Management Prospects

Making the leap from individual contributor to management is challenging in the best of circumstances. When I made the transition myself, I honestly felt like I was starting over in my career. I suddenly needed a completely different set of skills to deal with a new set of challenges. It wasn't just a promotion to a new level, consisting of my old job + new responsibilities. Rather, it was more like a lateral move to a different track, for which mastery of my previous role was but one prerequisite to success.

Anyone considering a move into management should go in clear-eyed about this reality. It can be a rewarding career path, but it's not for everyone. This seems particularly salient in my own field -- software development -- where the skills needed to succeed as a developer have relatively little overlap with those of management.

This should also serve as a worthy caution for anyone who is looking to fill a management vacancy internally. It's not just about finding the best/most senior person on the team and putting them in charge; not everyone has the tools or temperament to succeed in management, and swapping your best developer for a mediocre manager is a poor trade, even aside from the effects of having a mediocre manager on the rest of the team.

In the back of my mind, I've always got a just-in-case short list of the people on my teams who are likely to make good managers. Call it a prospects list. People who appear to have the tools necessary to lead others, and ideally have demonstrated leadership in a professional setting. Some examples I've seen:

  • Facilitating effective collaboration between multiple developers working on the same project at the same time.
  • Successfully introducing a new tool/technology, and persuading others to adopt it as well.
  • Defining or improving a process that multiple people/teams use regularly.
  • Regularly advocating for improvements that go beyond improving their individual tasks/working conditions, such as changes that help the rest of the team, or that improve customer experience.

Someone who can do these things without an official title or chain of command backing them up is much more likely to be successful in a management role. Because they can actually inspire others to follow them, they don't have to fall back on the lame "because I said so, and I'm in charge" justification. The correct sequence is to start with a leader and make them a manager, not the other way around.

What else am I looking for in a potential manager? Well, to start:

  • Someone who is fundamentally honest
  • Someone who is reliable, who keeps commitments
  • Someone who is fundamentally unselfish

These should be pretty basic, right? While I think that everyone throughout an organization should fit this description, it's critical that those who are in charge of others exemplify the values of your organizational culture. In fact, you could turn it around and say that, whatever you explicitly say your values are, your organization's actual values are those that are demonstrated by its leaders, so choosing your leaders actually defines your values.

I'm also looking for someone who generally cares a lot. They care about the quality of their work, and they care about their impact on the organization. They care about other people, about their team, and the processes they follow. They care about fairness. They care so much that, when they see a crummy situation, they cannot help but try and do something to improve it.

A related aspect of this is someone whose instincts have them focused at least somewhat outward, on the rest of the team and the organization. A tendency of poor management fits is to focus on solving a difficult problem themselves, when that is rarely the most important thing for them to spend time on. A manager must understand that their team is now their first and best tool for solving almost any problem that they face, and those whose instincts focus inward can struggle here.

When professional baseball scouts evaluate potential prospects, they grade them on a set of five "tools", such as speed or arm strength, that underlie a ballplayer's ability to compete. These are fundamental qualities that a player has to one degree or another, and are not things that can be taught. This contrasts with "skills", such as baserunning or throwing accuracy, that leverage those tools, but can also be improved with instruction and practice. I call this out to note that in the preceding paragraphs, none of what I mentioned are teachable "skills", but are in fact "tools" that a management prospect brings to the table. Such prospects may improve their skills over time, but if they lack a critical tool, such as unselfishness, it's unlikely to improve, and you should not be tempted into thinking you can "train" a management prospect that lacks it.

There are, of course, plenty of skills that a manager must learn to do their job well, from giving feedback to handling interpersonal conflicts. For someone who has never held a management role before, I would expect these skills to be pretty raw, with new managers relying more on instinct than practice and experience. In many situations, I think it's fine to let a new manager learn these skills on the job, though there are a few skills even a rookie manager should have built up before taking on the role.

Most importantly, an effective manager must be skilled at the core job functions that they're tasked with overseeing. They do not have to know everything, but they must at least be proficient at a senior level, familiar with the landscape and able to dive in and learn where necessary. They need not have all the best ideas, but they need to be able to hold their own in a conversation with the technical experts who do have the best ideas. Because of this, you may find a promising prospective leader who nevertheless still must grow professionally into a senior individual contributor before they're ready to move into management.

It's worth emphasizing again that being the strongest developer on the team is not an important qualification for management -- we're just looking for "strong enough" to be respected as a leader. In a similar vein, I've seen plenty of effective managers who weren't the strongest communicators on the team, or who weren't even especially extroverted. While communication is certainly an important part of the job, the bar is "effective", not necessarily "eloquent", and communication is a skill that even introverts can learn to do well.

The final qualification I look for in a potential manager, and I consider it disqualifying if they lack it, is that they must want to be a manager. The job is fundamentally different than that of an individual contributor, and a manager will spend much of their day doing different kinds of work -- planning, communicating, persuading, resolving conflicts -- than they were used to. I cannot stress enough how important it is that a management candidate like doing this kind of work, solving people problems, and find it on some level as fulfilling as solving technical problems. Someone who dislikes management tasks will do as little of them as possible, and will do them poorly, even if they otherwise have a talent for them.

The best way to know if someone wants to be a manager? Ask them. Usually I'll know who my best prospects are, and have already broached the subject about what they might want their career path to be, long before I have a potential opening to fill. I may have even asked them to take on a leadership task like on the list above, to practice skills and demonstrate readiness. There are unfortunately some management tasks, such as performance feedback, that can't be practiced until you're in the role, but by identifying the best prospects and preparing them beforehand, you can give them the best chance to succeed.

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