In July, a Twitter thread about 10x engineers turned into a minor viral phenomenon, though probably not in the way the original writer intended. Most of the tweets came from developers eager to poke fun at the whole concept of engineers who are supposedly 10 times more productive than their peers.
Life as a 10x engineer pic.twitter.com/bdsHTw0QEv— Cassidy Williams (@cassidoo) July 13, 2019
While I read the replies in the thread, I was realizing how the very things (that when done well) can help someone succeed as a contributor aren’t the same things that will help a manager succeed and I was making those mistakes every day with my team as a new manager.
When I started out, I approached managing a team the same way I had approached my work as a marketer: with a single-minded drive to excel, stand out, and churn out work.
It was a disaster.
My team’s work fell off, I felt pulled in a hundred directions, and worst of all, I could sense that my relationships with colleagues were starting to suffer.
It took some soul-searching and conversations with more seasoned managers for me to identify the problem, which in a nutshell was: you can’t 10x management.
The qualities that got me to my position—being results-focused, detail-oriented, and hyper-productive—were not the qualities that would serve me as a leader.
Un-learning those habits and replacing them with new ones took time and required implementing strategies to restructure my interactions with employees.
In the end, I finally found my managing groove when I stopped “10xing” and started focusing on my relationships.
So, if “frantic hummingbird of productivity” describes your current management style, read on to learn how to redirect that energy in a more useful way for the job you have now.
10xing my team, not myself
When I became a manager, I had to redefine my standards of achievement in ways that initially felt contrary to my instincts. Like a star athlete turned coach, I had to accept that my success was defined by my team’s success (and I had to fight the urge to run onto the court every time I thought I could do a better job). The new expectation wasn’t that I be the star, but that I be the support.
When I became a manager, I had to change how I measured success.
The most obvious suggestion to support my team’s productivity also proved to be the most useful: I started asking my employees what they need. In the past, I had organized my interactions with colleagues around efficiency and getting the information I needed to complete my work. But since my work was now about coaxing great performances from my charges, one-line emails were no longer the right tool for the task.
The goal became learning what each team member needed to thrive, and, of course, those needs varied hugely from person to person. On any team, there’s going to be the person who wants lots of face time and feedback, the person who needs a detailed set of expectations to use as a blueprint, and the person who thrives best when left alone. How do you know who is who? You build those questions into onboarding and 1:1 meetings. You’ll be surprised at how forthcoming your team members will be and how useful the information they share is.
For example, if an employee confesses they respond well to praise and are very sensitive to criticism, you can use that knowledge to inform how you talk to them, so they don’t get discouraged and demotivated. You can schedule meetings based on individual preferences, so the person who needs face time gets attention, and you’re not intruding on the focus of the person who needs isolation. For the person who wants more details to start work, set up time with them before a project begins, so you can hear any concerns they have and help them feel more confident about what they’re doing.
To return to the sports analogy, if you’re the coach and your star player can’t perform without a pre-game smoothie, then part of your job title is now “official smoothie procurer.” Whether or not you like smoothies is immaterial as long as they help you win games.
Loosening my grip on the reins
When I started leading my first team, I found it incredibly difficult to delegate. It was almost painful to stop myself from taking over when I watched my team struggle with a problem or even just solve a problem differently than I would have. I often felt like I was capable of doing the work better and faster than the person I assigned it to, and I was, because I’d been doing it for so long. But I’d become fast and effective because I’d had the benefit of experience and guidance, and I needed to offer the same benefits to my team.
A supervisor explained it to me in terms of allowing for incremental change: “If they can do it 80% as well as you this round, let them do it. Next time they’ll do it 85% as well and so on until they end up doing the work far better than you ever could. You have to give them a chance to grow, just like your past bosses did for you.”
If they can do it 80% as well as you this round, delegate the work.
In practice, letting go means accepting, before a project even begins, that mistakes are inevitable and deciding how you’re going to deal with them when they happen. Naturally, you can’t sacrifice the quality of your team’s performance in the name of helping them grow, but you can learn to balance those priorities based on what you know about them as individuals. When you meet people where they are and offer incremental, developmental feedback, you’re managing with an eye to the future, instead of just putting out today’s fires.
If you’re really struggling to let go (like I was), start by building in some low-stakes opportunities for your team to work independently. Even if that just means not embedding yourself in every meeting, it’ll show the people you work with that you trust them and you’re giving them a chance to rise to the occasion.
Stepping up by slowing down
Before I was a manager, I was rewarded for working fast. The entire 10x mentality is built around high performers who can stay up all night and beat deadlines. But when you’re a leader, a focus on speed can actually be a liability.
If you’re driving your team so relentlessly that they have no context for what they’re doing, then you’re not managing a team so much as running an assembly line. With this mentality, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that as a manager, your product isn’t just “your product”; it’s the individuals and relationships that you’ll need to execute the next project, and the one after that.
When you’re exclusively focused on the amount of code your team writes (or raw output in any sense), you’re going to miss opportunities for people to learn and grow. One of your responsibilities as a manager is to find those moments for reflection in which you can nurture your team and show them that you’re working for them as much they’re working for you.
1:1’s are a time to slow down and focus on one person’s development.
The turning point for me was in realizing that 1:1 meetings are the lynchpin for helping managers do this work. They present an opportunity to devote time to an employee’s professional development. As a manager, I have plenty of avenues to talk about the minutiae of my team’s current projects, but 1:1s are when I get to have the most meaningful interactions.
1:1s are when you encourage people to share their career goals and discuss how to make progress toward them. They’re when you do retrospectives on the work that went well and the work that didn’t and discuss what you can learn from each. 1:1s are when you take the pulse of an employee’s work life and assess whether they need to push harder, pull back, or hold steady.
In many ways, that realization is Uptick’s origin story. Our product is built around the idea that the right tools can help managers cultivate the skills to change from a high-performing individual to a leader who elevates the work of everyone around them.
Same me, new manager skills
For me, being a good manager didn’t mean I had to abandon the “10x” energy and drive that had always powered my career. It meant I had to channel it toward different goals. And once I got the hang of it, learning to step back has proven to be one of the most rewarding challenges of my career.
If you’re struggling with the same issues, start putting concrete strategies in place to shift gears, and ask your employees for feedback to measure your progress. Once your team is running like a well-oiled machine, and you don’t feel you have to jump in to solve every minor problem, you can focus on the big picture and getting the big wins.