Michele Titolo | Blog | Speaking

Lessons from Managing for the Summer Part 1

For 3 months of foggy San Francisco summer, I am filling in for most of my managers duties while he takes paternity leave. This post captures some of the lessons I’ve learned in the past that have been useful so far this summer. Many full time managers I know started out in a situation just like this, and somehow made the jump to management full time. I have technically been a manager before, though since I have decided to focus on becoming a higher level technical contributor. I also have been in leadership roles since 2013, which means I have been developing skills I now use every day for many years. Because of these factors, I felt well prepared taking on manager responsibilities.

My experience so far this summer has been retrospective than my experiences in the past, and I’d like to share what I’ve experienced. These lessons are for those who are interested in becoming a manager and want to start developing useful skills now or those who might be heading into a similar situation to mine in the near future.

Lesson 1: People before Projects

Academics and private companies have extensibly researched how to create a high performing team. These studies say a lot of different things, but one underlying theme is that many of them are directly impacted by management. As a manager, people are the primary job. This means understanding what is important to each member of my team, and figuring out how to support them. I’m a fan of Charity Major’s Manager’s Bill of Rights if you’re looking for a primer.

Putting people first was also something I know I overlooked when leading projects in the past. I remember getting feedback from a teammate that as the tech lead for the project it would be good if I set up 1:1s with everyone on the team. I resisted doing this, because at the time I thought only managers could do 1:1s. That was an extremely limiting belief, which made it harder to lead the project because I wasn’t focused as much on building relationships with everyone on my team. I still did build relationships of course, but it wasn’t an intentional focus.

When I joined my current small team, everyone was already having 1:1s with each other. I stated doing them as well, which continue throughout the summer. The established regular cadence for these, and the relationships I’ve built because of them, have helped the team operate smoothly. It was awkward at first, especially since I barely knew my teammates, but it’s been absolutely worth it.

Lesson 2: The goal of planning is alignment

I work on an infrastructure team in an organization that has very few PMs (product, program, or project). Those duties usually fall to managers, with senior individual contributors (ICs) sometimes helping to fill the gaps. One of the big areas of responsibility for me this summer is taking over all of my team’s planning. Thankfully I’d already been involved.

One of the first things I did after joining this team was try to figure out what other teams were working on that my team cared about in some way. I did this because I knew my team’s success relied heavily on work from other teams. Meeting with other teams to understand what they cared about, and how the projects my team cared about fit into their overall vision was incredibly important to set my team up for success. As someone new to the organization, it was also a great time to get to know the managers of other teams.

The relationships I started building earlier this year have become crucial as my organization deals with inevitable priority shifts. When these situations happen, being able to understand the context of decisions is incredibly useful. I’ve been dealing with larger shifts in organizational priorities, but I’ve also seen this happen at a small scale within a team. It’s really disappointing to start on a project only to be told a few weeks later that it’s not high priority anymore. I unfortunately experienced that a few times before starting the work of building alignment and setting expectations with my PM and EM. And now I’m applying it to a much larger scale.

Lesson 3: You are the face of your team

Becoming an official leader of your team, even temporarily, changes the way others perceive you. Yes, even your own team. Your actions and words will be held to a higher scrutiny, which means being more strategic and intentional in your communications.

I firmly believe that sharing frustrations and struggle with my team is important because no one is perfect and we all make mistakes. As an official leader, if the things shared are extremely negative it will have an outsized impact on the team. People pick up on more than you think.

My biggest learning here has been to focus on learning from these situations, and to share the learnings with your team. Difficult situations can happen at any time, and framing them for an opportunity to grow shifts the narrative to be more positive. Of the lessons I’m sharing, this is still the hardest one for me to apply.

Conclusion

None of the lessons I’ve applied so far this summer exclusively apply to management. These relate to developing foundational leadership skills, which are equally applicable for anyone wanting to grow into a very senior IC. Summer is more than halfway over, and so far I’ve felt prepared for all the situations I’ve been in because I’ve had the opportunity to develop these skills in the past even though I wasn’t a manager.

There’s still a subtle distinction between “leading a team” and “leading a project” that I haven’t nailed down yet. I’ll be continuing to think on that for the rest of the summer. And after the summer? I look forward to going back to my IC work, where I will practice and continue to grow my leadership skills.

Special thanks to my skip level manager Alejandro for guidance this summer, and Jean and Edmond from Co-Leadership for providing a better framework for me to think about alignment.

© 2020 Michele Titolo