Delayed Gratification

My seven-year-old wants everything now. Delayed gratification for him means a few minutes. The future isn’t quite tangible yet.

Most new managers I’ve worked with want everything now. Delayed gratification for them means a few days. The future isn’t quite tangible yet.

My seven-year-old, with much mentoring from my wife (and with insufficient help from her spouse), is growing out of it.

New managers need delayed-gratification mentoring too. Unlike children, they often don’t get it.

—-

Most managers are promoted from individual-contributor (IC) roles. They’re very good at some set of tasks — writing code, or managing a project, or selling to customers, say. A great hand comes down from the sky, extends its finger toward the IC, and suddenly the IC is a manager.

It’s supposed to be a reward for good work.

Instead, it’s often a recipe for failure.

The IC is no longer doing what she’s good at. So the company loses the value of the IC work she did, and has to make up the value and then some in her managerial leverage. Without planning, it sometimes works, sometimes, doesn’t — but there’s a lag in the value curve either way.

That story is pretty well known. Good companies and good managers and good HR folks have some awareness and strategies and methods.

(For now, let’s leave out the variant of this story where the new manager is expected to do everything she did before and also manage some people and exert a degree of functional leadership. That’s a post of its own.)

But I’ve rarely seen new managers prepared for the sudden shift to delayed gratification that managing brings.

The IC got stuff done. Bug in the code? Go fix it. Project slipping? Examine the schedule and address it. Customer isn’t buying? Get out there and close the deal.

All of a sudden, the problems are different. The manager isn’t dealing with today’s bug, or finding hidden slack time, or negotiating a close.

Rather, the manager’s problems are that the code is more buggy than normal, or the schedule seems divorced from reality, or the customers aren’t buying what the team is selling.

In other words, it’s stuff the new manager can’t fix by herself. She needs to work through others.

Working through others takes time.

The problems may present as symptoms. An employee mentioning that he’s stuck on a bug. In a one-on-one, the report notes that Task X will be late. In a team meeting, the manager hears that Customer Y is being difficult and another salesperson chimes in with similar information.

What’s a manager to do?

What the manager should do, in some way, is gather more information, distill it down to “facts” (i.e., best bets on what’s actually happening), confirm, and then think about the direction in which solutions might lie.

And then the manager coaches her reports on how to address the issues in a way that helps the employees grow.

So the employee figures out the bug and how to improve the overall state of the code. He gets the project back on track, or at least keeps it from falling further behind. The team improves the value proposition and messaging and starts winning customers.

They do that over the ensuing weeks, or months.

None of these issues are explicitly solved; there’s no dramatic “bomp-bomp!” music from the Law & Order theme to indicate a solution; there’s no drama. Stuff “just” gets better.

And in the meantime, the new manager has weeks filled with issue after issue. She sees the issues, feels the pain… but doesn’t get the resolution. Not directly, anyway.

So the new manager gets discouraged. She starts to hate managing; it’s all pain and no emotional rewards.

Or she solves some of the problems directly, goes back to being an IC instead of exerting leverage. Suddenly managing is fun again… for them. She wonders why her team’s morale suddenly starts dropping, though.

—-

Managing is about delayed gratification. Being an IC is a win every day; you see a problem, you solve it, you go home happy.

Being a manager is a problem every day, but the win is diffuse, in the future, often unseen, the problem long since replaced with newer, hotter fires to fight.

Managers will work through this on their own, often, with a variety of strategies. Some become the seagull manager, dropping in to poop all over something as an instant IC before flying away again. Some give up managing. Some become distant and withdrawn. And some, of course, figure this out themselves and adjust.

Just like some seven-year-olds eventually “get it” without mentoring from their parents.

But it’s not efficient or effective to wait for the manager (or seven-year-old) to figure it on herself.

—-

If you’re elevating an employee to manager, or coaching a new manager, watch out for the delayed-gratification slump. Make sure the new manager is aware of this pattern. Help them understand the long-term value of working through others — and the rewards that come from making an employee stronger.

It’s not the same reward as fixing the bug or closing the sale, but it’s a reward nonetheless — and I think a bigger, richer reward once you recognize it.

Or maybe it is the same reward after all. You spot a problem and you solve it.

It’s just that the problem you’re solving is the human one.

The reward just takes longer.

  — Steve

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One Response to Delayed Gratification

  1. Sriram says:

    This is excellent stuff.

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