The diminishing power of influence
I’ve always avoided being a manager. For nearly two decades, in the course of my professional career, being a manager has never held interest.
Coming out of college, I joined a small interactive design boutique as the 10th team member. In a little over a year, we went through a major company transformation and effectively joined together to found a new product-centric endeavor. After a decade of turbulent growth and decline (Dotcom rise to IPO to burst bubble; 10 to 1200 to 200 people), I left wiser and successful at my intent to avoid any and all management responsibility!
As with most startups, as an early team member, I was granted the magical power of influence. In my youth, influence seemed ideal - power without responsibility. Why bother with the burden of direct management when you can make change through vocal conviction? For many years this strategy actually worked! But I did hit a wall, and decided to finally leave as views diverged on product strategy. It also hurt to be passed over for a leadership role I felt I deserved. In my disappointment, I chalked it all up to a purge by new management of the old guard. That of course was just a simplistic and naive point of view.
The pattern more or less repeated itself as I next became a co-founder for a high profile startup, growing the company to well over 300 and having the good fortune to reach scale suitable for the public markets. Despite being the co-founder and CTO, for the first four years, no employees reported to me as a manager. I focused on the power of influence to push forward my vision of the company; to shape the nature of whom we could become. Much to my chagrin, due to circumstances beyond my control, I finally took on the cloak of management, but optimized to a minimal threshold. Over the course of my 8 years at the company I likely managed a maximum of 6 people at any one time. Given my breadth of experiences in the cauldron of startups, I believe I was a decent manager, but definitely made some rookie mistakes.
Upon reflection, these mistakes and my personal directive to avoid management has had the most to do with a desire to evade confrontation and conflict. At various times, this embodied itself in the fear of managing people I consider friends or extending great effort to coach a team member, whom should have just been fired. My conscious effort to avoid management, to rely upon influence, also established a situation where I lacked real authority as both companies scaled.
It seems obvious in retrospect, but despite extending great effort purely through influence, I now recognize it’s impact diminishes in relative proportion to organization size. And by avoiding confrontation in the early years, I prevented myself from having the opportunity to truly lead in the later stages of growth.The influence you hold in those years becomes more of a mirage as the mechanics of bureaucracy and organizational design take hold.
Every member of an early stage team feels, in a visceral manner, that the startup is family. It’s an extension of your personal identity. Blood, sweat and tears are poured into this fragile creature. So if you care so deeply about your babe, embrace the burden of responsibility so you may be a steward for it’s full life.