avatarSivan Hermon

Summary

The article advises caution for those considering a transition into management, emphasizing that not everyone is suited for the role and that the desire for a managerial title should be driven by the right motivations, such as a passion for helping others improve.

Abstract

The author shares insights on the challenges and misconceptions of becoming a manager, highlighting that many people may not be suited for the role despite the common allure of increased influence and decision-making power. The article suggests that effective management often goes unnoticed and that the job is not about commanding respect but rather about inspiring and enabling a team to succeed. It also warns against taking on a managerial role as a temporary experiment, as it can be difficult to step down from a position of perceived prestige. The author provides criteria for who might be a good fit for management, stressing the importance of deriving joy from helping people and making things better, and concludes by offering guidance for those considering such a career move.

Opinions

  • Management is often an underappreciated role where exceptional performance may not be recognized.
  • Transitioning into management for reasons such as mixing things up or because one is contemplating a team change may not be the right motivation.
  • Influence without authority is a prerequisite for effective management; a title does not automatically confer the ability to lead.
  • The decision to become a manager should not be taken lightly or seen as a temporary experiment due to the difficulty in reverting to an individual contributor role.
  • A good manager finds satisfaction in the growth and success of their team and acts as a facilitator rather than a commander.
  • Self-awareness and continuous development of leadership skills are crucial for successful management.
  • The article's author discourages taking on a managerial role without genuine interest in the domain and team, especially in challenging environments with unmotivated peers and absent higher management.

Starting with No: Why Most People Shouldn’t Be Managers

Why the desired title won’t give you what you’re looking for

Being offered a management role or considering it is a common crossroads in many careers. I recently coached an engineer who shared:

“My manager offered me a lead role. I’ve been thinking about leaving the team and finding a new role, but I think I’ll take it!”

My strong stance on who should and shouldn’t be a manager kicked in. My first reaction when someone tells me they want to be a manager is to test their motivation, so I asked him why he wanted to take that role. Here’s what he said:

  • I want to mix things up. Coding all day long is stale.
  • I want to have more influence.
  • I want to be one of the decision-makers.
  • Considering I was already contemplating a team change, stepping into management seemed like a low-risk shift.

Reflecting on my career, I recall forming a strong opinion on who should be a manager when I reported to an ineffective and unmotivated manager (read the origins story). Throughout my experience, I have witnessed people transition into managerial roles and observed both successful and unsuccessful managerial styles. I also heard people express their motivation for taking on a bigger role, and here’s what I learned.

A thankless job

Many years ago, a PM I worked with offered this “ah ha” moment. Management is a role where even exceptional performance may go unnoticed or unappreciated. Most people will notice a bad managerial job but completely miss great management skills. It’s analogous to site/system reliability work. When the system functions well — without outages or latency spikes — no one will say

“hey, good job! Nothing happened, praise to you!”

It is the type of work where positive results are not necessarily visible or recognized, as they are considered to be the norm. There are ways, of course, to showcase your work, but usually, you will have to tell your story, or if you have a great manager, they will notice the work.

If you manage people well, they will be content, leading to growth, success, and progress, and therefore, there will be little need for critical analysis.

Many humans focus more on problem-solving than on analyzing underlying reasons for success. We’re just trained this way. So when something is off, they’ll investigate, but if everything is good they won’t.

If you're looking for a job where your efforts will be visibly appreciated, this might not be the right role for you.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

It’s not 100% bad, there will be some, rare, few and far between, magical moments where someone notices your hard work and effort. My first such moment came when my team and I parted ways. I took on a new role at the same company, and my team moved to another org in one unit. The engineer who also doubled as our scrum master, reporting to me, took the manager role. A few weeks after they transferred, we met, and he said:

“You know, I didn’t realize all the helpful things you did for us.”

This was a memorable “thank you” moment.

Over time I experienced more moments of praise. A report who knew me better than others even left me a sticky note once with

“you’re doing great”

on it. I store these moments deep inside my memory. I then pull them out to indulge in them in my darkest, hardest managerial moments.

Getting the title will only make your problems bigger

Many people think that if they can’t influence or drive followership, getting a manager title will solve that. In reality, if you struggle to influence your team without authority, you’ll continue to struggle even with it.

While a title and formal authority give you some advantage, that advantage is small and short-lived if you can’t figure out how to motivate, inspire and convince your reports.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

I wrote about this misconception in prior pieces. Commanding smart, capable, educated people or motivating them using threats and fear doesn’t hold water. Leading talented humans requires inspiring them, partnering with them in understanding the problem, designing the solution, and motivating them.

Now, if you can’t influence people as their peers, that might be frustrating, but you can still usually do your job, and no harm is done. However, if you are the formal manager of the team, and you can’t influence them to do what the company needs, now you are failing in your primary job.

Most of the companies I worked for took a “promote from the rear” approach, which meant that people should be promoted for roles they already demonstrated they could do. In this case, if you showcase that you can lead and do 70–80% of the manager role, then you will get that desired promotion.

So… what should you do if you want people to listen to you? There is no easy way here… you will have to build those leadership skills. There are many ways to do that, and I’m happy to share my experience. Drop me a note in the comments section. If demand is out there, I’ll write a practical guide to developing those skills.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The problem with trying out a manager’s role

Many people think,

“Oh well, let me just try it out. If I don’t like being a manager, I can always go back to being an individual contributor.”

Heck, some managers trying to convince you to take the role might even suggest it. What’s wrong with that, you might ask?

I’m generally very, very pro experimenting and trying things out. In this case, however, the experience taught me that it is very, very hard for people to give up on what they consider a prestigious title and position.

In reality, once you get that new fancy title and position of power, even if you recognize your job satisfaction is hurt and the people under you share that feeling, it’s very hard to admit and take a perceived demotion.

So, I’d discourage people in my organization from testing out a managerial role unless I’m convinced they are genuinely willing to revert to their previous position.

So, who should be a manager?

Here are some signs that you might be a good fit to be a manager:

  • A good day at work is when you help someone get better at something.
  • You take joy in uplifting others.
  • You feel guilty when the team fails.
  • You feel happy when the team succeeds.
  • You keep thinking about ways to help the team and individuals improve their skills and capabilities.
  • People follow your leadership and respond well to your ideas. It doesn’t have to be constantly; you’ll get better, but some signal is good.
  • You act as the gel between people.
  • You have ideas and the desire to make processes better.

Being a manager is such a big responsibility, your work impacts people’s livelihood, ambitions and job satisfaction. You are between “the company” and “the people”. And you’ll rarely get a thank you from any side. So if you don’t derive joy from helping people and making things better, you will be very unhappy, and so will the people reporting to you.

There are so many mediocre and bad managers out there; don’t make it worse; find your other calling.

The Rewards of People Leadership

Despite its many challenges, management can be incredibly rewarding when the will and skill are present. Meaning that the motivation for the role is right, and a sufficient amount of the skills are there. Successful leaders witness their team’s growth, contribute significantly to project success, and enjoy the satisfaction of mentoring others. If you are a parent, you’ll find many analogies in both the challenges and the rewards.

Still, want to be a manager? Start with this.

One of the things that stuck with me from the first course I took at Columbia Business School was this:

Great leaders are self aware. They understand their strengths and weaknesses and work to improve those or surround themselves with people who compliment them.”

Start with self-awareness, perhaps collect 360 degrees of feedback from peers about your leadership, influence and organizational skills. It will inform how others experience you and where you need to develop and grow.

Common managerial skills to develop are a growth mindset, empathy, communication, and strategic thinking. Seek mentorship from reputable leaders and observe how good leaders behave and how bad leaders behave.

So What Did I Advise Him?

Going back to the chat with the engineer I coach, what I heard in his answers led me to discourage him from taking on the manager role. His answers hinted at challenges with influencing without authority and the wrong motivators for the job.

To top it all, the fact that he was considering leaving the team was a red flag. Becoming your peers’ manager is hard enough. If you are not excited about the domain and the work, you are unlikely to excel. He also shared that several of his peers are unmotivated and his manager is fairly absent. That setup sounded like a very harsh environment for a new manager.

If you take on a role as a new manager, you want as many of the stars to align to increase your chances of succeeding and of getting support. Sure, some of us will succeed despite the challenging environment, but when possible, ensure the setup is nurturing for a new manager.

Contemplating a managerial role and looking for guidance? Reach out, I’d love to chat. I coach and mentor business and engineering leaders who want to be the best and most impactful leaders.

Leadership
Management
Career Advice
Technology
Women In Tech
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