I remember talking with an acquaintance a few years back who had recently graduated from college about how she envisioned her career progressing. Here’s how she broke down the steps:
- Get a job.
- Master that job.
- Manage other people doing that job.
- “Run sh*t” (her exact words).
I find that this is often how management is perceived by individual contributors (myself included before I became a manager). “Running sh*t” sounds pretty awesome, right? And I felt confident that once I was handed this ultimate power, I would become a new enlightened version of my individual contributor self. The vision for my team would be revealed to me! I would know exactly how to execute on said vision! I would coach my team to success and would be positively drowning in progress and praise!
Today, I’m cringe-laughing as I write these sentences. The perception I had of management turned out to be quite different than the brass tacks realities. Spoiler: I did not ascend to a higher plane of enlightenment when my title changed. I was still myself, with all my faults, and dealing with a totally new set of challenges.
Don’t get me wrong -- for all the missteps and pitfalls and uncomfortable realizations, being a manager is easily the best job I’ve ever had. The phrase “the best hardest job” that often gets applied to parenting also holds for management in my opinion. The fulfillment I get from watching my team learn, grow, and ultimately kick ass is second to none.
This post is not intended to dissuade anyone from management. Instead, it’s an attempt to provide a glimpse into the not-so-glamorous parts of “running sh*t” that don’t get talked about as often as the pros. It’s my hope that this information can help people considering management make a fully informed decision -- and let current managers know that if they’re experiencing any of the things on this list, they’re not alone.
10 Hard Truths About Management No One Tells You
1) Management can be lonely.
When you’re an individual contributor on a team, you have a built-in support system. You’re naturally grouped with people who do the same thing you do, or if not, at least have deep context into your work. And this network comes in handy when you need a sounding board, a brainstorm partner, or just someone to vent to.
But when you’re the manager of a team, there’s by definition only one of you. There’s no one else in the same role who you can turn to when you’re stuck, or confused, or frustrated -- and that can sometimes leave you feeling lonely.
This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to find support as a manager. The key word is “find.” As a manager, you have to intentionally seek out fellow leaders and actively build a support network (and I guarantee that you will need it).
2) You stop practicing your craft.
You probably got your job as a manager because you were particularly good at whatever you were doing as an individual contributor … but in your new role, you actually stop doing that thing. The manager’s role is to help their team execute their craft particularly well. And because you’re playing an enablement role instead of actually doing the work, your skills are probably going to get a bit rusty.
For example, content is my craft, but I haven’t actively been in the weeds for a few years now. A peek at entry-level content creation jobs reveals that employers are now looking for video and design skills in addition to writing ... of which I have neither. I could probably get a job as a manager of a content team, but as a creator? Maybe not.
This is why I think it’s dangerous to think of management as a promotion -- it’s actually a totally different job. When you take a step towards management, you take a step away from your functional area of expertise. It’s a trade-off that I’ve been personally very happy with, but a trade-off nonetheless.
3) GSD turns into GTD.
At HubSpot, we’re fond of the acronym GSD, which stands for “get sh*t done.” We love people who love to cross things off a to-do list.
But considering that managers are enablers of people who execute tasks instead of executing those tasks themselves, “GSD” really doesn’t fit anymore. Instead, I think “GTD” more appropriately describes the work of managers, where “T” has two meanings:
- Get Thinking Done
- Get Talking Done
The first definition of “GTD” refers to strategic planning, which requires quite a bit of reflection and rumination. The second definition refers to enabling team members through coaching, providing feedback, and training. Neither of these “GTD” modes lend themselves to crossing items off a to-do list.
I’ve often heard new managers accustomed to executing tasks fast and furious remark that they feel like they’re not “doing anything” in their new role. This isn’t true -- their work is just as vital and important -- but it happens on a more ongoing cadence and isn’t neatly completed at the end of a day or week.
4) You don’t get as much feedback.
As an individual contributor, you (hopefully) get feedback on a timely and consistent basis. Do something awesome, and you’ll get near instant validation. Fumble on a project, and you’ll get constructive criticism soon after.
When you’re a manager, the feedback loop slows thanks to the nature of the GTD grind. Your manager doesn’t have as much visibility into your “thinking” and “talking” work as they do with more task-oriented output, and this means you’ll probably get periodic packages of feedback at certain milestones rather than an ongoing stream.
On the flip side of the equation, it can feel uncomfortable to give your direct manager feedback. To encourage your reports to weigh in on your performance, consider putting anonymous mechanisms in place, or ask them to share their thoughts with your manager.
5) You have to do hard things (and you still have the same feelings).
Giving constructive criticism, conducting performance reviews, resolving conflicts, making sometimes unpopular decisions -- managers have to do a lot of things that aren’t exactly a barrel of laughs. And remember when I said I didn’t become a magically different person when I took on a team? I was also surprised to discover that I had the same feelings I did when I was an individual contributor.
Telling someone that they made a mistake or that their work isn’t up to par sucks -- manager or not. Personally, I struggle with nerves when delivering constructive criticism. Even if I know a certain piece of feedback will be beneficial to the person long-term, I still have to contend with a pounding heart and sweaty palms when the moment arrives. But, I force myself to get the words out, because I know it’s what I need to do to be effective in my role.
Being a manager means signing up to feel the feelings and do the hard things anyway. Which brings me to a somewhat related point ...
6) Management is emotional.
In addition to contending with your own feelings, as a manager, you’re also more frequently on the receiving end of others’ emotions. Work is emotional, and if you have a good relationship with your reports, they’re going to express frustration, stress, worry, anger, and a whole host of other emotions to you. Tears will be shed. Voices will be raised. Eyebrows will be crinkled. Sometimes all at once.
What I didn’t understand before I became a manager is how hard it can be to be the person on the other side of the table in these situations. Because you’re a human with empathy, your reports’ feelings will probably rub off on you to some extent.
On one hand, this is good thing -- to foster trust with your employees, you have to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective. But be wary that you don’t go overboard and cross into sponge territory, or start to feel responsible for others’ emotions. Managers have to remain objective to make sound decisions, and you can’t let someone else’s anger or frustration or guilt cloud your view on a situation.
When you feel like you’re crossing into “emotional burnout” zone, have a few coping mechanisms on hand that you can employ in a pinch -- and don’t feel guilty about using them. If a walk to clear your head will help you gain perspective and shake off emotional baggage, it’s not a sign that you’re bad at your job; on the contrary, it’s what you need to be good at your job. Don’t forget that.
7) Self-regulation, all day, every day.
I’ve just spent several paragraphs talking about all the emotions managers contend with, both their own and others’. The kicker? You actually need to be far more careful about how you express your feelings as a manager than as an individual contributor.
To understand why, consider the following two scenarios:
Scenario 1: Manager walks into a team meeting, slams the door, and bangs her laptop down on the table. She is visibly upset, with a scowl on her face. “I just heard that our budget is being slashed by 10% next year, which is total BS,” she huffs. “I’m so pissed; I don’t know why we even bother trying. We always have to deal with this crap and I’m fed up. I guess I’ll try to figure out where we can save money … ugh.”
Scenario 2: Manager walks into a team meeting, closes the door, and sits down at the table. She seems calm and serious. “Hi everyone, thanks for joining. Unfortunately, I have some bad news. I just heard from Finance that we need to cut our budget by 10% next year,” she says. “I’ll be honest -- I’m frustrated by this and I’d understand if you were too. That said, it’s the reality of the situation, and I think there are some cuts we can make that won’t negatively impact our work. I’ll share my ideas via email and I’d like to hear yours as well.”
This is essentially the same message, but delivered in two completely different ways. How do you think the team members left the meeting feeling in Scenario #1 vs. Scenario #2? Both are likely to be upset, but I’m guessing that the employees in the first situation are going to be a lot less productive and a lot more worried for the rest of the day than their counterparts in the second.
People take their emotional cues from their leaders. This doesn’t mean that managers can’t be authentic with their direct reports -- it just means they have to be deliberate about how they express their feeling so as not to create a chain reaction of negativity and stress.
To me, self-regulation means being mindful to not let your own emotion get in the way of delivering a clear message. It’s not easy, but it’s critically important. Pro tip: Invest in a good stress ball or join a gym with punching bags.
8) You spend less time in the spotlight.
As I said above, managers are enablers, not executors. If a project your team worked on was a smashing success, the lion’s share of the credit goes to the executors (as it should!). As the manager, you’re more likely to be clapping on the sidelines than standing in the spotlight, and that can be hard to swallow for people who’ve recently transitioned from an individual contributor role.
This has been one of the parts of management that agrees with me the most -- I actually prefer cheering from the sidelines, and get more enjoyment out of watching my team get recognized than getting recognized myself. I’m not here to judge -- neither preference is better or worse than the other -- but it’s worth asking yourself where you’d rather stand when the praise starts rolling in.
9) You’re the “sh*t umbrella.”
If you want to “run sh*t,” you have to deal with sh*t. I use the term “sh*t umbrella” to describe two essential functions of managers:
- Protecting your team from distractions so they can focus on execution.
- Doing the essential drudgery that no one else wants to do.
Let’s start with the first point. One of the reasons I love working at HubSpot is that there are a ton of innovative ideas being discussed at all corners of the company. The downside? At times, these ideas can become distracting or cause confusion. It’s my job to contextualize external information and help triage requests from other departments -- sometimes referred to as “blocking and tackling” -- so that my team can spend their time actually, you know, doing their jobs.
As for the second scenario -- while it’s not good to protect your team from work, it is a good thing to show you’re willing to do the soul-crushing stuff so they don’t have to, at least temporarily. When the buck stops with you, it’s ultimately your responsibility to ensure that what needs to be done gets done -- no matter how sh*tty.
10) Your relationships change.
While this one isn’t really a surprise, it can be hard to swallow nonetheless. If your company tends to promote from within, it’s probably a common scenario for people to become managers of their former peers or teammates … and that can be awkward. Because your relation to each other has changed, that means your relationship has to change as well. Peer-to-peer vent sessions and gut checks are suddenly off the table, replaced with formal one-on-one meetings and manager-employee feedback. Even if you’re not directly managing former peers, people have higher expectations of their leaders, which means you have to act accordingly both on and off your team. (Read: shotgunning beers on Friday afternoon might not be the best look anymore).
If you’re currently in this situation, be warned that it will make you feel some feelings (see #1). According to managers I’ve talked to who have been through this, the best way to mitigate the ensuing awkwardness is to address it head on. Clearly setting expectations and creating space for both of you to recalibrate will help you proactively forge the next chapter of your relationship instead of spending time lamenting what you’re leaving behind.
What are your own "hard truths"?
Those are some of the uncomfortable realizations and situations I’ve been through in my relatively short management tenure, and I am not an expert by any others, so I’d love to hear about others’. Tweet me your own “hard truths” or let me know how your perceptions around management have (or have not) changed after reading this post @emmajs24.