Moving into Management—”I” Becomes “We”

This week’s article is from a guest writer, Craig Utley. Craig’s been a technology leader for a long time, and does a lot of work helping smaller and medium-sized companies get their technological feet under them.

Congratulations! You’re a rock star at work. You’ve been a productive and valuable individual contributor on your team. You solve the complex problems, you understand how things work, and you are the person other people come to for advice and assistance. Your deliverables have been tracked, measured, and approved. For all you have accomplished, you’ve been recognized as a star and are now being promoted into a management position.

Congratulations? All that hard work, dedication, problem solving, and all-around awesomeness you displayed now must be redirected. Not eliminated, but certainly changed. The focus of everything you do has shifted; you are not an individual contributor anymore. You used to be more or less in charge of your own destiny; screw up, and it was your fault. Solve a problem no one else could solve, and you were the hero. Now, your individual performance doesn’t matter as much as the team’s performance. You don’t save the day anymore; your team saves the day.

Having worked with many leaders in my career, I have seen a number that cannot make this shift in perspective. I have worked for some that never gained this new outlook. I once worked with a leader that would squash ideas from those on his team, then go off and do them himself. He still believed that being the hero was the most important part of his job, when letting multiple members of his team be heroes would have been better for both the company and his career.

Understanding and being able to make this change of perspective is critical to delivering the highest value for the organization. You have been promoted because you are good at what you do; you solve problems and you deliver solutions. A company can do a decent job being full of individual contributors that all produce well, but when you have someone exceptional, you want to leverage those skills across multiple people, teams, and departments.

Imagine that you are the most productive person in your area and you have now been promoted to the manager of your group. Your productivity in your previous tasks falls because you have less time to do them, given the additional management responsibilities you have. The company is taking a chance that you can raise the rest of the team up high enough to offset any loss in your previous individual responsibilities. There may not be any individual that is as productive as you used to be, but if you can make everyone slightly better, then you are leveraging your skills across a broader area, and that can benefit everyone.

I once worked at an organization that had a strong developer who had been promoted to an architect role for the entire company. This architect was always heads down in the code; he fixed any bugs that popped up, took day-to-day coding tasks, and so forth. I sat down with him and explained that he needed to let the various development teams fix their own bugs and do their own work; that while he was heads down, I could not leverage his architectural skills across the multiple teams that needed it. While he was a strong individual contributor, he struggled to let go of certain items and understand how his skills could be better applied across multiple teams by leveraging his talents.

Leverage is one of the keys in management; your talents are leveraged across multiple people to improve the total productivity. You help set direction, provide guidance, remove barriers, report progress up the chain, and more. You are no longer being judged by what you accomplish, but by what your team accomplishes. Individual results matter far less than team results.

Many technical people have an especially difficult time making the shift. Most technical people enjoy the logic and predictability of computers; while it can be maddening, computers do exactly what they’re told. Humans, on the other hand, are unpredictable and full of nuance and emotions. Many new technical managers find it is easier to continue working with technology than to deal with the subtleties and uncertainties of humans. Becoming a good manager or leader requires effort. Fortunately, those skills can be learned, though reading, courses, and a willingness to seek help and feedback. Strengthening emotional intelligence is one of the most important things a new manager can do because it helps you see past yourself and more effectively work with others.

In addition, new managers must be able to step back and ask what is best for the company. Individual contributors often seek out what is best for themselves, at least to some degree. As a manager, you are now driving a team to produce efficiently, and with good quality, results that best align to certain business objectives, even if those objectives don’t align directly with your personal objectives. Putting aside the desire to delve deeply into a new area or be the acknowledged expert in something, and instead allow your team to rise to challenges and solve complex business problems, is a critical aspect of being a successful manager.

The idea is simple: you were promoted because you were a great individual contributor, and now you must shift to having your individual contributions become subordinate to the productivity of the team. If this is the same team in which you were previously an individual contributor, you likely are already aware of their strengths and weaknesses. If it’s a new team, identifying strengths means better aligning people to tasks to maximize productivity. Offering guidance in your areas of expertise is important, and learning in areas in which you are relatively weaker is also important. Aligning tasks with the right people on the team goes a long way to improving the overall productivity. Removing barriers, securing additional training, and helping people grow into areas of interest whenever possible will only strengthen the team and help them achieve at a high level. Your job is to help the team be the best it can be not by being heads down and doing the work yourself, but by using all the strengths of the team, including your own, to deliver at the peak of their collective abilities.

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