Surviving being senior (tech) management

July 16th, 2013

I’ve got a short list of things I tell people they need to do to survive being senior management. This list has come up a bunch in the last week talking to different folks. So I’m writing it down so I don’t actually have to remember it. That’s sort of unfortunate because there are some alternate versions that exist in a super-positional state, but I think having it written down outweighs the flexibility.

I’m sure the list isn’t especially unique to being senior management but there are a few things that are unique to being senior management, that makes it particularly relevant:

  • it’s a job where your ability to cope with your demons is critical to the success of everyone who works for you. See also Ben Horowitz’s, “What’s The Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology”

  • most people doing the work (at least in tech) are transitioning from maker to manager, and while a few special people are both good at management and enjoy it (and also a few sociopaths), most of us find it a really difficult transition to feel good about consistently and on an ongoing basis.

It’s a simple list. It shouldn’t surprise. This is the minimum. This is my list from having done the job, managed folks doing the job, hired, promoted, and fired folks doing the job, and perhaps most importantly drank with folks doing the job. Your mileage may vary. (But I’d be kind of surprised.)

1. Get some exercise

The ways most of us cope with stress are toxic. They lead to sickness, injury, and reduced cognitive clarity and elasticity. Small amounts of regular exercise help. This is not about getting in shape, this is not about living longer, that’s between you and your work-life balance. But to be an effective manager you need to healthy, functioning, and present, exercise will help with that.

2. Have someone to talk to

There are two variations of have someone to talk to on this list. That’s how important it is. Management brings shit up. It’s a psychological job. Your relationship with your parents is unfortunately relevant, as are just about every other aspect of your personality. Knowing what triggers you, and why, and having someone you trust to talk through it is the only way to do the job well.

It can be a coach, a therapist, a good friend, potentially a very patient and saintly spouse (not recommended). Ongoing, trusted and good at listening are the characteristic you’re looking for.

3. Talk with peers

As distinct from #2, find some folks in your industry, with similar job scope. Get together regularly. Talk shop. But the real shop. The stuff you don’t talk about when the people you work for or the people who work for you are around. This should be off the record. This isn’t a meet up. Start with a small group. Intimacy is the name of the game. Alcohol can help. Ask people, they’ll say yes, everyone needs to talk.

What you’ll find out is everything is fucked up everywhere. And you feel better about your own job. Your problems suck, but boy are you super glad you don’t have their problems. And they’ll feel the same way about you, and your problems.

Perspective is the thin line between a challenging but manageable problem, and chittering balled up in the corner.

4. Have a personal mastery project

Maybe you used to be a coder. Now you’re management overhead. But you really loved coding (and probably because you loved it so much, you spent a lot of time analyzing how folks could do it better, and that’s how you ended up in this mess). You’ve admitted to yourself that you can’t really spend your time writing much code anymore, but you like to keep your hand in the game, carve off a small project here or there for yourself, something that you can look back on after day and say, “Hey, I actually accomplished something today, not just go to meetings.”

You’re almost certainly doing it for the wrong reason. Cut it the fuck out.

There are lots of good reason to stay close to the day to day work (including, but not limited to, you’re an early stage startup, and everybody has to pitch in), and even more failure modes in that directions. But none of those good reasons are about you feeling better, or more in control, or like you “did something real”.

But that doesn’t mean the need you felt to learn, grow, acquire new skills, and generally stretch yourself that were hopefully key traits to getting you this far just go away, or that the sometimes vanishingly abstract accomplishments of your team can be swapped in for that personal satisfaction. For that you need a personal mastery project. Something, quite probably not related to work, where you can prove to yourself that you aren’t actually getting dumber every day (just older), but can still think, reason, and learn.

A side coding project might be it, learning a language, taking a class, practicing classical piano. Something. Something that stretches you, and you can master. By yourself.

Put your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others

Time is tight, and your schedule is the buckshot mess of manager time. Maybe you’ve mastered time management (block off time, use Google’s auto-reject I’m-busy feature), maybe you haven’t. You’re certainly too busy with work + life to add anything new to your schedule. After all the company depends on you (as does your family). Get over yourself.

You aren’t useful to anyone if you aren’t taking care of yourself. There is an unbound set of things you could be doing better in order to help insure the success of your team that will constantly expand to fill up all the time, but the most important thing you need to be doing is making sure your own oxygen mask is on first.

(hopefully first in a series of posts turning the emails, and chats I have with folks about this work into something public. Keep an eye out for, “Help, I’m a CTO now what do I do?” and “Confidence in the face of risk”)

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6 responses to “Surviving being senior (tech) management”

  1. Julien says:

    Looking forward to the rest of the series :) Also, great to see you agai this past weekend!

  2. Anthony Garone says:

    This is fantastic insight and hits me right where I’ve been vulnerable the past few weeks. Dealing with cultural and functional changes in a company is extremely stressful and difficult to put in relatable terms to my wife or friends in dissimilar positions.

    Personal mastery of something new has been difficult as well as some days are outright exhausting. I am hopeful that AJ Jacobs’ article today can help me act like the energized person I want to be with the desire to move beyond the exhaustion.

  3. meangrape says:

    Day number 10 of my newest job started the same way the other nine days had started. I grabbed my cup of coffee, walked about 4 meters, and sat down at my desk. The first thing that I thought was, “I can work on anything I want.” I tumbled that around for a minute or two in my mind. I – CAN – WORK – ON – ANYTHING – I – WANT.

    It’s an interesting realization. Nobody can make me go to a meeting. I can say “no” to almost any task someone wants me to work on. I’m not juggling half-a-dozen projects with twice as many deliverables. A large part of my job is realizing when not to do things. I can focus my efforts on whatever I think provides the most value.

    That’s a scary bit of freedom.

    The other thing I noticed is that my feedback cycle is very long. If I’m lucky I can look back a quarter and say, “Yes, those things that I did made a substantial impact.” It’s often more likely that the threads I’m working with aren’t going to have substantial impacts for six months or a year — those people I’ve promoted, those projects I’ve turned down to conserve resources. They might not even have visible positive outcomes; maybe I’ve just helped us dodge bullets for the last six weeks. It’s much easier to find validation at a micro level than at a macro level.

    To a large degree this is why the stereotype of egotistical executives and researchers exists — if I can work on anything I want, and I won’t be able to tell if I’ve done any good for a very long time; then I need a durable self-sustaining ego to go into work day after day.

    This is also why the stereotype of the evil insane executive exists: “If I can work on anything I want, and I don’t need a lot of external validation; then maybe everything I work on is good and/or important (otherwise why would I be working on it, right?)”

    Being good at being senior management for a long period of time involves balancing the necessary ego and lack of feedback with some external reality. A lot of your advice involves getting out of the bubble that the position creates for you.

  4. Tim Jefferis says:

    Great post. Wish someone had sat me down years ago and told me this.

  5. Charlie says:

    thank you for this.

  6. Tom Dolan says:

    Good article. I gave a talk at NotCon way-back-when on a similar subject, and some people found it useful. I guess my key insight was that management was a new skill and you had to work as hard at learning/mastering it as you did anything else. (Only if you were in tech you’d probably find it a fair bit harder, because…you know…people)

    Anyway, if anyone wants more of the same:

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