Why you’re a rubbish manager.

office-spaceI struggled today. The morning was meetings about prioritization and direction. Working to make sure the right decisions are made by the right people – i.e. by the person with the most information. Later though I needed to work on some detailed technical specs and it just wasn’t happening. Am I weak minded? Perhaps, but that wasn’t the issue.

Last year one of our engineers left and by a process of elimination I picked up his job. As such, I have to design and document changes to our markup language which requires a working knowledge of the platform architecture, an abstract XML representation, and mobile browsers. As an engineer I’ve worked on systems like this in the past and I’m comfortable with writing specifications, so what happened?

You can’t look at the big picture and the detail without a massive mental phase shift.

We used to call it wearing two hats. One as a manager, thinking about the business case, the operational issues and the schedule. The other, as an engineer thinking about algorithms, control flow and race conditions.

The problem is that it’s impossible to do both at the same time. I can back this up with empirical evidence. As one of the founders of Mobyjoe I took ownership of the technology. I spent many months writing code, racking servers and performance testing message stacks. And then I looked up and we were so far from the numbers it wasn’t funny. So every day I tried to get on the phone, chase tasks and try to make sure business got closed. At least I wanted to, but I’d come in, work on some gnarly C++ problem and all of a sudden it’s 8pm. Or, I’d spend the morning chatting to prospects, then every time I tried to think about code I couldn’t get in the zone – my mind would wander, the phone would ring or operational issues would cloud my vision.

I finally made the decision to do one or the other every day. In the same way you schedule software tasks, I planned in my management days with my software days. I’ve heard other people running them concurrently, say 11am-6pm business then 8pm – 2am code but that never worked for me. I was either working in my business, or working on my business.

Which brings me back to something I heard from HR this week. When polled, many managers said they didn’t have time to do their “management stuff” as they still had responsibilities from before they were promoted. When push came to shove, they focused on themselves, as if their individual tasks slipped they were yelled at but if their management tasks slipped – hey, just some whining from their direct reports.

Bollocks. If your team is running to their full potential you can achieve more that you ever would on your own isolated island. It’s your job as a manager to pull that team together, help the gel, and drive them to deliver more than they ever imagined.

To paraphrase from before, you’re either working in your team, or working on your team and I know were my priorities lie. People don’t leave companies, they leave managers. If you think managing your team is a secondary priority then you are a rubbish manager. And your team knows it.

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