I’ve officially been managing the development team at Treehouse since last December or so, which puts me near my six-month mark here in May. During that time, I’ve been trying to come up with a good management style: I’ve been exposed to a lot of different management techniques and attitudes, ranging from deplorable, to annoying-but-useful, to fantastic over the course of my career thus far. Now that management is a key component of my day-to-day responsibilities, it’s important for me to have a good management philosophy in much the same way as it’s important to have a good coding philosophy: thinking through a lot of this stuff up front will help me to be more consistent and decisive when I’m faced with an issue.
One sort of mantra I’ve developed - and the other developers at Treehouse can attest to this, as they’re probably already tired of hearing it - is “Manage up, and down, but not sideways.” It’s a simple way to remind myself of where my responsibilities should lie. Here’s what it means if you break it down:
What this means:
“Managing up” is the act of managing the leadership team in your company as it relates to your team and the work your team is doing. Specifically, it involves the following:
- Representing your team to leadership: if any other member of leadership has a question about what the dev team is working on, or why we’re executing on our tasks in a certain way, or anything like that, they should be able to get that information from me. If anybody else on the team needs to be bothered for answers, then they’re getting pulled off of whatever they’re working on, which isn’t good. This also involves making your team look good; not in the sense of hiding failures, but in terms of actively promoting successes.
- Advocating for your team to leadership: if there’s anything about the way Treehouse works, as a company, that causes any sort of inconvenience or hardship for my team, I need to be bringing that up as long as there’s a possibility it can be resolved by leadership.
- Managing expectations for your team with leadership: Making sure that everyone is on-board with what your team is doing and when/how their tasks are going to be completed is important; not only does it help ensure that your team’s focus is in the right place, but it also keeps leadership informed enough to make responsible decisions when strategic decisions need to be made.
Why this is a good thing:
For lack of a better way to put it, if you manage up properly then your team doesn’t have to worry about leadership being on their backs. Managing up properly effectively means that you’ve created a barrier between your team and the leadership level, and by acting as a go-between you can help your team stay on-task and productive.
What this means:
“Managing down” is the act of managing the careers of the individual members of your team. Specifically, it involves the following:
- Managing the workload of your team members: making sure that everyone is working on the appropriate tasks and is cognizant of any deadlines or other pressures that might affect those tasks. This is what most people think of when they traditionally think of “management.”
- Improving the career of your team members: making sure that on top of everything else, your employees are building a better career for themselves. This can take several forms, from making sure that they’re happy with their job to actively working with them to improve or add to their skills.
- Communicating with your team members: if you’re managing up properly, then your team often isn’t included in a lot of the conversation that happens at the leadership level - which is good, because a lot of that conversation isn’t very useful to your team; it can be a lot of back-and-forth about ideas that will never come close to being implemented. But there is a lot of valuable information that you will need to convey to the rest of your team - filtering the useful stuff from the distracting stuff and disseminating that to your team is a very important part of the job description. Beyond that, you’ll also need to be sure to communicate clearly on any decisions that you have to make, and make sure that your team is communicating well within itself.
Why this is a good thing:
When you get a job as a manager, this is what people are expecting you to do - manage your direct reports. By making sure that your team is working on the right stuff, is focused on self-improvement, and are on the same page with leadership about the company’s direction and vision, you’re building a team that will execute effectively and efficiently.
What this means:
“Managing sideways” is the act of setting yourself up as a go-between between your team and the rest of the company. It means that all communications go through (or otherwise include) you, and that you put yourself in a position to “approve” work before it’s finished.
Why this is a bad thing:
Aside from the obvious observation that you’re generating a lot more work for yourself by managing sideways, you’re also at least implicitly saying that you don’t trust your team to do their jobs. This is a problem for everyone in the company - it’s a problem for your employees, because without freedom to act without oversight they’ll never grow in their careers. It’s a problem for you, because you’ll never be able to truly delegate any tasks. And it’s a problem for the company at large, because now all the work that gets done by your team has one overloaded point of failure: you.
So I constantly try to remind myself to manage up, and down, but never sideways. I’ve encouraged everyone on my team to call me out if I ever seem to be inserting myself between them and their work, and hopefully they’ll honor that - the temptation is pretty strong to try to control everything, and although I feel like I’ve been getting better about it I’m sure there are still times that I try to get too involved in specific tasks for my team. I still think that there’s a lot of value in the other two “directions” of management, though, and try to practice those as zealously as I am able.
Is this a good way to look at the task of management? So far it seems to be for me, but I’m still relatively new to the trade. We’ll see how it works out as time goes on, I suppose.