What is your differentiation as a manager?
On managers, mistakes, and what leadership and professionalism mean
People don’t leave organisations, the old adage goes, they leave managers.
And it doesn’t take a lot of time at work to realise that the inverse is also true, that a lot of people stay in organisations for their managers.
Even though we know this well, both as organisations and individuals, we don’t spend much time learning or training for better management. This is especially true of startups, where we have less time and even less patience.
I have written about this before, in a long essay in which I laid out incidents where I both succeeded and failed miserably as a manager. But I also pointed out why I take this so seriously.
From On the Mistakes I’ve made as a Manager
When I joined Wingify in 2016, and for the first time led a significant team, I had only one rule: Don’t be an asshole. Make people comfortable.
This attitude to leadership stemmed from an earlier experience of having been made very uncomfortable, even demoralised as a junior. And because of that, I had convinced myself that I could fail at any other aspect of the job, but not this. I wanted to give my team what I didn’t get. I wanted my team to want to work with me. I wanted them to remain friends, stay involved in their careers.
This is also why it infuriated me when I failed.
Except, I later realised, you have to fail. If you don’t, you’ll think it’s a cakewalk, that it’s easy. It’s not. You are responsible for a person’s career and everyday life at work. You can’t be frivolous or off handed about it.
Do I get it right all the time? No. It’s impossible to.
But I try, and I intend to try harder.
Why am I talking about this now?
Last week, Indian business publication The Ken dropped a podcast in which I spoke about something related. The episode was about pre-boarding practices and how startups were going out of their way to find and recruit great talent. I was the only marketer on, the others were HR leaders.
I speak from about 21:30, but it’s an interesting conversation as a whole.
The following passage is from what I said, paraphrased for readability.
You also shouldn't mollycoddle the employee. You shouldn’t be attracting them because of something other than the joy as well as the challenge of the work itself. We are trying to move away from one extreme where there is no communication or engagement, but we shouldn’t move so far to the other side that you are basically holding up cotton candy. These are professionals, we have to treat them as such.
I've led marketing teams in startups when you have to go after someone for a certain role. When we’ve had the first conversation, I have certain check-ins. For example, one would start with asking them how they want to be managed before they even begin working with me. This is one of my differentiations as a manager and I have to show it to them. I ask them if they want weekly check-ins or fortnightly, I ask them details on how they are most comfortable working, and so on.
For instance, with Sadhana (my team at Atomicwork) I had given her a entire year's progress check-ins. She said she wanted to be at X position in a year or two, so I had given her the entire career progress plan mapped out - what we will do in Q1, what I expect in Q2 and so on. This clarity is my advantage.
I have to do this, because there are a bunch of great marketing leaders in India and all of them want Sadhana on their team. She will always have recruiters reaching out to her, but I've given her a career path for the next two years. This is my differentiation.
You can’t stop there, though. You have to constantly take away ambiguity and deliver clarity. That is your job as a manager, and also as a leader.
I’ve always been fascinated by career paths, and how successful professionals with elements of mastery in their fields get to where they are. I have a little idea about producing something on this topic for the newsletter too, you’ll see that coming soon.
In the meantime, I enjoyed listening to Atomicwork co-founder and CTO Kiran Darisi in this conversation on his journey. Regular readers of this newsletter have met him before, in my introduction to the people that made Freshworks.
It’s a great conversation, and can also work as behind-the-scenes of how great companies and cultures are built. Give it a watch.
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Airmeet is hiring for a product marketing associate. Will be a great role for someone with 1-2 years of experience and wants to get into product marketing. Even someone with good internship experience could be a good fit.
A stealth startup I know is hiring for a community manager. This is an ambitious role with both digital and IRL components. Anyone interested can reach out to me on LinkedIn and I’ll be happy to connect.