This is a continuation of my blog series on advancement. As a Technology Leader, I am frequently asked how I advanced through the ranks and climbed the corporate ladder. Last week, I covered what it takes to go from Newbie to Tech Lead. In this article, I will discuss the next step to Manager.
- From Newbie to Tech Lead (last week)
- From Tech Lead to Manager (this week)
- From Manager to Director (next week)
I left off last week 7 years into my career when I had achieved the my most senior technical role as an individual contributor. I cited 8 Rules for Advancement. I will reference some of those same rules in this article and add a few more.
I’ve heard it said that moving from individual contributor to manager is the hardest leap to make. Every other advancement prior and afterward is easier. I tend to agree. Management is critically important, so promoting someone into management is a risky endeavor. You may have heard it said that “people don’t leave jobs or companies, they leave bosses.” Promoting someone prematurely into the management ranks can have disastrous effects on an organization.
Now that we’ve sized the hurdle, how can you make the jump? I started with Rule #9: Get mentored. There are ton of ways to do that, some formal and some informal. At the time I was in this place in my career, formal mentorship was rare, so I just took the initiative to approach managers that I respected and asked for their advice. I didn’t ever say, “will you mentor me?” I just talked to them and asked questions. I didn’t just talk to one, but several. This gave me multiple perspectives. It also got the word out in the management ranks at my company that I was looking for an opportunity to advance into management. It never hurts to be clear about your career intentions.
One of the key pieces of advice I received was very practical. At a base level, you need two skills to be a decent manager: financial skills and people skills. I was able to develop significant financial skills by running the cost and charge-back models for the Citrix service that I was running, so that was a huge advantage. I didn’t have any people management skills, so I applied Rule #4: Certifications & education augment lack of experience. I took every management and leadership class that my internal corporate Learning & Development department offered. These were all relatively inexpensive compared to technical training, so my manager willingly funded this educational pursuit.
There is a natural position in-between Tech Lead and Manager in many organizations called a Team Lead. The Team Lead doesn’t have formal HR or financial accountability, but gives oversight, work direction, and serves as an escalation point for a subset of their manager’s span of control. This is a great way for someone to try out management and see if it fits. If it doesn’t the person can go back to being a Tech Lead without much consequence. At this point in my career, there wasn’t a Team Lead position available, but there came a point where the Citrix service had grown, and I needed a backup engineer. We decided to bring on a contractor, so I asked my manager if he would be OK with the contractor reporting to me. Given contractors aren’t full-fledged employees, I figured if I screwed it up, there wouldn’t be much lost. It worked well, and I gained some valuable experience. We even converted the contractor to an employee, so technically, I became a manager of one! Ultimately, I don’t consider this to be the moment I became a real manager, but it was an important milestone. It’s important to note that this was all in the category of Rule #2: Start doing the job you want, in addition to your current job, because I through it all, I retained my Tech Lead responsibilities.
So there I was, working on Rules #1-9, waiting for a formal management opportunity to appear, when the stark reality of Rule #10 came into play: Politics create and destroy opportunities. At the time, my company, GMAC-RFC, was merging with their sister company, GMAC Mortgage, to form GMAC ResCap. This included the fact that the two IT organizations were now merging and management powers were in the process of jockeying for position. This was terribly unpleasant and damaging to the organizational culture, but to be in management is to engage in politics. As the saying goes, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” My approach to politics is similar to my approach to negotiation. I took a negotiation class for the explicit purpose to not use tactics to manipulate but to understand the tactics so I could properly defend myself from manipulation. That’s similar to my approach to politics. Engage enough to not get run-over, but not to control people. The subject of politics warrants a blog post of its own, so I’ll be sure to write one in the near future.
The sister company with which we were merging had a Citrix function, and I wanted to manage the overall team. This was the opportunity I was waiting for. There was one catch. The director over that function was from the other company and favored the leaders she knew. I did my best to play politics and influence an outcome in my favor, but my effort failed. I tried to apply Rule #3 No one will just promote you. You have to compete for opportunities and win, but this time I lost. I was offered a different opportunity to manage the Web Middleware team, which was under the directorship of my legacy company. This was in my competency, but not my specialty or passion. This was a defining moment for me. I had to choose between my technical passion and my desire to manage. Ultimately, because I knew how hard it was to get offered any management position as an individual contributor, I took it. Rule #10. Politics took away my technical opportunity, but gave me my management opportunity.
I became Manager of the Web Middleware team of the merged company about 8 years into my career. I had a team of 8 Sr. Engineers, all of whom were my former peers. This, of course, was awkward. To become proficient as a manager, I need to accept and push through the awkwardness and apply Rule #11: Muster confidence. I had competence in the technologies I was responsible for managing, but not expertise. To manage people that are smarter than me, have more technical experience than me, and are older than me, is a bit to mentally overcome. Had I gotten the Citrix management job, I would have had the technical prowess, but here I didn’t have that. It was a new game. A big piece of it was looking myself in the mirror convincing myself that I wasn’t a fraud, and praying to God to give me the strength to serve my new team to the best of my ability. Some people say “fake it until you make it.” I don’t like to think of it that way. I really wasn’t a fraud. I had prepared myself and earned the position. Despite all of that, the under-confidence feelings come anyway, and you need to be mentally prepared to deal with it.
Assuming my new management role, I soon learned the truth of Rule #12: New management means old problems. That was true in this management role, and every role I’ve held since. Taking on any management role means walking into serious problems. The ideal transition plan rarely exists. The smooth passing of the baton is a myth. Congrats on the job, enjoy your mess! In the case of GMAC ResCap, I faced three serious threats. First, the organization was reeling from the political damage from merger. Second, we were now facing wholesale outsourcing and absorption by the parent company GMAC. Third, the company was failing. GMAC ResCap was in the subprime mortgage business, which was imploding in 2007 and eventually went bankrupt. These are hard circumstances to manage a team through. While maintaining operations and making some forward momentum, a lot of my time was spent simply putting people first. That meant helping people land better jobs outside of my team, if that was best for the individual. Eventually that led to my own departure. I found that to be very emotionally challenging for me. I’m a naturally loyal person and was really committed to my team and company. I found it hard to look at outside opportunities while continuing to focus on building my team.
This led me to Rule #13: Sometimes you have to leave to advance. I loved GMAC-RFC, but GMAC ResCap was no longer the company I used to know. Opportunities come up in opportunity-rich environments. GMAC ResCap wasn’t and wasn’t going to be either. At this point, I’m glad that I applied Rule #7: Network. Simply put, it’s too late to start building a network when you need it. Through my connections, I found out about an opportunity at RCIS, a subsidiary of Wells Fargo. There was a management position over Server and Network Engineering that included Citrix. This was a perfectly ideal job for me. It was a lateral move, but a lateral move to an opportunity-rich environment is the right move. Had I not had the management experience over the previous year, I wouldn’t have been qualified for it. I moved to RCIS 9 years into my career.
That’s enough fun for one blog post. Stay tuned for next week, when I explore what it takes to go from Manager to Director. Please comment below and share this post with your colleagues.
Here are the Rules for Advancement:
- Master your current job.
- Start doing the job you want, in addition to your current job.
- No one will just promote you. You have to compete for opportunities and win.
- Certifications & education augment lack of experience.
- Volunteer for everything.
- Specialize in something.
- Own it.
- Get mentored.
- Politics create and destroy opportunities.
- Muster confidence.
- New management means old problems.
- Sometimes you have to leave to advance.
- Lead a transformation.
- Sustain a new normal.
- Expand your span of control.
- Delegate, develop, and empower.
- Leadership is lonely. Make some friends.
- Middle-management is expendable. Accept it.
- Protect the team.