Compiling Leadership

15 years of building, leading, and managing; failures and successes

22 Dec 2019

Scaling by Giving Up Control

Every great engineer turned manager discovers she’s donned a set of bulky but powerful gloves. These gloves allow her to move much bigger rocks than before but hinder her ability to tinker with the fine details. She will struggle wearing these new gloves because until now she enjoyed and excelled at dealing with fine details. In order to succeed, the great engineer turned manager must remove herself from critical design and implementation paths. In this way she empowers her team to succeed.

Often the first hurdle comes during the software design process. In the past this time allowed her creativity and abstract problem solving. In the past she could think out loud, be self deprecating, and verbally spar with others on her team. In the past, the team had a level of equality.

Now, she finds her voice has weight. Now, whenever she presents a contrary view point her team quickly finds the truth in her logic. Now, when she thinks out loud, her team takes her words as directives. Now, instead of laughing and bonding with her, the self deprecating jokes prompt pity and discomfort from her team. Now, instead of equality between them there exists a power dynamic.

Her leadership have endowed her a responsibility to drive the business. She must sometimes make the hard choice to take on technical debt in order to meet a deadline. She must sometimes choose the simple and boring solution over the new to reduce risk. She must sometimes kill in progress projects, even when she knows it will sadden her team.

She must view her team’s projects as a portfolio. Some projects succeed while others fail. Some projects get hacked together while others are crafted beautifully. Some projects get halted before they see the light of day.

A great engineer makes a great manager because she can apply problem solving to her portfolio. She can understand the business objectives and work backward to how her projects will drive them. She can understand the vast number of variables involved with timelines. She can understand that most problems do not have a right answer, only one that predicts the best outcomes given all current data. She can do all of this while explaining to her team why and how she makes her choices.

If she instead chooses to solve all of her portfolio’s problems herself, she will fail. Her abilities will not scale as she has limited brain power and an unlimited number of problems to solve. Her abilities will serve her worse than the sum of her team’s abilities; her team will see her as capable and opt to not take the initiative she needs them to. Her abilities, while strong, will not help her team grow, and her team will stop desiring to succeed and eventually leave.

But instead of stumbling on this hurdle, she can use her gloves to move mountains. She can use her gloves to answer the call from leadership and push the business forward. She can use her gloves to empower her team as she punches through obstacles. She can use her gloves to orchestrate her team and help them achieve their results.

NOTE: This essay was published in 97 Things Every Manager Should Know in December, 2019.

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