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Managers shouldn’t be dictators

John Tucker

Manager of Master Scheduling at SpaceX

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Problem

"Early on in my career, I was an airforce officer, managing a team of 12 software test engineers, with seven military personnel and five civilians, who were working on software for military aircraft. We were given a task to roll-out a new version of software that we had been testing. We were behind schedule with the software, so we were trying to speed up what we were capable of doing so we could roll it out. A number of components in the code were reviewed by an automated system. However, the civilians in my team wanted to review the results of the automation to ensure they were trustworthy."

Actions taken

"Instead of digging into why they wanted to review the results of the automation, I decided to take the most straightforward approach and told them that we didn't have time, so we were going to trust the system to do the review. I'd been taught about leadership and how to lead military personnel at the military academy, but hadn't been taught how to lead civilians or government employees. My courses at the military academy trained me to tell it how it is, and to give the same message in the same way to all of my staff. However, the civilians didn't appreciate my decision, or my style of management, and I felt this. But I didn't understand why there was tension. One of my peers, who was a civilian, ended up taking me aside and explaining. He told me he'd been in the Air Force too, and that he'd been in my shoes. He gave me some tips and mentored me. He explained that the civilians and the military personnel had vastly different motivations. The military personnel were in the military because they had volunteered to be there. They were, therefore, mentally prepared for someone taking direct authority over them. However, the civilians were hired as engineers because they were creative, thought outside of the box and pushed back. They were good at what they did because of this. The engineers had also been working as engineers for longer than the military personnel, and so they had a lot more experience in the organization I was coming into. My decision led to tension in the team, so after the project was over, I decided to get to know the team members better. At first, they didn't trust me much. However, over time, I learned about their families and interests, which gave me context. For example, if I was asking someone to stay late that could cut into their family time."

Lessons learned

"Management shouldn't be a dictatorship. Ensure you talk with your team members. Teams will always have people in them with different motivations, and different strengths and weaknesses. It's important to factor these in and to be flexible in how you structure your work and work planning. Get to know your employees as individuals, as it can go a long way. The civilians were experienced, senior engineers. I made the mistake of neglecting this for some time, and I didn't fully recognize them as the experts they were. I should have gotten their buy-in and ensured that they felt they were being listened to. As soon as you get given a new team get to know them. Don't wait, as your team will also want to know about you and to build trust with you. It won't be as awkward if you start out early on getting to know your staff. If you were to ask those questions later on, it may be a bit more difficult."


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John Tucker

Manager of Master Scheduling at SpaceX


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