Learning to Manage: Recovering from a crash

One year and nine months ago, I took my first formal management position. I stepped into the role thinking that I knew a bit about management. I felt as though my team leadership experiences in my past meant that I knew enough to enter into this new position. When I say, “knew enough to enter,” I did not mean that I knew it all. I simply thought that I could step in and be effective while my skills grew through new experiences.

A couple of months ago I hit a burnout phase and began to seriously question whether I could survive in a management track for my career. Thoughts such as, “maybe I just am not the kind of person who can handle this,” went through my head. I even went so far as to consider whether asking for a demotion would be the next best thing for me.

Since then, my leadership has been coaching me and helping me work through the challenges. This has had some immediate stress mitigation but I still need to learn in order to get back on track. No one is going to be able to take action for me. I need to learn what actions, habits, and behaviors to embrace and practice.

I am a cog

I sub-consciously maintained a hierarchical mentality of responsibly and ownership. Simply put, if I was in charge of a project then it was my responsibility to deliver and succeed, no one else’s.

Interestingly enough, this directly conflicted with a lesson I had learned earlier in my career as it related to being a DBA in an Operations team. I knew, with certainty, that I could not be responsible for a server or environment unless I was given sufficient control over it. Without control, then I can easily be a victim of circumstances and therefore I cannot make any guarantees or warranties.

I was thinking, “I run this team, therefore I have control, therefore I can be overall responsible.” That’s the joke, though. As a manager you have some power but you do not control whether or not your team delivers. You do not control their actions. You are left in a situation where you are counting on them far more than they are counting on you. This brought me to a realization.

A manager cannot deliver anything. The team has to deliver it.

This is when I began understanding that a manager doesn’t live in a hierarchy. A manager is just one more cog in the machine and like all cogs they are valuable but not in complete control of the system. This is my new way of thinking. I drive my car. I think of it as mine and I consider myself in control of it. However, if any part degrades or stops working, I don’t blame myself. I don’t suddenly expect to perform the function of the starter or the brakes. Instead, I put effort into repairing those parts. Maybe they can be repaired, such as with a tire alignment. Maybe they need to be replaced. Maybe they were the wrong part of my model of car and still need to be replaced but not because they are broken, just because they are not right for this particular team.

Two truths came to me from this experience.

  • It is possible for me to do a good job, even if the team fails.
  • It is not my role to make up for everyone else’s problems. I have power to aide within a certain scope but I cannot be a starter or the brakes, I can only be the driver.

Monkey management

In 2014 I read about how to not feed the monkeys. I loved the concept so much that I tried to immortalize it here. I won’t pretend to tell you something that the internet already knows. In fact, today I was reading the Harvard Business Review’s version of it. I then read several other articles looking for more perspective and was quickly saddened by the amount of plagiarism that I noticed as they directly rewrote the HBR’s article.

What I will tell you is that I have learned about how to manage your monkeys on no less than 3 occasions over the last 5 years and it has become clear that I have more to learn.

The concept of not accepting your subordinate’s problems as your own is not hard to understand but I find implementing strategies for avoiding it and making those actions turn into habits quite difficult. I actually believe that my years as, “team lead,” has made this more difficult for me. Looking back, as a team lead, I was a professional zoo keeper. I was praised and rewarded for taking everyone’s monkeys on my back and either supporting the weight or putting them out to pasture. Even now, I could possibly build a career as a zoo keeper. Often people are heavily incentivized to be the zoo keeper, or as they would call it, the hero. As my scope of responsibilities grow, being that unicorn, that mythical creature, would destroy me emotionally and burnout would be a constant state.

I have a lot to learn and I need to practice my anti-monkey strategies until they become habits. For now, I will be policing my responses and language. Maybe considering comments like, “I have something else I need to be doing, but I will be interested in hearing how you solve that.”

In addition, I am going to try and make myself and my teams aware of the level of initiative that I expect out of them.

  1. wait until told (lowest initiative)
  2. ask what to do
  3. recommend, then take resulting action
  4. act, but advise at once
  5. act on own, then routinely report (highest initiative)

I primarily lead a group of senior employees. For them, I can no longer allow initiative levels 1 and 2, ever. There may be some flexibility for more junior employees but, as a general rule, I plan to coach and empower my subordinates to pursue only levels 4 and 5 with explicit rejection of levels 1 and 2.

I hope to build more mature monkey management habits while reminding myself of these levels and setting clear expectations to my teams.

This article has 1 comment

  1. […] events pushed me into a burnout phase at work. This provoked a lot of things, my posting on Learning to Manage: Recovering from a crash being one of them. That same day, the power of community shined its light on me. A fellow data […]

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