of how they fare. A good experience for a great intern will help sway them to return and a good experience for a less than stellar intern allows them to return to school saying good things about your company.
  2. At the end of the internship, you must be able to tell me definitively whether or not we should make each intern an offer to return as a full-time employee. This may not sound so daunting at first, but I also tell you that if they do come back and don’t succeed, it won’t reflect so well on your ability to assess their abilities. Much more importantly though, I will make it clear to you what burden of responsibility this places on you. Imagine a college grad all excited about their first job (if you did your job well in 1. above). You may have to disappoint them and let them know you won’t be extending an offer.
    Conversely, if you do extend an offer, it may be a job they have to move a great distance to start. It may be a job that they excitedly tell all their friends and family about. It is their first real job in the real world. Now imagine they don’t succeed and you have to let them go. What did you just do to that human? What impact did you just have on them in their very first real job and start in life and how they will be viewed by friends and family? Imagine now that they end up in a strange city with few, if any, friends outside of work. Yeah, not such a great thing to feel you’ve just done to another human.
    Being a manager comes with tremendous responsibility that can feel like a real burden. If you feel inclined to keep them on despite their struggles after returning as a full-time employee, this too is not a great experience for them or their colleagues or the business.
    If you don’t want to have to bear the burden of such responsibilities, then perhaps management is not the right career choice for you. Alternatively, if such decisions don’t phase you and don’t seem like they could feel like a burden of responsibility, then I’d argue, management is also not a good choice for you.

There are many other factors that influence whether you’d make a good or great manager and whether you discover a passion for it. I enjoy helping people succeed that chose this path, but it starts with helping them discover whether this is even the right path for them. It’s not the ideal path for everyone.

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