New Managers: Creating Culture

Last week, I wrote about the new manager advice I received on Twitter. A lot of the responses fell into a handful of themes, one of which was Culture. By culture, I mean the culture that I cultivate for my people as their manager. What sort of environment do I want to offer them? What kind of culture am I building? What are my values, and how do I communicate them?

Some of the advice that stood out to me around this theme:

  • Explain the why of management choices. Inform people earlier better then later, even if stuff is still uncertain
  • Listen, really listen, to the people who report to you
  • Be present and available to everyone, even the ones who seem to be doing fine
  • Also being an advocate for their best selves… Focus on getting them as close to you can as the three main happiness indicators for employees: autonomy, master, purpose
  • As a manager you have many tools available to get “the pulse,” empathize and provide direction for your reports. But, it is often just a friendly casual chat over lunch that will get you there quicker
  • Take notes about their personal life events and follow up later. It’s amazing when your leader remembers about something that is not related to work and cares about it
  • Be the leader each person needs, which means being adaptable rather than asking everyone to adapt to you.
  • Ensure they have not only my support but they know it’s my role to ensure they have the tools and the means to succeed in their role
  • There’s nothing more confusing and demotivating for a team member than not understanding how to succeed
  • Be more forthright about my knowledge gaps when I didn’t have answers to questions they ask. I inherently assumed I should to have all the answers to be their manager. Instead, point them in the direction they might find answers, and be open to learn from them
  • Don’t promise to do anything you can’t follow through on. When you fail to follow through, be out front and honest about it, and do better next time

“Explain the why of management choices. Inform people earlier rather than later.” As an IC, I’ve always preferred managers who err on the side of transparency. I know that can come with more uncertainty or churn, since it means I might know information before it’s finalized or have to deal with an upcoming change that I don’t have control over. But I also know how to understand and deal with my emotions and reactions. I know that I can’t control everything. I know things might happen that I disagree with or that I would do differently. But I’d rather know, because I can make better decisions with better information.

As a manager, I want to operate from that same place of transparency. I want to make sure my team has the information they need to make the best decisions for themselves. I know that this approach might require extra coaching and communication, because it does mean inviting more feedback loops from the people who are being informed and might have questions or concerns - but I think that’s a worthwhile tradeoff to encourage transparency within the team culture.

“Be present and available to everyone; be an advocate for their best selves.” I want to create an environment where my team feels personally and professionally supported. We bring our whole selves to work, and I need to make sure people feel safe doing that. Part of my job as a manager is really listening and paying attention to the people on my team. How are they feeling? How did that project onboarding go? How is their work-life balance? What stressors are they experiencing right now? What are they worried about, happy about, nervous about? This assumes building a level of trust over time, but understanding my team means I can do a better job of giving them what they need to succeed. I have a really bad memory, and I love the suggestion to take notes so I can make sure I’m keeping track of the events or work that people need support around.

Someone also suggested setting the example of taking sick time and vacation time. I am a huge advocate for this - your sick time and your vacation time is absolutely yours to take! If you’re sick, you deserve to have the time to recover and come back when you’re well. Also, nobody else wants to get sick - don’t be patient zero for the flu that wrecks its way through your office. And I am definitely the person who takes all of my vacation. When it’s unlimited, I average about 5 weeks of vacation. I give notice way in advance, I check with teams and projects before I’m out, and I don’t check email or Slack while I’m gone. Taking vacation time, even if it’s just giving yourself a four-day weekend at home, helps you relax and recharge. It’s the “life” part of that work-life balance we hear so much about.

“Be the leader each person needs.” As an able-bodied straight white cis woman without kids, advocating for everyone’s best self also means being able to set aside my privilege and my assumptions of work-life needs. I don’t know what it’s like to be a caretaker for an infirm parent. I don’t know what it’s like to be Black, or gay, or disabled. I need to put in the work to meet people where they are. It’s my job to create an environment of compassion and trust where people truly feel safe bringing their whole selves to work at whatever level is comfortable for them.

“Be forthright about my knowledge gaps, and and be open to learn from the people who report to you.” As a manager, your ability to contribute and learn with your team sets the example for everyone else to have that mindset. The ability to say “I don’t know” is such a great skill. If you can’t admit to not knowing something, how can you learn? We’re in an industry where things change all the time - it’s not reasonable to assume that you’d know everything!

But I can see how it might feel hard to say in front of people who report to you. As a new manager, you might feel pressure to act like you have it all together and know all the answers. Personally, I’ve struggled to respect managers or leadership that is incapable of saying those three little words. It causes a lot of toxicity because it creates an environment where other people don’t feel safe saying it. The appearance of knowing everything doesn’t serve you and it doesn’t serve your team. It’s better to lead by the example of admitting when you don’t know something and then doing the work to find out.

It also means acknowledging that you can learn from the people you manage. You hired them for their expertise and experience, so let them use it! It speaks to a really positive culture when there’s a mix of knowledge, skills, and experience where everyone can learn from each other without shame or judgement.

“There’s nothing more confusing and demotivating for a team member than not understanding how to succeed.” I feel this. As a QA Engineer, a lot of my jobs have been fairly self-defined. There was no pre-existing criteria for success, which meant I was free to try and decide what success looked like for myself. On the one hand, there’s a certain freedom to this that I’ve really enjoyed. On the downside, it meant that sometimes my definition of success would get torpedoed when someone else decided that they had an opinion after all - and we did not have the same idea of success. I don’t want my team to experience that frustration, or the stress of having to meet unknown expectations. I’ll have expectations as a manager, but I also need to remember to take individual needs and goals into account. We can create and meet expectations of success in a way that serves both the company and the people on my team.

What say you, tech managers? How did you create a positive and supportive culture for your team? Join the conversation by leaving a comment here or replying on Twitter!

Written on January 20, 2020