Almost two years ago, I fell into becoming a manager.
In my past career, I never thought that this would happen. Most of my life I’ve been a maker: working as an engineer, solving technical problems and building apps, products, or just circuit boards.
People management was a huge change. I learned a lot of things the hard way through trial and error, success and failure–but also by reading a lot: books about management, stories about teams and culture, and articles by others who went through the same transition from maker to manager as I did.
I thought I’d take the chance to return the favor by writing about the five things that helped me transition from maker to manager, and to level up and grow into my management position.
1. Say goodbye to your work and say hello to your team
I know this is a really tricky one: to stop doing what you’ve been doing for the past several years, and what also ultimately got you to this point in your career.
Here’s the perspective that I needed to embrace: Becoming a manager is not a promotion, it is a career change.
Viewing it this way, change is normalized. In my case, I realized that, after a while, coding became a distraction for me. At the beginning of this shift, I was still shipping features and bug fixes while also doing one-to-ones with the team on a weekly basis. I couldn’t fully concentrate on one or the other, and that resulted in me doing a bad job in both areas. Both areas are important, but you have to choose one. In my case, I chose the team, and not the code.
As a manager you need to put the company first, your team second, and your team members last.
Now this may sound harsh, but in practice, it leads to the best outcomes for everyone involved. For example, let’s say you mixed up the order of these priorities: You put team members first and the company last. You could easily find yourself with an amazing team, building something that doesn’t move the needle in any way for the company. Or worse, you could end up with a group of empowered individuals, each going off on their own way and not producing much valuable work.
It is incredibly important for you as a manager to understand the higher-level vision of your company. You need to know where the ship needs to sail. Only then can you help your team get there and help them grow in the right direction.
2. Own your education
This one is probably pretty straightforward and could be said about any role or any job. But it is still worth mentioning, especially in a career shift similar to mine, going from maker to manager.
I always use this quote from Albert Einstein to highlight how important learning is for us humans (just replace “moving” with “learning”):
Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance you must keep moving.
The main thing I did in my first few weeks and months was to read, read, read. I needed to learn what management actually is. What are some effective management styles? How do I facilitate great one-to-ones? How can I be a great manager without ending up micro-managing everything?
I learned how important it is to be open and honest, and to build trust in my team, and to encourage discussions.
I learned more about everyone in my team, what they like and don’t like. What is their work style? Do they flourish in chaotic situations or dread them? All these details are important to understand, to help each individual grow and perform at their best.
I learned about the different processes we had or were missing at Buffer. Your job as a manager is to make the life of your team easier and to move obstacles out of their way. So knowing how things are done and where you can improve them is highly important.
Here are a couple of books I would encourage everyone to read, who leads a team or manages one:
Managing Humans by Michael Loop
Really insightful for first-time managers, and learning what’s it’s all about, and foremost, learn that it is all about humans.
The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier
Awesome overview of the what roles an engineering team normally has, and what the expectations in those job might be.
The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
I would call this my favorite book when it comes to building great teams. Although it is written in a fable style, it is so insightful, and so resourceful! Really recommend this to everyone who works in a team.
3. Build Your Megazord
If you grew up in the ’90s or know the Power Rangers, the Megazord is the big robot they create together when they need to fight a bigger, more powerful enemy. They could never fight an enemy that big alone, so they come together and form this huge, invincible machine.
We all know that the sum is always bigger than the parts. It’s true for Power Rangers. It’s true for management. In other words, as you’re making the transition from maker to manager, it’s vital that you create a support network.
Find people who will push you out of your comfort zone and show you a new way of doing things. Surround yourself with people from different backgrounds and with different experiences. Find psychologists, design leaders, or even a kitchen chef. Understanding how others approach problems or find solutions is so key in broadening your horizon.
And there was even an easy way for me to do so. I signed up to two Slack Communities at the beginning of my transition. Just by learning how others approach those things or learning that bigger companies or more experienced leaders still struggle with similar problems was super helpful to me.
4. Don’t do it all
This fourth point is something I just discovered recently, and it opened my mind. We all know that delegation becomes more important the more people you might lead or the more work you have on your hands.
Delegating sounds easy, right? I just tell everyone what to do!
Well I thought so, too, but I discovered that it is not easy, and that it requires active work to do delegation the right way.
I thought I was doing great in my job, everything was going well, then I discovered this article by Camille Fournier: When Being “Helpful” Is Actually Hurting. (Notice the airquotes around “helpful.”)
This article opened my eyes! I wasn’t doing bad, but there were a lot of improvements I took from this article. The biggest learning, which I have written in front of me on a sticky-note at my desk, is:
I need to stop taking over work in the name of helpfulness.
For instance, if you tell someone on your team that you want to look over all the proposals and be the last one to have a say in something, you limit their growth.
As soon as I understood that, I felt bad. Here I was, thinking I was helping. But essentially when I took over someone’s work or helped them out, I was blocking my team from growing!
5. Being productive in a different way
Last but not least is something almost everyone changing jobs has to cope with.
When you work as a maker/engineer, your output is easily measurable. You know what you are doing, and you have something to show at the end of a day. Either something written, something working in your app or your website, or even something you can touch. You can say to yourself–“Nice, I did something today, I was productive.”
Here is a quick comparison of what I used as a productivity indicator when I was an engineer:
But now as a manager all I had was this:
As you can see in the screenshot above, your calendar automatically fills up, and at the end of a day, you have meetings to show, not features, bug fixes, blog posts, etc. This was pretty hard for me, I didn’t know if I was productive in a day or not. I had nothing to measure it with until I realized that my job now is to make the team work, to chat to people and resolve problems, and help the team to flourish. If the impact of your work as a manager is not immediately visible, it’ll play out over the long run.