From Maker To Manager: Making Yourself Unnecessary

This is the fourth post in an ongoing series about the transition from maker to manager1.

I still remember the one of the first descriptions of leadership I heard from a successful business person that I instinctively felt was wrong. I was young, early in my career, and the CEO who ran the company I worked at had joined a meeting about a project assigned to my boss’ team.

I can’t remember the specifics of the project, but I do know that it had encountered some sort of difficulty and the CEO was stepping in to help get things back on track. Seeing the primary leader of the business ’get their hands dirty’ with the team, especially alongside a young, inexperienced person like me was encouraging and felt right somehow—a salve for the notion that executives use hierarchy to shield themselves from the actual work being done.

Towards the end of the meeting, though, the CEO said this:

It’s not good that I’m in this meeting. My goal is to make myself unnecessary, so you need to figure this out on your own next time.

How easy it is for the idealist to criticize

Perhaps you have already picked up the scent of errant thinking, but for those struggling with myopia as I was, I’ll belabor the point.

From my perspective, the situation had highlighted the nobility and humbleness of the leader of our company, but that same leader seemed to be saying that getting involved was a waste of their time. That was why the statement felt instinctively wrong. In my naivety, I believed that a good manager would never ask their reports to do something they wouldn’t do themselves and, apparently, as evidenced by my reaction, often became proactively involved in doing that work.

The fallacy in my thinking wasn’t immediately apparent to me and took years of experience to correct: the reason I had a negative reaction was in large part because I was most concerned about myself and the work I was doing, not how I fit into the more complex landscape of the entire business. I wasn’t mature enough to understand that a CEO relating to their employees and their involvement in those employees’ day-to-day work are two very different things. The lenses I wore cast what I would later learn was a false shadow on the CEO of that company. My uneducated ideals were fertile ground for unfounded criticism.

Bad managers are real and plenty

It’s worth mentioning that, though wrong, I don’t think my reaction was completely unfounded. The stereotype of an uninvolved manager (and legitimate frustration with them) exists for a reason: many people have worked under leaders who leveraged their authority within a hierarchy to do as little work as possible, often at the expense of the people who work for them. In fact, the experience is so common that comic strips like Dilbert and shows like The Office have realized significant commercial success due massive audiences who identify with characters suffering under stereotypically horrible bosses. I can only say that virtual leadership coaching could help these bad managers become excellent ones.

At the same time, it’s likely that many of us have also encountered people whose professional narrative weaves a common thread of managers who don’t understand them, no matter the company or role. While that is a sad reality for many, I know that in my own experience, when that was my disposition, it was highly likely that I simply didn’t understand the scope or complexity of the decisions being made—I was primarily interested in how my manager’s choices impacted my personal, day-to-day working experience or projects within the company I’d invested myself in. Looking back, when I was younger and had beef with my managers (legitimate or not), I never had the overall scale of the business in mind and, in cases where we differed in opinions on strategy (whether I was right or wrong), I didn’t have the experience to understand the complexity of changing the strategic direction of a business, which meant that I mostly just complained.

There’s no excuse for bad management, but when that was my only excuse as an employee, it was most likely due to a myopic, self-focused view of the business.

What makes good managers valuable

Later on in my career, after starting and scaling a company of my own, I remembered that meeting and finally understood that it was a waste of the CEO’s time. The reason was far simpler than I would have guessed. It wasn’t a waste of time because of a certain management style or personal ego trip. It was a waste of time because if the CEO had to step in every time a problem happened on a project, the business had no chance of growing. Time scales linearly and has a hard ceiling, and business leaders often have more demands on their time than most. If growth is directly correlated to the CEO’s time, there is an inherent limit to growth.

As I’ve said in this series before, one of the trickiest passages to navigate is transitioning from being an expert executor, key to delivering an amazing product or service, to managing the team who does that work. The change is difficult in part because getting the work done while staffing up is hard, but more-so because the manager has to deliberately remove the personal rate-limiter of the time it takes to be involved in the work in order for the business to grow.

Let’s take a founder as an example. As the company scales, their value transitions from being intimate tactical execution of the work (what likely made the company successful early on) to:

  1. Knowledge of how that work work drives the business in the context of the overall strategy and other moving parts
  2. Having the front-lines experience needed to lead the team or teams who are doing the work

This can be particularly challenging for innate makers. At some point, they must face the reality that even if they started as the expert (and even if they maintain some level of expertise), it’s not only highly unlikely that they will maintain the position as most talented tactical player on the team, it severely limits the potential of the company2.

When the two components come together for someone transitioning from maker to manager, though, they begin to learn how to think further ahead and in terms of scale, a state in which they constantly evaluate the current business and work the team is doing against what is needed to both grow the company and operate it at a much higher level of complexity. Said another way, they understand the investments they need to make in their team to empower them to do the right work for the long-term business.

Those ingredients for successful managers also happen to be the same ingredients that can cause a disconnect between that manager and less experienced employees who aren’t long enough in the tooth to understand decisions that forgo short-term convenience for long-term reward.

Leadership landmines

Being a good manager is really hard work. It requires intense focus on long-term strategy while investing in strong, empathetic relationships with your reports (some of whom will not understand the complexity of your job). In the face of such a daunting challenge, it can be easy to sacrifice on either side of the equation.

Less relational, big-picture individuals will tend to focus wholeheartedly (and often effectively) on the business, but sacrifice the critical work of building a great team and culture. In many cases the sacrifice doesn’t manifest as negligence as much as it does in an uninspiring, un-motivating or un-innovative environment.

Relational makers run the risk of always needing to be close to the work (or actually doing it). They thrive on being an expert, not to serve their ego, but because they are curious, talented builders. Inability to forgo building inevitably leads to micromanagement at growing companies, especially for highly talented people who are going from maker to manager.

The holy grail is to constantly translate a clear, mission-driven, forward-looking strategy to a team of people who are increasingly better at executing the work than you are over time. If you can empower a talented team who trusts you, even if they don’t fully understand (or like) the decision, you’ve got a recipe for significant impact.

On becoming unnecessary

In my youth I misunderstood what that CEO meant by “unnecessary.” I thought they were just trying to make their own job easier by giving my team more work. In reality, though, they were rightly pointing out that, in order for the business to grow, their involvement in delivering work had to be unnecessary.

As my own experience would teach me, a good manager becoming less and less involved in the block and tackle execution of work is a strong indicator that their team understands the mission and the specifics of how to execute it well.

1. You can see all of the posts in the series, From Maker to Manager, here.2. The risk of an overly-involved executive is likely part of the concern investors showed over the revelation that Elon Musk is working 120 hours per week and relying on prescription drugs to sleep. A BBC article noted that “[Musk’s] use of the drug has concerned some board members, who wonder if it affects his late-night tweets.”

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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