I decided a long time ago that I never wanted to be in charge of people. No matter how many times I had the opportunity to move into a role with “manager” in the title, or was encouraged to take on more “managerial” responsibilities – I always hesitated. After all, I’m an engineer, and I’ve always been more interested in refining my own skills than managing my teammates. (Plus, “bearer of bad news” was never a line I wanted to add to my list of daily responsibilities.)
Spend just a few minutes browsing Medium, and you’ll find many authors who feel the same way: not every great engineer needs to become a manager. (Fortunately, we give engineers the choice at RV. That’s why we have tracks both for Managers and Principals.) For the majority of my career, I placed myself squarely in the ‘Principals’ camp. Until one opportunity changed everything.
It all started when my team’s engineering manager announced that he was going to be out of the office for six weeks. (Here at Red Ventures, we move fast – six weeks may as well be six months!) After the announcement, he approached me and asked if I’d take over and lead the team while he was gone. At the time, I was trying really hard to prove my value. Our midyear review process was in full swing, and I felt ready for a new level of responsibility. So, I said ‘yes.’
Here are three things I learned when I stepped into his shoes:
Lesson 1: Know your unknowns – and do the work to change them.
One of the first things I realized when I stepped into this role was that upper management has a vested interest in helping less senior managers succeed. Suddenly, I found myself having 1:1 meetings with Directors from all different parts of the business. Not only was I making new connections and learning a ton about how my team fits into the bigger picture at Red Ventures… I realized that there were many “unknowns” I didn’t even know I was missing.
One of those 1:1 conversations was particularly game-changing. After talking for a while, we came to the conclusion that I didn’t exactly know what my manager’s primary job functions were. (Spoiler: I was about to find out – and almost all of my assumptions were wrong.)
Lesson 2: Good managers put their people first.
Like I mentioned, before taking on my manager’s role, I didn’t have a solid grasp on what my manager really did. So, I didn’t have many expectations for how his work directly impacted me. I viewed him as the “firewall” between the analysts who come up with new features to add to our products and the engineers on my team who actually build those features. I expected that my manager spent the majority of his time discussing requirements, priorities, and the expected level of effort in certain feature tasks with those business teams. In reality, that was just the beginning.
As the team’s interim engineering manager, I learned that a manager’s first responsibility is to the people they are directly managing.
A good manager takes the time to understand each of their direct reports’ career goals – and actively helps them develop the skills they’ll need to achieve those goals.
Lesson 3: Open communication is key.
After my manager came back from his six weeks of leave, I told him about my experience as the interim manager of our team. We talked about how things started out, and how my responsibilities evolved over the six weeks. But we spent the majority of this debrief discussing the biggest lesson I learned: that a manager’s highest priority is helping his/her direct reports grow.
Ironically, this was the first time I’d ever sat down and talked specifically about the importance of open communication my own manager. Over the last six weeks, I’d seen firsthand that it’s absolutely critical to give every person on your team an open line of communication. After all, your manager can’t help you achieve your full potential without knowing your motivations and concerns.
Your manager is the person who will go to bat for you when a new opportunity arises.
They understand the company’s larger strategy, as well as the requirements/needs/dynamics of their businesses. They have the context and perspective to help their direct reports create a realistic plan of action – whether you are working toward a promotion, role change, or something entirely different. Bottom line: your manager has the ability to both identify areas for opportunities and provide clear paths to overcome challenges.
In closing – never say never.
My goal for this article is to reach individuals who want to take control of their careers and drive their own personal development forward. By stepping into a temporary “manager” role, I learned the importance of saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity – even if it takes you down a path you’d never imagined for yourself.
After all, regardless of how long you stay in a certain role, you’re sure to learn something invaluable along the way.