Individual Contributor to Manager

In my last role at Pocket Gems, I transitioned from an individual contributor (IC) to a manager and then to a manager of managers. It was a hard transition as we grew from 5 people to 150 in less than a year and a half, but I learned a lot along the way. I was directly responsible for a team of about 10 -15 product managers and indirectly responsible for a multi-function team of about 120 people.

In order to transition from an IC role to a manager role, it’s important to be a functional expert so that you can win the respect of the people that you manage. If you’re not a top quartile functional product manager it’s very difficult to progress into a management role. When you transition from a management role to a manager of managers the skill set is completely different. Your skills as an IC become less relevant and your role evolves into a strategy, staffing, prioritisation and coordination role vs. being a great IC. You need to create systems to be able to get the right information at the right time through data, people, and process. This then informs strategy, which leads to prioritisation and staffing.

I personally found the transition from IC to a manager of managers role quite depressing. I realised that I gained fulfillment from completing tasks (running analyses, designing features etc) and I was doing very little of these tasks any more. I became much more comfortable in the role after I did a few things:

  1. I read the High Output Management and the Hard Thing about Hard Things
  2. I kept 10-20% of my time to work on IC type projects from running a particular analysis to designing a new feature that I wanted to test.
  3. I gained fulfillment from developing others and seeing them grow as product managers

I do think the best leaders are able to work along all the dimensions of IC, Manager and Manager of Managers. People who perform well at all these dimensions scale particularly well at growth startups and are a great fit for leadership roles at early stage companies.

There are a few other things that I learned, mainly by screwing them up a few times and dealing with the ramifications of my screwups. These mistakes can permanently break trust with people, create really strained working relationships and are hard lessons I learned along the way.

  • Genuinely care about people on your team. There is no substitute for authenticity and your team will be able to tell if you’re apathetic towards them.
  • What you say as a manager is amplified because of your position – you have to be even more thoughtful about what you say as you can distract the team unnecessarily and also affect morale both negatively and positively with even a few words.
  • You should never take credit publicly (give to others) and always have tough conversations 1-on-1 privately. Building loyalty with your team will pay for itself 10x in the long run.
  • Great managers never complain about their team. They understand what the individuals are capable of, set them up for success and then manage expectations upwards.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – figure out what motivates them, what they care about and manage to those things. This should be one of the first conversations you have with someone new on your team. I often talk about my motivations first in order to break the ice.
  • Make each person feel respected and valued regardless of their role – if someone’s role is a thankless job (e.g. QA) it’s even more important to celebrate wins.
  • Focus on process to make things better vs. placing blame on individuals (very easy to do, especially in the heat of the moment). It’s very easy to damage relationships permanently by doing this repeatedly.
  • If there are personnel / performance issues – deal with it fairly and expediently – the person affected and the rest of the team will appreciate this in the medium term (but often not in the short term). Dragging your feet here will lose you respect at all levels of the organisation.
  • Learn how to influence. People respond much better if they feel like they came to the conclusion themselves vs. forcing the outcome onto them. There are lots of levers for influence and using these levers thoughtfully is an art e.g. do it for yourself (own goals), do it for the company, do it for the team, do it for me (manager).
  • Be transparent with your team. If people have context they will perform better. This does not mean sharing noise (information that is not a useful signal or irrelevant) with the team; a common misconception when talking about transparency.

I am learning more every day in this capacity, and writing these learnings down helps me systematise my learning.  I hope that others out there find some of this useful as well.

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