Diving in Headfirst

Header - Diving in HeadfirstLike a lot of people, I kind of stumbled into management. No formal training, no real idea of what I needed to do or how to do it, just an above average amount of common sense and a desire to see our products succeed. While hardly a recipe for success, I would venture to say that there is a certain element of trial by fire that I think new managers need to experience.

Product owners understand a few key items: Communication is important, a general understanding of everything trumps a specific understanding of one thing, and that you make sure to get every promise in writing. Oh, there are a ton more of these, but I needed 3 of them (seriously, when creating examples, why does the human mind always seem to need 3 of something?). More and more, however, product owners are also people managers. Sometimes it’s a relatively simple relationship where you simply guide their progress on the shared product, but other times you are also responsible for managing their goals, and to offer more in depth career management. For the new manager… this can be a challenge.

I am by no means an expert. I am still in the early stages of my career as a manager, and I still have a lot to learn. In fact, most of what I know is gathered by trial and error. A whole lotta error. But I think that learning these things the “hard way”, has given me a good bit of perspective. That’s why I’m looking at this particular section of Big Bald Mobile to be a little different. More of an ongoing saga of thoughts and experience regarding management, than a series of contained articles.

For today, the quick topic on my mind is this: Delegating the right thing.

As a manager, you will always have a more high level knowledge and understanding of what needs to be done, both on a day to day level, as well as with the longer term vision of your product, than your team will. This will bring to you a series of tasks that need to be shared amongst the team, and very often that will mean you need to delegate.

The item I learned, mostly in hindsight, is that it isn’t always obvious which tasks need to be delegated. This is especially true if you are managing people who have direct reports of their own. What are the best tasks to hand off, not only in regards for your day to day, but also the day to day of your direct report, and for their ongoing career goals? Also, what can they handle right now, what might they need help with, and what are they looking to become more knowledgeable in?

My example of this situation is one where I believe I made the wrong choice, which I can see in hindsight, but seemed like the better option at the time. I had inherited a good amount of extra work because my manager was on leave, and I was now responsible to represent my team on a global level. This influx of extra responsibility meant that I needed to delegate some of my tasks to my team. Some of these items were relatively small and presented little issue. However, I did have a larger choice to make. I needed to shed one extra time intensive task, and I had two items to choose from:

  1. A monthly budgetary and tracking report, that required fairly regular upkeep of numbers. Not a difficult task, but rather specific in how it needed to be done, and very time consuming. This task was important for the organization as a whole, but provided little benefit or insight locally.

  2. A more direct management of their direct reports, including items like advanced problem solving, career management, and discipline when needed. While they already took care of some of this, the thought was for them to take it to the next level and manage their teams more completely.

I weighed these items carefully, and decided that there was more benefit with option #2. The thought being that this would do more for them and their careers, teach them some people management skills, and get them more involved in how to be problem solvers. On paper, it seemed like the better choice as it would take up less of their time, and there wasn’t a whole lot of tangible benefit to them handling extra accounting.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much extra work I would have, or how these tasks would weigh on my team. Because my extra tasks kept me constantly busy, and often in over my head, I didn’t have the time to back my team up the way I should have, and give them the mentoring in being a leader they needed. That was a bad miscalculation on my part, and more importantly it wasn’t something I could see at the time because of the issues I was experiencing. This meant that I had given them a bigger leadership role, but didn’t provide them the tools to handle the additional responsibility. They were career managing their teams as best they could, and actually did a good job overall, but there were also missteps that cost us as mistakes were made that could have been caught had my attention been better focussed.

This is a prime example of a mistake made up top, cascading down and causing ripples that should never have happened. The flip side is that my own limited experience as a manager came into play, as my expanded responsibilities were giving me the same problems my team was experiencing. The situation as a whole wasn’t ideal, but we were doing the best we could with the resources we had. But that single choice I made was I mistake that I can see in hindsight. Not only were there alternate solutions that I hadn’t put into play, but thrusting my people into a role that they needed mentorship with didn’t provide a solid learning experience.

The lesson I learned was that as a manager, you need to be more careful with difficult choices, and more considerate for potential repercussions. By not properly planning out a wider array of potential pitfalls, my tactical error cost my team. The other lesson here is that even when swamped, you need to be in tune with what your team is going through. By letting my own issues cloud me, I let my team down. Being the leader means seeing past your own troubles for the good of the group, and that is something that should never be far from your mind. I may have learned the lesson the hard way, but the important thing now is that the lesson has been learned.

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