How Do Managers* Get Stuck?

*The following may also apply to senior Individual Contributors

Camille Fournier
Sep 6, 2017 · 6 min read

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece called “How do Individual Contributors Get Stuck?” This was an attempt to help ICs provide constructive feedback to their peers, by identifying common challenges that I have seen developers struggle to overcome.

This piece is a little bit different. I want to answer the question that I often hear from first-line managers, that is, managers who manage only individual contributors: “How do I get promoted to the next level of management? How do I prove I’m ready to manage managers?”

Managers often believe that if they are handling the demands of managing their team, they should naturally be promoted to manage more people, bigger teams, teams of teams, as quickly as such an opportunity comes about. And yet, just as often as those opportunities come about, someone else is chosen, a person is hired from outside the company, and the eager manager is passed over. You’re stuck. When you find yourself “stuck” in terms of management career progression, what might really be happening?

Usually, getting stuck as a manager falls into one or more of the key areas of management: Failing to manage down, failing to manage sideways, and failing to manage up.

Scenario One: You aren’t actually scaling yourself effectively, aka, failing to manage down

You may think that you’re handling your team well, but when you look at your schedule, you’re working nights and weekends and then some to juggle all of the new tasks that managing a team entails. Sure, there are some companies which expect that from everyone, but it’s rarely a sign that you’re using your time effectively. Look at your team. Is it a well-oiled machine? Do you feel like the team is able to operate independently, get things done, without you micromanaging every detail? If not, you’re probably stuck on the basic needs of your current job. Some examples of this include:

  1. Can’t delegate. Look at all hands-on tasks you own, and ask yourself whether you are the only person who could be completing these tasks, or whether you could assign them to another senior engineer. If you are spending a lot of your time doing hands-on work that someone else could be doing, you probably aren’t delegating effectively.
  2. Not training your team. If there are too many tasks that only you can complete, you have made yourself a key dependency for your team. Who are your potential successors, and have you spent time training them on the things only you can do?
  3. Not enough attention to the process. Is your team drowning in alerts with no end in sight? Why haven’t you spent the time to allocate people to fix that? Have you spent time paying attention to the way work is assigned in your team? Do you actively participate in the planning process? When was the last time you tried changing it to see how it could improve? Process is part of your life now, and you need to tend to it.
  4. Won’t say no. If your team is completely overwhelmed with work, well, it’s partially your fault. You are the manager, and you are the person who is responsible for pushing back on the work commitments for the team.

Scenario Two: You haven’t shown that you can expand beyond your team, aka, failing to manage up

Maybe your team is running well enough, but that’s all you’re doing. Opportunities for advancement are usually given to people who show up for those opportunities. You can easily get stuck by just getting comfortable in the place that you’re sitting. Someone who is failing to manage up often exhibits one of the following problems:

  1. Doesn’t attend to the details. Everything from clearly communicating the things that your team has accomplished, and sharing challenges or setbacks, to keeping your manager in the loop about major design decisions or roadmap changes, these details all matter. The best managers push information up without being asked and are quick to provide more details as necessary. Your manager wants to know that you are paying attention to what is going on.
  2. Complains a lot about things that are not working well, but never volunteers to fix them. If you are free with your criticism about the way things work, but don’t feel the need to do anything more than complain, you are holding yourself back. Instead of complaining, volunteer to lead the initiative to fix that team-wide problem. Bring problems and solutions.
  3. Drags her feet when given a clear task that is outside of her comfort zone. I have seen so many managers fail at the simple act of taking a clear assignment and seeing it through to completion. When your manager asks you to do something, either do it, or say you can’t/don’t really want to. But don’t just drag your feet and fail to do it.
  4. Doesn’t show a professional face to more senior managers. Do you openly look bored, distracted, or impatient in meetings? Do you write emails that communicate clearly? Do you think your manager would be comfortable having you present to her peers, alone? Your verbal, written, and body language communication is more and more important the more senior you become, and if you are lazy here it can hold you back.

Scenario Three: Fails to show peer leadership, aka, failing to manage sideways

Some people have well-running teams, they jump on fresh assignments, and yet they still get stuck. This is often due to the fact that your manager knows that she cannot put you as the manager to any of your existing peers. You are stuck because you haven’t shown enough peer/relationship management. This can sometimes look like:

  1. Doesn’t build strong peer relationships. If you spend most of your time focused downward or upward, you’re missing a step. When was the last time you helped out one of your peers? How often do you spend time with your peers, 1–1? Do you seek out feedback from your peers on your ideas, or ask them for help with your challenges? Having peers who trust and respect you, and more to the point, who might want to work for you if they had to, is needed for successful growth.
  2. Doesn’t look for additional tasks. You should be looking for opportunities to lead projects or initiatives outside of your team. How can you help your peers? You may be the best person to lead your area, but if you rarely push yourself outside of that area to talk to others and see places you could volunteer to improve, you’re missing a critical element of leadership.
  3. Doesn’t create a compelling vision or strategy that others want to buy into. You might have a clear roadmap for your team, but how much have you thought beyond your team? Have you ever shared any ideas you have for the larger group with your peers, and gotten their buy-in? Many people think that strategic thinking starts and stops with forming the strategy itself, but getting people around you excited by your ideas is critical to achieving them.
  4. Doesn’t seem like someone a manager would want to report to. Ultimately, if you want to manage managers, a manager should want to work for you. That means that you are going to help train them, help them grow their career. You’re not going to be spending all of your time telling them exactly what to do, when to do it, no questions asked. If one of your peer line managers wouldn’t want to work for you, you might be stuck on giving the impression that you’re looking to progress solely so that you can acquire more power and influence.

What about senior ICs?

As you may have noticed, this advice applies to more than first-line managers. Many senior individual contributors start to trip on these issues. They can crank out code for days, but communicating, getting buy in, and going outside of their comfort zone stops their progression. Few senior ICs get promoted beyond a point on the strength of their ideas and code alone.

Getting Unstuck

How do you get out of your rut? It starts by noticing where you are stuck. I noticed something that I’m not doing well just writing this list! Be honest, which of these are you really doing well at, and which are you failing? If you brought this list to your manager, what would they say? There’s only one real way to find out, so think about it, ask for feedback, and start to formulate your plan of attack for the things that are holding you back.

For more ideas, check out my book, The Manager’s Path, which addresses many of these stuck points!

Camille Fournier

Written by

Author, “The Manager’s Path.” http://amzn.to/2FvjeHH Distributed systems, dysfunctional programming. camilletalk.com, elidedbranches.com

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