Advice for New Managers Transitioning from an Individual Contributor Role

Mike Hansen

SVP, Products and Engineering at Sonatype



I was an individual contributor (IC) for the first 10 years of my career. I loved writing software, especially network software, wrangling with complex problems in pursuit of the simplest possible solutions. While I was a good (not great) software developer, I suspected I might be a better leader. When I did finally move into a management role, I found that my job role as a manager was quite different from that of an engineer. I needed to transition from a role of taking action and solving problems to a position of support and ensuring everyone has what they need to pursue their more specific goals. Based on my experience of transitioning from an IC to a manager, here is an abridged synopsis of advice I have for managers who are just starting out.

Actions taken

  • You will make mistakes, probably a lot of them. Learn from them and habitually put your team ahead of you. Then they will give you plenty of chances to learn.
  • Realize from day one that it no longer matters how much work you do or are able to do. All that matters is how effectively you equip the team that you have the privilege to lead.
  • Understand why the measure of your success is now a function of the work products of your team and not you (thanks, Andy Grove).
  • There is no recipe that you can follow to be the perfect manager. The domain is entirely too complex, given we are dealing with a bunch of mostly irrational, sometimes rational humans. Keep adding tools to your toolbox, learn which tools work best and figure out how best to apply them for different types of problems.
  • Find a mentor that understands Taylorism and the long shadow it casts is the bane of the knowledge worker.
  • Hire people that are better than you for the roles you are filling. If you look around after a while and see people that aren't better than you, then you are the walking definition of a B player, who is now "leading" a bunch of C players.
  • Learn the different leadership styles and approaches. Figure out where you are strong and where you are weak. Effectively leverage your strengths but also bolster your weak spots. All carrot and no stick doesn't work over the long term. All stick and no carrot just doesn't work.
  • Plan to read a lot on leadership and management. Excellence here requires continual investment.

Lessons learned

  • To ensure everyone is rowing in the right direction, I vigilantly observe and listen, occasionally asking questions, sometimes nudging folks – often by asking probing questions. Thankfully, the number of true emergencies or crises that require my direct engagement is very low. In such rare circumstances, I dig in and get my hands (a little) dirty, sometimes making decisions that might feel imposed given our decision making is pushed as far into the organization as possible.
  • The engineer in me wants to take action and solve problems, but I stay out of the way whenever appropriate. I know the people within the organization are the real pros, doing what they do best, and they don't need me meddling. It might even look like I don't actually do that much despite what I'm ultimately responsible for. I don't! That is key. Assuming course and speed are right, I just look for places where my help is going to be the most beneficial. There are plenty.
  • I tend to ask "what" more than "why". Instead of, "Why is this thing going off the rails?" it's much better to ask, "What do we need to do to get this back on the rails?" As Tasha Eurich notes in her recent article about self-awareness, the typical human inclination is to ask "Why?" and it tends to delay getting on the path to progress. "What?" leads to a bias for action versus analysis.
  • I recommend reading David Marquet's "Turn the Ship Around". There might be some bias given my Navy experience with the broken command and control culture I suffered that Marquet confronted head-on, with incredible courage. This book is now (basically) required reading at my current company because in dealing with complex domains, the book crisply explains that to be most effective, EVERYONE must lead. Source: https://www.managersclub.com/mike-hansen/

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Mike Hansen

SVP, Products and Engineering at Sonatype

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