Nine months ago, I became a people manager for my team of privacy engineers here at Google. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to be a manager. As it turns out, there are some things that aren’t necessarily obvious when you step into a management role for the first time. Here are a few of the biggest lessons I’ve learned firsthand.
It’s Okay Not To Know Everything
Before I became a manager, I felt pretty secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t my job to know everything. I had my own areas of focus and could rely on others to deal with things outside my own scope. But once I became a manager, I felt much less sure about this conviction. Were my reports going to expect me to know everything I’d earlier considered beyond my scope?
Fortunately, they didn’t. I’ve started to take a broader view of what’s going on in my own engineering organization, but that still doesn’t mean I need to know everything myself. Instead I’ve focused on knowing the people who know things. My team knows that they can bring questions to me, and I’ll get them an answer or point them to somebody who can.
Never Hesitate To Lean On Your Peers
Advancing as an individual team member usually means doing the same stuff at an ever-increasing scale, bit by gradual bit. Becoming a manager isn’t like that. You’re more or less dropped into the deep end. Suddenly, there are lots of things you’ve never had to do anything remotely similar to before. But I found that my fellow managers were an invaluable resource for getting myself up to speed—as long as I was willing to ask.
I’ve had run-ins with imposter syndrome before, and being a woman in a male-dominated industry hasn’t always helped. Coping with that required convincing myself I could “fake it ’til I make it” (in retrospect, I had definitely already “made it”—it just didn’t feel that way at the time). As a manager, I wasn’t willing to employ the same strategy—the stakes were too high. My overriding need to “get it right” helped me to just ask those “stupid” questions. I’m glad I did.
Listen More, Not Less
After becoming a manager, you might expect others to spend more time listening to you. My experience so far is that the best results come from doing the exact opposite: spending more time listening to others. I try to spend as much time possible in my one-on-ones, listening to what my team members have to tell me. Meanwhile I try to keep my own feedback and advice to them as concise as I can.
The single most insightful concept I picked up during Google’s training for new managers was how to be an effective coach. One non-obvious key to getting that right, I learned, is letting the person you’re coaching discover their own answers. That takes a lot of active listening and very little speaking. In the past few months, I’ve gotten a lot better at resisting the strong temptation to just tell someone what they should do, and I’ve already seen how it pays off in the long run by helping others sharpen their own instincts and become more self-guided.
Don’t (Just) Be A “Crap Umbrella”
I’ve heard effective managers described as “crap umbrellas,” shielding their team members from the stuff that prevents them from doing useful work. The best managers I’ve ever had were extremely effective at shielding me from crap, so that made a lot of sense when I heard it. The thing that truly made them great, though, was that they didn’t just put up a brick wall. They made sure to keep me involved in the important parts of whatever we were working on together, while filtering out the distractions.
Now that I’m a manager, I try hard to do the same. Listening to my team members helps me figure out where they do and don’t want to be involved. That way I can be an effective shield for my team without isolating them from the larger organization.
Look For Small Ways To Lend Support—Before You’re Asked To
Finally, I’ve learned quickly how to be more proactive in the way I offer support. Instead of waiting for my team members to ask me for something, I try to anticipate what they need to know. This isn’t limited to strictly work-focused needs, either—it also extends to emotional support and quality-of-life issues. During a particularly stressful week for the LGBT community a while back, my own manager proactively reaching out with a word of sympathy meant the world to me. I knew I wanted to try and do the same for my own team once I became a manager.
Even small gestures, like asking a new report if they have any dietary requirements before planning a team lunch, can go a long way in building psychological safety. In fact, Google’s re:Work effort identified psychological safety as the foundation on which all other qualities of high-performing teams are built. So simple gestures like these are deceptively powerful opportunities I’ve tried to take advantage of wherever I can.
I’ve found out firsthand how important it is for new managers to continue to learn and grow. When you’re in charge of a group of other people, you’re a force-multiplier for your team; every way you yourself can improve has a disproportionate overall benefit. That responsibility can be a bit scary, but seeing your team succeed is incredibly satisfying. I’m glad I took the leap.
Amber Yust is a privacy engineering manager at Google.