One of the toughest parts of managing a tech team is adjusting to the reality that other people are depend on you–for direction, for validation, for encouragement.
And while you can feel their expectations as soon as you walk in the door, no one talks about them. Sure, they’re probably the same expectations that you had for your manager before you went out on your own, but you never openly discussed them, either!
Let’s get these expectations on the table so they’re no longer a mystery haunting your workday.
What Your Team Needs from You
First, let’s talk about this sticky word, “needs”.
That one little word can trigger a lot of stress, pressure, and obligation. But if we look at it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, then it becomes a foundation. Stability. It’s a safe place for your team to know their role so they can forget about posturing and get down to work.
In other words, facing your team’s needs will make everyone feel more secure (no surprises!). You’ll have less drama, more loyalty, and a more focused team.
So… what does your team need from you?
They need you to be clear about what you expect.
Full stop. Tell them exactly what you expect and let them know why they’re doing it.
This can feel really uncomfortable, especially if you are now managing people who feel more like partners, but it’s essential.
Without your specific and ongoing direction on what’s needed, when it’s due, and the client’s needs, the team does a lot of guesswork. This inevitably leads to wasted time when work misses the mark or is overbuilt.
For example, if you tell your team to build a module of code or sales page without giving them exact specs, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Don’t expect mindreading from anyone.
Do not drop hints and expect miracles. Be clear or you’ll create confusion.
I once mentioned in passing that the production server seemed to be slow and then went about my business. No problem, I just noticed. Hours later, one team member reported back to me that he had spent the entire afternoon trying to resolve the problem when I never intended for him to look at it.
Follow up on their progress.
Without interaction and feedback, they’ll soon feel like their work isn’t significant, and that’s when a downward spiral of low quality work and missed deadlines begins.
Keep it short and simple, but keep tabs on your team’s work.
Your job is to keep the production line flowing smoothly, so make sure your team knows which jobs are at the top of the stack.
Human nature makes us–all of us–gravitate to easier projects before the trickier ones. Make sure your team has more than a general idea of what’s on deck and when it should be completed.
Have something for them to do!
This seems obvious, but one of the main sources of waste in lean manufacturing is… waiting. Make sure you have priorities sorted so people feel productive and on task.
If your team doesn’t have enough to do, your team will get skittish and your printers will start spewing résumés.
Give them correction when needed.
Incredibly, most (decent!) programmers expect you to call them out on mistakes.
When they blow it, they want to know about it and have a fair discussion about how they screwed up.
This is can feel really awkward, but holding the line actually builds confidence because programmers know where they stand.
Keep a priest-like policy of privacy around one-on-one conversations.
When you manage a team, you will hear a lot of very personal information about people’s lives outside of work. Build trust by keeping your mouth shut.
Without a doubt, you will hear heartbreaking stories about failing marriages, difficult medical diagnoses, troubled children, and more. Resolve to keep this in the strictest confidence and keep a box or two of tissues in your office.
Model the behavior you want from them.
Lead by example, always. It’s the only way to gain and keep respect. Admit your own mistakes and stay away from double standards.
Do not play favorites.
Even if you are managing your friends, be professional, period.
Favoritism and nepotism bring down morale in a heartbeat. You’ll get more out of your staff if you drop the buddy-buddy act and play fair.
Stand up for your team at all times and in all circumstances.
Never, ever throw anyone under the bus.
I’ve been in situations where I overheard heard my manager talk smack about me and my co-workers behind our backs to clients, and it was ugly.
In reality, their performance depends on you, so be prepared to take the blame when things hit the fan. Always make sure that you defend them privately (outside their earshot) and publicly (in front of them).
Protip: Do NOT whine about the “problems” of running a business.
Find some peers when you want to complain about your huge travel schedule, all the meetings you have to attend, or your non-existent paycheck.
Even if it is a grind to run your own business, your team knows that ownership carries some perks they’re not getting, so zip it.
Don’t Be Afraid to Manage Your Team
All of this advice boils down to one point: Your team can’t manage itself. They need you.
In my quest to seek out the best management strategies in action, I have discovered that even the best companies that recruit top managers dedicate a lot of resources toward management activities. They don’t expect the hotshots to just “get it” without direction.
When you’re willing to step up and be the conductor, the right things get done in the right order and in the right way.
Good leadership allows people to settle into their roles, relate to others more easily, and choose to get shit done instead of covering their backsides.
Be willing to provide what your team needs from you.