What 18 Year Olds Taught Me About Management

[Ed. note: I wrote this for a Hobsons internal thing for the “People Leader” group, when asked to write on the topic of motivation and employee engagement. I think it sort of rambles around those topics, so I decided to post it here as well.]

It was just after the fourth year in a row that I worked myself to the point of pneumonia that I realized I needed to change. In my case, that change was to figure out a way to trust my teams to do what needed to be done, instead of sitting around visibly freaking out about process and progress, and deadlines and deliverables, to the point where I said “the heck with this, I’m just going to do it myself.” It took an embarrassingly long time (years and years) for me to learn that I was not, in fact, five people. Sometimes I can be the dumbest smart person I know.

Embarking upon that type of change was the hardest part of learning to be a decent manager. Strategic thinking, not so hard. Budgets and forecasts, not so hard. Hiring and firing, not so hard (although one is definitely easier than the other, and I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which is which). I’m still working on it all, several years on from my switch from an individual contributor to a manager, not only because change is hard but because trust is hard.

That’s what team autonomy and empowerment are really all about: trust. Ok, and outcomes, but mostly trust:

  • Does the company trust that its departments are aligned and working toward the company’s overall strategic (and tactical) goals?
  • Does each department head trust their managers to lead their teams to success?
  • Does each manager trust each person on their teams to perform in their roles to the best of their ability? Is that ability good enough?
  • Does each person on each team trust each other to own an equal stake in moving the team forward every day?

So it goes—any one of those levels in the hierarchy can say that the department/team/individual is empowered and autonomous in their work (“Just do what you have to do to get this important thing done in whatever way you think is best!”) but do they really mean it? Does the company (or department head, or manager, or team lead) mean “Just do what you have to do to get this really important thing but only if you’re done on this exact day and you’ve done it in this exact way”? If so, that’s not autonomy and that’s not empowerment—it’s command and control and it’s a painful way to Get. Things. Done.

I started to change when I realized three major tenets of command and control management were, in fact, total bunk:

  • Leaders know best.
  • Perfect adherence to a predetermined plan is required for success.
  • People aren’t naturally inclined to cooperate.

Ironically, I realized the error of my ways after I quit working in business and went off to be a teacher. I first had to learn to be a teacher, and in doing so I realized I preferred the “guide on the side” style of teaching to the “sage on the stage” style, so that is what I tried to do when I was let loose in a classroom of my own. It seemed to work out pretty well:

  • My students taught me things (leaders do not always know best).
  • Every day I wrote out a lesson plan and lecture notes and every day I threw them out five minutes into the class and went with where the class took the material.
  • With extremely rare exception, everyone did their work and achieved competency (if not mastery) of the subject at hand.

I won teaching awards. My students won academic awards. I didn’t do a darn thing special except have a general plan and guide the students toward it in whatever social constructivist way worked for them.

So, when I returned to the business world and to managing software developers, I was determined not to forget the lessons that these students taught me; I figured if I could trust 18 year olds to do what they needed to do to move forward in their academic careers, I might want to start trusting adults to do the same when their livelihoods were on the line.

That brings us back to the original issue: trust. I’m not going to lie—it’s a daily struggle. But here are a few of the reminders that I run through in my own head every day as I try to keep folks moving forward without dragging them along by some specially forged nose ring down a well-worn path:

  • Everyone is a chaotic beautiful snowflake.1 Instead of trying to mold people into something they aren’t, understand each person and their capabilities; if their capabilities will help us get to our overall goals, listen to them tell you how to use them and then put them into action.
  • Once you hire a smart person, leave them alone to apply their skills to do their work. If you can’t leave them alone, either you hired the wrong person (they don’t have the skills) or you haven’t learned to let go. Find the balance between advising and commanding.
  • Ask yourself: can you really do X, Y, or Z better and faster than the person on your team who is struggling a bit? If so (it’s possible!), can you do it better and faster while also completing your own work and while teaching them so that they can do it without struggling the next time? If not, then you’re just perpetuating a bad cycle.
  • Stop. Go home. Get some sleep.
  1. Let us not underestimate the impact that Rands has had on my career.
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