As a CTO one of the most consistently challenging responsibilities to feel like I was doing well was supporting the senior leaders who reported to me. They were universally high performing people, with difficult jobs, who cared passionately about their teams and outcomes. We spent plenty of time talking tactics and strategy, technology, and management, but one topic that was always key, was self care. The topic is infinitely varied, but it got to the point that I had some standard advice I gave, and this is it.
Being an engineering leader is different
I’m sure this advice isn’t unique to being senior technical management or even senior management but there are a few aspect of the work that are unique and make the advice particularly relevant:
- Senior management is a job where your ability to cope with your demons is critical to the success of everyone who works for you. Ben Horowitz writes about this in, “What’s The Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology”
- Most people doing the work (at least in tech) are transitioning from maker to manager, and while a few special people are both good at management and enjoy it (and also a few sociopaths), most of us find it a difficult transition: rewarding but also filled with doubts and uncertainty.
The advice is straightforward. It shouldn’t surprise. This is the minimum. This is my list from having done the job, managed folks doing the job, hired, promoted, and fired folks doing the job, and perhaps most importantly drank with folks doing the job. Your mileage may vary. (But I’d be kind of surprised.)
1. Get some exercise
The ways most of us cope with stress are toxic. They lead to sickness, injury, and reduced cognitive clarity and elasticity. Small amounts of regular exercise help. This is not about getting in shape, this is not about living longer, that’s between you and your work-life balance. But to be an effective manager you need to healthy, functioning, and present, exercise will help with that.
2. Have someone to talk to
There are two variations on the advice, “have someone to talk to” on this list. That’s how important it is. Management brings shit up. It’s a psychological job. Your relationship with your parents is unfortunately relevant, as are just about every other aspect of your personality. Knowing what triggers you, and why, and having someone you trust to talk through it is the only way to do the job well.
It can be a coach, a therapist, a good friend, potentially a very patient and saintly spouse (not recommended). Ongoing, trusted and good at listening are the characteristic you’re looking for.
3. Talk with peers
As distinct from #2, find some folks in your industry, with similar job scope. Get together regularly. Talk shop. But the real shop. The stuff you don’t talk about when the people you work for or the people who work for you are around. This should be off the record. This isn’t a meet up. Start with a small group. Intimacy is the name of the game. Alcohol can help. Ask people, they’ll say yes, everyone needs to talk.
What you’ll find out is everything is fucked up everywhere. And you’ll feel better about your own job. Your problems suck, but boy are you super glad you don’t have their problems. And they’ll feel the same way about you, and your problems.
Perspective is the thin line between a challenging but manageable problem, and chittering balled up in the corner.
4. Have a personal mastery project
Maybe you used to be a coder. Now you’re management overhead. But you really loved coding (and probably because you loved it so much, you spent a lot of time analyzing how folks could do it better, and that’s how you ended up in this mess). You’ve admitted to yourself that you can’t really spend your time writing much code anymore, but you like to keep your hand in the game, carve off a small project here or there for yourself, something that you can look back on after day and say, “Hey, I actually accomplished something today, not just go to meetings.”
You’re almost certainly doing it for the wrong reason. Cut it the fuck out.
There are lots of good reason to stay close to the day to day work (including, but not limited to, you’re an early stage startup, and everybody has to pitch in), and even more failure modes in that directions. But none of those good reasons are about you feeling better, or more in control, or like you “did something real”. You’ve got a real job, it’s called being a leader.
But that doesn’t mean the need you felt to learn, grow, acquire new skills, and generally stretch yourself that were hopefully key traits to getting you this far just go away. Or that the sometimes maddeningly elusive accomplishments of making your team better can be swapped in for that personal satisfaction. For that you need a personal mastery project. Something, quite probably not related to work, where you can prove to yourself that you aren’t actually getting dumber every day (just older), and can still think, reason, and learn.
A side coding project might be it. Or learning a (human) language, taking a class, practicing classical piano. Something. Something that stretches you, and you can master. By yourself.
Put your own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others
Time is tight, and your schedule is the buckshot mess of manager time. Maybe you’ve mastered time management (block off time, use Google’s auto-reject I’m-busy feature), maybe you haven’t. Either way you’re certainly too busy with work + life to add anything new to your schedule. After all the company depends on you (as does your family). Get over it. Get over yourself. The work isn’t more important than taking care of yourself, because ...
You aren’t useful to anyone if you aren’t taking care of yourself. There is an unbound set of things you could be doing better in order to help insure the success of your team. That set will constantly expand to fill up all the time. The most important thing you need to be doing is making sure your own oxygen mask is on first.
(I also have been writing on this topic, and other topics for the last 15 years over at my personal blog)