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The curse of having a good manager

Taking charge, and dealing with vulnerability when you no longer get to work with the best boss in the world.

If you are reading this, then you most likely have worked for a kick-ass manager, and you know exactly where this article is heading. We’ll begin with a personal story to set the context, followed by actions you could take, and end with the impact it can potentially have in your work life.

Photo by Muhmed El-Bank on Unsplash

Part 1: Context

The tech industry has been my work place for close to a decade now. And, during this time, I’ve had the opportunity to work with different managers who had their unique styles of leadership and how they dealt with teams (for better or for worse). It was not until 8 years later, a manager with infectious energy, and super-high standards in terms of craft practice and people management, walks into my life, wins my trust and actually brings out that extroverted, proactive, idealistic, enthusiastic child I’ve always been, but chose to stay within a shell for years and not express my true, whole self, just because of professional circumstances.

Words can’t do justice to how motivated I was to wake up each day and get to work!

But then comes the twist to the tale. What happens when a manager of such caliber decides to move on to pursue a career else where, or you get assigned to a different team and will need to report to someone else?

And, that’s exactly what happened! I was devastated, and so was the team! It took me atleast about a couple of months to come to terms with this new reality. It felt like a plant that was uprooted! One’s enthusiasm to work goes for a toss.. their rationale, morale, decision making capabilities, accepting the new boss who might actually be good (or even better) and the list goes on. The pain was real.

Personally, I had no issue with the one I was going to report to. He was a really nice guy, was sensible, great problem solving skills, was part of our very own team, comes with a good deal of professional experience, and above all, he was genuine. What was most draining, was the fact that a lot of my energy went into keeping a check on my biases where I had to tell myself almost every single day,

“Be fair, and stop being petty with the constant comparison. Give the new dude the opportunity to express himself as Manager. ”

Easier said, than done! And, for someone like me who is usually adaptable, accommodating and can be super optimistic about life.. realizing that I wasn’t able to pull myself together, made it all the more harder to endeavor emotionally. Besides, how often do you meet someone at work who manages to inspire you like no other?

And, that’s what I call,

“The curse of having a good manager.”

Part 2: Actions

I remember reading a quote that goes something like this, “the world would have remained just as an idea, if there were no actions taken”. So, here’s what I did in order to take charge of my situation, and deal with the crisis at work, and (sort of) emerge victorious at the end.

Step 1: Acceptance

The sooner you come to terms with life and acknowledge your situation, the easier it is to get through it.

I had to come to terms with two things:

  • My ex-manager leaving — Getting over that denial mode
  • Being forgiving of myself and acknowledging the fact that my emotions were human, and that it was okay to feel like crap every once in a while. This was tougher of the two!

The secret sauce lies in mastering the art of swimming with the water, as opposed to fighting against it.

Step 2: Introspect

Often we tend to go on an endless ranting spree about what’s not working with our new boss (or current boss), without even knowing what is it that you expect of them. I remember having my internal bias kick in for the most trivial things every now and then, and tell me things like, “Oh, when the ex-boss was around, she’d have been sensitive to things like these”.

That’s why introspecting is so important. All I did was, opened up a note-taking application, and began writing a hypothetical essay titled,

“What would I do — if I had to step up and lead my team, and fill in those huge shoes of my ex-manager? What would my first 3 months be like?”

Note, the goal of this exercise isn’t about what you expect your manager to do, but it is more about what would you have done. You may or may not have any experience managing people, but, that shouldn’t stop you from penning down what the idealist within feels. Get to the details of each task you would do from your very first day. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • What would you immediately do on the first day of your job?
  • What would your first team meeting / address to your reports be like?
  • Would you retrospect on the impact your predecessor had on the team? If so, how?
  • What would your relationship with your Manager be like? What kind of support would you take from them?
  • What would your first 1:1s with each individual be like?
  • What would the second, third and successive 1:1s and team meetings be all about?
  • How would you get an insight into each one’s aspirations and motivations?
  • What would you do to provide a sense of re-assurance to the team?
  • What would be your vision for the team, and how would you communicate it to them?
  • What kind of team rituals do you have in mind?
  • What are some of those things you’d practice by default?

Articulate what you believe your team mates would be going through at the moment, and what would you do to address the situation. This is going to help know yourself better, and foster a meaningful conversation.

Step 3: Drivers, drainers, fears and expectations

This is a popular framework that was recommended to me by my ex-manager. We discussed about how people tend to forget that managers are regular human beings like you and me with dreams and aspirations to be successful at their jobs too. And their success is tied to ours! They have absolutely no effing clue about what you are experiencing or what you expect from them if it isn’t communicated clearly. By not being open and honest, this ‘guessing game’ is only going to prove futile!

Here’s how it works. Feel free to tweak the table to suit your requirement, just like I did. Write down atleast three to four Drivers, Drainers, Fears and Expectations that are specific to you and include details if you’d like. I’ve also added an ‘Opportunities’ column where you and your manager can assign action items on how you intend to address them together.

Sharing your vulnerability, isn’t a weakness, but you are laying the foundation for what could end up potentially becoming a relationship that is built on the most basic human emotion — trust.

Step 4: Working style

Everybody has their own way of getting work done. What your style? Are you the night owl that burns the mid night oil, or are you the early bird that likes logging in and off early. Do you respond to Slack messages or emails or neither? May be you prefer phone calls? What motivates you to put out your best work each day? How would you prefer to collaborate? What’s your personal situation at home like? Is there something you manager needs to know? What kind of intervention do you prefer from your boss? Do you want them to give you your space to figure things on your own, or do you feel a little hand holding during the initial months until you are comfortable with your work environment would be helpful? At the end of the discussion,

You and your manager are in agreement with your working style, and how either of you plan on fulfilling the expectations of your individual roles together successfully.

Step 5: Growth talks and goal setting

I’ve covered this topic in detail in an earlier essay that caters to designers, but actually applies to all.

Every body is different, and have their own aspirations and strengths. You don’t necessarily have to be a 100% skilled at all aspects of your job. That’s why there’s a team. And it’s your manager’s job to figure out how to put the Lego blocks together.

Here’s an excerpt from my other article on this topic:

It’s about having an open conversation with your boss, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, talking about your motivations, being aligned on the areas that you are passionate about, and facilitating towards helping build your muscle around them.

The ultimate motive of having monthly conversations around growth and goals is to be aligned on expectations from each other and the organization, and off course, zero bull sh*t!

Read more about growth talks and goal settings here.

Part 3: Impact

Personally, mustering the courage to share my vulnerability and tell my boss, “I’m feeling like crap dude. I need help!”, was the best thing I feel I did.

Articulating your emotions in a more structured manner, gives the conversation more clarity, depth and meaning. That’s where the secret sauce lies!

It negates the scope for any finger-pointing or useless rambling and focuses purely on intent. And, from a manager’s perspective, they are gaining valuable information that can help them plan better on how to approach working with you. Building trust is a two way street, and it takes time. You need to do it one brick at a time. However, the question is

Are you ready to expose your true vulnerable self?

PS: Readers have reached out saying, “I love what you are proposing here, but, what if my manager’s a complete a**hole? Won’t this work against me?” The honest answer is, “Sure! May be you might want to tweak your approach based on your situation and context. Remember, no one’s going to take charge on your behalf. Be the better judge.”

Thanks for reading! My name is Kasi, and I am a Product Designer :)

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Kasinatha Rao

Kasinatha Rao

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Senior designer at Atlassian. I write about Design, and what it means to be a Designer in the world of tech.