Letting go of control

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Growth

What do I even do any more?

Zoe is settling into her second year of being a team lead. Her responsibilities have grown considerably since she took the role. She’s taking a lead on hiring JavaScript developers in her department, she’s involved in an initiative to speed up deploys of the application, and her team has grown considerably and require much more day-to-day organization and interaction when compared to the three person team that she started with. That’s when things are going smoothly, which isn’t always the case.

She’s beginning to feel frustrated. Every day she tries her best to ring fence time to open her IDE and contribute. But every time that she does, she finds that something gets in the way: an interruption, an email, and sometimes even a nagging feeling of guilt that there is something else that she should be pointing her attention towards rather than producing lines of code. She feels conflicted because she is meant to be setting a good example, yet she is the most unreliable developer on her team.

She remembers how easy it was to feel satisfied before she became a manager. She would tangibly produce positive change to the codebase every day through writing new features, deleting unused cruft and refactoring. She felt like she was contributing at a high level. But now many of her days feel scattershot and unfinished.

Is this her fault?

The frustration of management

Management and leadership are messy. Rarely is any day the same as the last. With time and continued exposure, this is exactly what makes the role so interesting. However, for new managers that are coming from an individual contributor role, this is what can make their new role overwhelming, exhausting, and unsatisfying. This is especially true for those that have perfectionist qualities: the mindset that made them great programmers can work against them as a manager resulting in them feeling like they are doing an utterly terrible job.

Yet, to fight the messy nature of the job is to ultimately lose. Like life, it can only be controlled by best effort. Events will always happen that will be impossible to pre-empt, so the sooner that you are open to accepting this situation then the more relaxed and effective that you will be as a manager. You are now managing humans rather than code, and humans can be much more varied and unpredictable.

Letting go

Since management at its worst is being exposed to pandemonium, you want to begin to let go of your previous wish to control everything. So let’s start letting go. But what does that mean?

  • Accept that no day is the same. You will have days of both blissful organization and progress and days of utter chaos and emotion. Both are OK, and both are equally part of the job. Any effort to control exactly what each day will be like is doomed to failure and frustration. You can only do your best and accept that it is all you can do.
  • Accept that your output is less concrete. When you were an individual contributor you could judge that you’d had a successful day easily because there were so many checkpoints that were under your control: lines of code written, pull requests reviewed or merged, bugs fixed and features deployed to live. Managerial work has very few clear checkpoints: you are sailing the boat as best as you can in the changing winds. The sooner you are accepting of this, the better.
  • Accept that your old methods of control are no longer useful. If, through feelings of being uncomfortable, you default to your old methods of control even though they’re not what you primarily should be doing (e.g. doing technical busywork that should be delegated) then you need to reassess whether that is the best way that you can increase your team’s output. It probably isn’t. Get more comfortable being uncomfortable.

For the new manager, these principles are unnatural and require constant practice. Make the act of reflection on how you are spending your time a weekly conversation with your own manager so you can ensure you are leading yourself and your team in the right direction. Manage, don’t meddle.

Breathing space

By accepting that you shouldn’t meddle, how can you create the space to allow yourself to become a more effective manager? Here’s some ideas of things that you can do.

  • Delegate by default. When you feel the urge to dive in to a particular piece of work, ask yourself whether you are the right person to be doing it. Sure, you may be theoretically more available than your team to quickly complete a task before they can get around to it, but fundamentally your role isn’t to be the broom wagon behind your team. Instead, you should be at the front of the peloton. Unless it’s something only you can do, you should be protecting your own time and delegating consistently to your staff.
  • Purposely block out time in your calendar. To prevent yourself from getting involved in busywork or unimportant meetings, block out set mornings or afternoons in your calendar regularly for yourself. How you choose to fill this time is up to you. You could use the time to sit and think and plan for the future, or to review the work that your team has been doing, or even go and connect with your peers in your company. Although your previous life as an individual contributor would encourage you to not do this and instead immediately pick up another ticket, you need to become comfortable with some unstructured drifting as often the best ideas emerge when you are not busy.
  • Ask your boss how you could contribute to their initiatives. You can force yourself to think outside of your own team by asking to be part of wider initiatives that your manager is running. These could be departmental issues such as defining career paths, improving the hiring process, or exposing yourself to other parts of the business: what’s going on in Sales right now? What about Product, or Marketing? Exposure to new people and topics help you grow as a professional, expand your network, and once again, help you have some new and interesting ideas.

In summary

Although it might be unnatural, you need to let go of control in order to be comfortable and effective as a manager. It also will protect your sanity.

Instead of concerning yourself with busywork or tasks that used to bring you satisfaction as an individual contributor, you need to purposefully take a step back and allow yourself the space to roam. Not only does this allow you to be more available reactively when your staff need you, it also creates a space that allows you to think of the vision that you have for the future of your team and department.

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