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When a New Manager Falters Under the Burden of Leadership

Handling Promotion
Coaching / Training / Mentorship
New Manager

6 May, 2021

Vojtech Vondra
Vojtech Vondra

Sr Director of Engineering at Productboard

Vojtech Vondra, Senior Director of Engineering at Productboard, warns us of the pitfalls that a new leader may fall into at the onset of this new phase in their career.

Problem

When you grow with a start-up, you start small. You’re typically a team of five or ten people, the founder, co-founder, and first few Engineers initially, and then you’re suddenly ten, twenty, or fifty people. You then start to establish teams.

All of these teams need leads. Who will be your first pick? It will probably be one of the people already in the company, typically an Individual Contributor. You’re at this crossroad where you need to figure out who to pick: the best Engineer, or the best communicator, or the most organized.

Sometimes, even the best choice will find themselves in over their head. What is the best way to help a new manager who is struggling to find themselves?

Actions taken

When I first joined my current company, there were four or five teams, and all of them had an Engineering Manager. All of them were transitioned into the role internally. They were all first-time leaders.

The first eighteen months after making this career switch will generally go like this: the first rounds of performance review are usually stellar. They’re learning, and you’re encouraging them because it’s pretty tough. After a year, you’re all still doing fine. At the beginning, you enjoy this benefit of the doubt, because you’re still just beginning.

At eighteen months, you need to begin increasing those expectations so that these leaders scale up into their new careers. This allows them to grow beyond their status as juniors and to reach a more established level. Raising the bar continuously while maintaining that support system prevents them from falling into the trap of not improving in the long run.

At some point, you may find that the change is not a good fit for everybody on the team. For some people, the management track is just not a good fit. In this case, you may need to start thinking about an alternative. In a start-up, you are often able to pull this off without losing the person. These are people who have been with the company from the start and have a lot of context. This decision can be stressful for them, however, because it may seem like a loss. This is not always the case.

Part of the solution is thinking about this possibility as early as possible, allowing you to intervene before the team reaches a disastrous spot. Keep a close watch and react quickly when you sense trouble. Then, you can initiate a transition plan that is not abrupt and that has a clear goal in mind.

This can be tough for a manager of managers, since it can feel like a failure of their own, but it is not always a sign that you are not supporting your people adequately. They may simply not be ready yet to make that career change; they may just need more time to mature, gaining new experience from an IC perspective and then leveraging that experience later.

Lessons learned

  • Switching to management is not a promotion, but rather a career change. You’re essentially trying out something new. You need to stress the fact that this does not mean that you are failing as an Engineer if you do not succeed. You were a great Engineer before. There is no reason to believe that this will not be the case again.
  • If you run into trouble as a new manager, isolate the problem with your performance to exclusively concern your new duties as a manager.
  • Timing is key. For the newer managers that you manage, make sure that you are keeping a close eye on the development of their team. This will help keep you informed and aware of the signs that it is not working out. A series of poorly made decisions or a breakdown of the relationships within the team may culminate into a moment where things are broken beyond repair.

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