Still Learning at Google: Becoming a Manager

Part of the 17 Years of Lessons Learned Series – Originally published on LinkedIn

How did I become a manager?

Well, there’s a technical answer and then there’s the real one. Technically, I became a manager because I’d proven myself as an individual contributor and I was demonstrating related aptitude at mentoring and leading others. Throw in that our team was growing so fast that we badly needed managers? Count me in!

The real answer: It took me awhile to truly live up to the title. Over multiple years I shifted more of my time and focus into managing others versus managing projects. I delved into tough feedback about my management skills and improved bit by bit. It was hard work, and some of my most unflattering “you ain’t all that” feedback was received during this stage. But it was worth it.

Looking back over the years, I wish I’d gotten (or listened to) guidance about undertaking this transition. It surely would have not only benefited me, but also my direct reports. Reflecting on my experiences as a people manager may help others with this career change, so let’s do it.

What feedback did I receive?

First off, I didn’t receive a nice section in my review which said “Be a better people manager” and detailed how I should do it. Things are never that clear!

Nope; it came out piecemeal over time. My next few articles will focus on my first years in people management when I was given feedback about delegating, communicating, and dealing with my frustrations better. Now I see that this was a “phase” when I was shifting from someone who did people management on the side to having it truly be a core focus.

Why was this difficult to see? I had a lot going on; it was hard to see the forest for the trees. My focus areas in 2005 for example spanned international and product expansion as well as growing the team and executive management. Also I was getting positive feedback from reports about my people management skills:

“I was thrilled to be working under someone who was really interested in my personal growth and finding responsibilities that I enjoyed and could excel in. When family or friends ask me what I like about working at Google, this… is one of the first things I mention.”

So things were going pretty well…

BUT

I remember being annoyed and frustrated. What was this job? Why couldn’t I just have a “To Do” list and cross out items one-by-one?

It turns out people aren’t projects, and they don’t run on a predictable linear timeline. Being a people manager challenged my innate drive to GET THINGS DONE. I had to deal with people and emotions and motivating people who had emotions. The whole management gig was tiring and made me cranky. I’m a natural introvert, and I would go home each day exhausted after a series of one-on-one meetings with my reports. If I didn’t take time to rest, I’d carry that frustration and add to it day after day.

AND

It turns out I love helping people move forward with their careers and accomplish their goals. I love it even more than doing those things myself! It was a journey though, with a few major steps I think you’ll see play out in the next articles. My main takeaways?

  1. Accept the day is not your own Oh, you can have that “To Do list” but don’t take it too seriously. It will move and change based on unforeseen issues both with your direct reports, but also because you’re probably working with more senior stakeholders as you get into management. And they have needs too, URGENT NEEDS, that will displace your list.
  2. But command the week. Pick the 2 things that absolutely need to happen that week and drive them forward. An important decision needs to be made? Focus there. You need to move forward on hiring someone? Spend the majority of your time there. I found it terribly easy to let weeks float by in a series of meetings and emails that did not truly drive high level objectives forward. Review your week on Monday morning, decide what has to happen, and land those priorities.
  3. Structure your day. Start to pay attention to what you need and when you need it. Do you need a quiet morning to answer some emails? Book a ½ hour for yourself everyday before meetings start. Do you need some time midday to answer emails? Book it! Do you have your best conversations over a meal? Leverage lunch! Now that you’re a manager, you can start to own and influence how your schedule looks.
  4. Rest. How hard can meetings be, right? Actually, they are oddly exhausting. It’s the listening. Really listening and trying to understand will tire you out. Also the context switching between subjects. It’s like your brain went to an all-you-can-eat buffet all day long. If you have to give feedback or make a hard decision, it will be even more taxing. Make sure you have time at home to give your brain a break. I like cute animal videos (see: bunnies in cups); pick what’s right for you.

What else has worked for you in the transition from individual contributor to people manager? Feedback welcome in the comments.

Next up in the series, we’ll delve into Delegation. So much fun!

Note: I don’t provide names or other identifiable information of who gave/provided me feedback. I also omit any confidential or sensitive information about specific work or people. I share quotations so you can experience the feedback as I did, but those examples are carefully curated. The opinions stated are my own, not those of my company.

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