How Context Evolves as You Advance as a Manager
17 June, 2021
For every person in my position, there comes a time where you turn from being an Individual Contributor to becoming a manager officially. I’m a manager of other project managers, something that has some specific challenges to it.
I had to unlearn a lot of things. I took a lot of pride in the results that I was working on as an IC. The things that I was directly working on and the outcomes that came out of them, that was a lot of what defined my feeling of success professionally. Not being as directly involved in execution took quite a while to get used to. Taking decisions from other people and not going into too many levels of detail was also something that I was used to before becoming a manager.
After a while, I sort of started to identify the key tasks that I had as the manager. You need to grow your team, which is very hands-on, but also sort of abstract in a way. Where I need to add value as a manager and concentrate my focus: providing context for others.
Instead of having people tell me what they’re deciding and presenting arguments on how things could be done differently, my job, as a manager, is to provide context that they’re able to make the right decisions without me. One sign of not doing a good job is that you find that too often you have to connect the dots for others; you might be failing in actually providing people with enough context to make their own decisions, and to make the right decisions by themselves.
One of my team members, for example, proposed the idea to invest heavily in scaling our product onboarding. The company strategy that we had at that time, however, was going in a very different direction; it was not at all aligned with this suggestion. What I actually learned was that I had not actually done a good job of breaking that company’s strategy down to that individual’s level, in a way that they were able to understand. They needed to know how their role fit into the larger context and how they could contribute.
Conversely, when leading product managers, a lot of times, you need to be the one who pushes them to take risks. If you as a manager are explicit about needs beyond the work currently being done, an increased urgency or perhaps the need to be researching or testing the product more, you help your team to overcome some of their risk aversion. They may be worried that if things go wrong, it falls back on them. As a manager, you want people to be comfortable being risk-willing to some extent. It can help them move so much faster in some cases, generating more success despite potential failure.
- If you, as a company, generate a vision, you, as a manager, have the responsibility to kind of communicate that. On that level, I think that very few companies fail. What people don’t get, however, is how frequently you have to repeat that message, from different angles and in different contexts, how much more flavor that you need to give this vision over time. It’s not enough to do one presentation, that’s not all the context that people need.
- As a manager, you’re likely to be more cross-functional. You’re exchanging messages with marketing and sales and relaying this information to all of your product managers. Bringing that context back into your own team is a continuous task. What new things have I learned about our context? How can I make sure that I pass this on to the people that are working on my team?
- Focus on repetition and enrichment. Over time, other departments learn things. Those things shape and sharpen the vision that was originally presented. To make sure that this information is flowing freely into and throughout the company is a key task. It’s really about providing a shared context so that everybody is in alignment with their decision-making. A lot of the time, people who have the same context will arrive at the same conclusions.
- In the end, it all comes down to communication. Use as many different channels as possible: one-on-ones, company updates, strategy sessions, workshops,
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