Being a manager the art of making yourself dispensable
If there is a constant in my career is that I have always been on a mission to train people. From my first year as a Software Developer where I supervised an intern, passing through a very intense 2 months experience in India where I had to couch an entire team on a new product (while drinking way too much delicious tea), to my actual position as an Engineering Manager in Cabify for the QA team where I constantly strive to grow our team’s skill set. Maybe that is the consequence of the career path I chose: QA is a ‘unicorn’ profile; you need to be as good in the technical aspect as in the communication and business skills. Finding a unicorn is never easy, so training people to become one seems to be the best solution most of the time.
1. Working with people should be your priority
It is not uncommon to see technical managers struggling with the fact that they do not have much time to be ‘productive’. But the thing is, working on the team wellbeing is highly productive in the long term. You might not be writing so many lines of code, but you will enable people to be the most productive version of themselves. When becoming a manager, your priorities should shift: your people need to know that they will always find an open door to discuss with you and face together the challenges. You should enjoy dealing with people and if you find the time to still write some code or integrate some new feature: good for you! But that is not the priority anymore.
2. Listen and understand
There are plenty of ways to get to know your team : coffee time, 1–1’s, meetings, some drinks after work, etc. The important thing is that you need to listen to your team to understand every person individually. We are all so different; we do not learn the same way; we do not get motivated by the same tasks; we do not like to receive feedback in the same manner. Getting to know your team and their professional trajectory or projection will save you a lot of headaches and misunderstandings. To be able to help people grow, there is a need for trust and proximity: your team needs to know that it is safe to be themselves around you. And this is only possible if you create meaningful bonds with them. So get to know your team!
3. Be flexible
This is only the consequence of my previous point: as we are all different, you cannot manage people the same way. There is no magic predefined solution that will make you be successful in helping people to reach their full potential. I learnt this the hard way: when I was first assigned the task of mentoring an intern, I assumed that she was just like me. I like to be independent and seek for my own path. So I based my interaction with her on the same principles: leaving her a lot of independence and expecting her to need very few inputs. After 1 month I ended up with a crying intern that had no idea which steps to take to reach the objectives. You cannot treat all the team members the same way, we all need different attention. That is not unfair, it is just the way humans work. To solve my ‘intern situation’, first, I acknowledge my mistake by telling her that I should have recognized her need for more guidance. In addition, I asked her to be more open about her struggles in the future and to give me feedback sooner so we do not reach the drama point. Finally, I schedule a weekly status meeting with her, setting objectives for next week so she would have clear goals and steps to follow. These actions improved our relationship and her work and there were no more crying involved.
One of many possibilities to give every person the dedicated attention she/he needs would be to use the 1–1’s to understand what are the strengths, the goals of this person. For example, if you detect that a contributor could benefit from taking more responsibilities in the team, you could give her/him the ownership of a project. If someone wants to learn more about usability in the application, you could ask her/ him to find synergy between the user experience team and the testing one. You need to understand the person’s motivation and be able to provide trainings and tasks that will get her/ him closer to the goal.
4. Trust your people
There is nothing more demotivating, in my opinion, that a controlling manager. For a person to grow, she/he needs to have space to do so. If you review every step of the process, change every word in a document, ask for constant updates you will only suffocate people. Sure, you need to be present and attentive to the moment when you need to step in; but let your people do their own thing. Of course, they might fail from time to time, just as you. But there is a lot of learning along the way of a failure. To be able to give the best of themselves, your team needs to know that you trust them and that if they fall you will help them to correct the mistake and learn from it.
Once again, the 1–1’s is a great moment to build on your relationship with a person. In my opinion, using them only for project status reports is a mistake. Take full advantage of this time to give and receive feedback, talk about mistakes and lessons learned or next objectives for the future. Your conversations should be a safe, secret place where you can mentor and guide a person to reach her/his goals.
5. Appreciate your people
Rewarding someone when they have reached a goal or working hard is key to make them feel appreciated. It is very disappointing to work hard and never receive positive feedback. That might sound cheesy, but people need to feel that they are appreciated. There are plenty of ways to reward a person: vocally express your admiration, trusting her/him with new more senior tasks, a promotion of course is a good way of rewarding, etc. Without a team, there is no need for a manager; you are here because of them and they need to know that you appreciate them. Don’t fall in the trap of pushing the team to achieve a new goal before celebrating the little victories along the way.
6. Admit your mistakes
If you want to create a safe space for your team, you need to start with yourself. You are human, you fail from time to time and it is not a weakness to admit it. Your team will not respect you less because you are not always perfect but they might respect you less if you are always blaming someone else for your mistakes, or if you fail to accept any responsibility. Growing, sometimes, comes with learning from your mistakes. So you should inspire people and encourage them to share examples of failures and ideas for resolution, because they will help everybody to grow both personally and professionally.
7. Stay hungry
I am a true believer in leading by the example. If your team sees you are always seeking for new knowledge; learning some new technologies; they might feel inspired and do the same. You cannot expect to help people to grow if you are not growing yourself. In our sector, everything is moving fast; what I learnt in university 10 years ago (yes, I am old now) is outdated. If you do not update yourself a new wave of challenges and problems will throw you out of your game. Showing an open mind and a desire to constantly learn might inspire people around you to do the same.
8. Be prepared to not be always liked
That is the hardest part as a mentor, a manager. You sometimes need to challenge people to go out of their comfort zone; or to take hard decisions for the good of the team. People sometimes react badly to being said that they should do better, and might not always tell you how awesome you are. But that is ok, personal growth sometimes comes from discomfort and later on they might be glad to have been challenged to pursue a greater goal.
9. Be even prepared to not be recognized
That is also a tricky part of being a manager; you are the worker in the shadows. If your team reaches a goal; they did it, not you. You cannot take credit for it. Sure you have been a facilitator, an enabler, but do not expect someone to tell you: “That was great how you avoid conflicts in your team”. Being a QA and being a manager have this in common: you enable things to happen, you avoid issues. When it feels like you were not needed, is when you did a good job.
A manager’s success should be measured, in my opinion, to her/his ability to be dispensable. When you reach this point, you know that your team is mature and does not need you as much as in the beginning. That might be humbling and frightening but it is also highly rewarding to know that you have been able to leave a positive mark in someone profesional life. From my point of view, the best managers are not the team superstars, but the people that are able to make you shine and take you to the next level in your career.
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