When a Jump Down to a Smaller Scope is a Jump up in Maturity and Wisdom
21 June, 2020
Head of Engineering at Hipcamp
In 2016 I was leading supply growth with four subteams totaling 35 people, which was a pretty large scope. As a part of a reorganization, I was asked to join a much smaller team of only a PM and one and a half engineer (one person being part-time). It was a humbling moment -- I went down in scope in terms of reports but that helped me understand what really matters and allowed me to work in a high leverage area of the company. Eventually, the scope increased and the team became larger, but learning what I did was far more important.
As a young manager, I always thought that scope was critically important -- the more reports, the better. A lot of people still feel like that. I struggled to reconcile in my mind the supposed perplexity of the situation -- am I being demoted because I was assigned a smaller team? It was a several quarters-long journey that thought me some of the most valuable lessons about success and professional growth.
At first, I was very apprehensive but frequent communication with my manager and other stakeholders was eye-opening. As I was learning more about the problem space and how business needs are connected to our team, I started piecing things together and realizing the importance of our team. If I had a more open mind, I would probably have gotten there faster. However, I was overwhelmed by suspicion and denial and it took me a while to start asking the right questions and connecting the dots.
Initially, I saw things at face value, but gradually I started to dig deeper beneath the surface, to probe into the very purpose of things and not to look at that situation as a snapshot in time but to be able to give a 12 months prediction. It was important to perceive that situation as the beginning of a larger path and to acknowledge that every path starts small and simple. And honestly, my ego was struggling to accept that.
We live in a world where success is equated with money; however, it’s far more nuanced and complex than that. Measuring our growth both as managers and individuals by the size of our team or direct reports is not unfounded, but there is more to it than that. Clearly, the higher level the leader is, the more capable of handling large scope s/he is. However, this doesn’t imply that getting a more scope is a promotion or growth in itself. Your professional growth should be seen as a journey -- sometimes you take that one step back before you take five forward. Things are not always increasing upwards; it’s an authentic journey where you have to suffer some loss. Going through adversity is what makes you a stronger leader who can one day handle a large scope. However, when you get there, you no longer desire scope as you realize how unimportant it actually is. (Un)surprisingly when it comes to recruiting, the scope of your team is the most common question that conditions you to equate the two. It is true in some regards, but there is a much deeper gradation to it.
You shouldn’t define, let alone value, yourself in terms of a number of reports you are managing, but through the impact that you are creating. Furthermore, as you grow you will transcend mere impact and reach the level of influence which is far more valuable because influence goes beyond authority. The number of reports is just a formal representation and your influence reaches people far beyond those who report to you and that is the most powerful thing you can deliver as a leader.
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