Exploring Management Conference

October 24, 2008

Yesterday I had the honor of serving once again as “table coach” for five sessions at the Exploring Management Conference. (A table coach sits at a large table and leads a discussion on a given topic for about 20 minutes; then the attendees change tables and you do it again.)

First, I encourage any experienced manager to do this. If you’re at Microsoft in Redmond, participate in the formal Exploring Management sessions. Otherwise, gather a bunch of folks who wonder about moving into management and have an open, honest discussion about some of the pros and cons — and your experiences with them. You’ll learn as much as those you coach, not just about them but about yourself and your assumptions.

My topic this time was “Tradeoffs: Manager vs. Individual Contributor.” I’ve done considerable coaching on this topic with newer managers working for me.

One day some years ago, a new manager threw himself down on the couch I’ve squeezed into my office and asked, “Why do I feel so bad about my job as manager? I work hard, I like everyone I work with, I even like you, but at the end of the day I feel exhausted and like I haven’t accomplished anything.”

Think about that for a minute. Have you been there?

We came to a realization through coaching. [My coaching technique is to pose clarifying questions to the person I’m working with and help them work out an answer — an answer that I myself may or may not know.]

  • – As an IC, you get a win every day. Tasks are bounded and relatively short. Code a function, contact a customer, prepare a report. Tasks usually have a clear beginning and, more importantly, a clear end, one at which you are present.
  • – Managerial problems beyond the administrative tend to be formless. They drift up on you, you work the levers of influence and coaching, and eventually there is improvement in the situation. You probably spend the same amount of time on a given task/problem, a day or two. But it’s discontinuous time. These tasks often lack a clear point marking the start of your ownership. And they almost never have a clear end, an “aha!” moment. Three weeks or three months later, you may notice the change, the improvement. But by then, a dozen other tasks and problems have drifted down on you.

In other words, a manager spends much of his or her time setting wheels in motion — but at the end of the day, she has dealt far more in moving problems along than in exulting in solutions. Closure is hard to come by.

And if you don’t recognize that, you go home miserable, sometimes kick-the-dog, hate-the-job miserable. Or you start doing more and more IC tasks to get those endorphins flowing — which deleverages you and makes your team wonder why you’re micromanaging.

That’s the cost; what does the manager get in return? I got a sense of pride in helping my team grow, and a sense of accomplishment in making progress on larger problems than I would normally see as an IC. But there were many days where I had to think about that consciously.

What’s your experience?

  — Steve


Exploring Management, The Event

October 7, 2008

One of the goals of ChannelMEC is to provide some transparency into the management pipeline here at Microsoft — to discuss the roadmap to becoming a manager, and to share our collective experiences. As part of this roadmap, Microsoft offers a program called the Exploring Management Program, facilitated by the Management Development Group (MDG). Here’s a quick overview of the program:

The Exploring Management Program (EMP) is focused on developing an intentional pipeline of potential managers across Microsoft. The EMP focuses on exploring the manager role at Microsoft. The program provides opportunities for participants to develop managerial skills and to make an informed decision about whether to pursue a management career. The EMP is a 12 – 18 month program that contains a sequence of on-the-job learning activities, opportunities to learn from others, and formal learning events within the rhythm of the business.

Program Outcomes

Upon completion of this program, participants will have:

  • Gained an in-depth and realistic preview of the role of a manager at Microsoft.
  • Built a network of exploring management peers and Microsoft managers.
  • Used the provided tools to hold ongoing discussions with their manager regarding a management career path.
  • Completed a self-assessment with their manager to determine their managerial readiness.
  • Completed a development plan to use to explore management and to develop managerial skills.
  • Made an informed decision, with their manager, on whether or not to pursue a management career path.

As program participants explore the Management Career Path, the program provides an opportunity to investigate the Management Career Stage Profiles (CSPs) defined for management roles in each profession to see how their current role and skills might align. In November 2008, newly revised CSPs will be available which will more accurately reflect the scope, impact, and complexities of the manager role at Microsoft. These new CPSs will be introduced and used throughout the EMP.

Participants

Participants in this program have:

  • Been a full-time Microsoft employee for at least six months.
  • Achieved or exceeded commitments in their last performance review.
  • Never been a manager (with at least one FTE report) at Microsoft.
  • Not attended previous Exploring Management Conferences.
  • An interest in pursuing a manager role within 12–18 months, and in becoming a great manager.
  • In the opinion of their current manager, demonstrated management capability in their current role.
  • The endorsement of his her manager.

Program participation begins by attending an Exploring Management Conference. Within Puget Sound, managers self-nominate themselves and their managers decide whether or not to approve their nomination based on the program requirements. In the U.S. Field and International, managers directly nominate participants to the program.

I was able to participate in the Conference this past week, led by MDG’s Leah Wedul, who focuses on the pre-manager space. My role in the event was as a “table coach” — a group of current managers who share their experiences on a number of topics important to prospective managers, such as making the IC to Manager transition, how to develop your team, and so forth. It’s also a great opportunity for the participants to network, and just ask questions. The event is newly redesigned — instead of a single, huge event twice a year off-campus, the new format is to hold weekly events on campus for a month, allowing more people to attend. In October, there will be 4 different one-day events.

I thoroughly enjoyed participating, and will be coaching again the last week of this month. For those interested in attending, there will be another event held next spring — so be sure to self-nominate and start discussing this event with your manager.


Delayed Gratification

September 29, 2008

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