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💪🏻 Getting your first manager job
How to prepare and land and your first group manager job on a product team
Mentee - “I want to become a manager. How do I get there?”
Me - “Why do you want to be a manager?”
Mentee - I’ll have a lot more impact and will get a lot more done than I could do myself. However, I don’t know how to get there.”
Me - Let’s talk about what it actually means to be a manager - as it’s as much about taking care of people and paperwork as it is about having more impact.
I really enjoy being a manager - and fortunate that at my current company, I am a manager of managers. About a year ago, I wrote about a day in the life of a frontline manager - but the question I get often is how do I break through and become a manager for the first time at a tech company.
To get to the answer, ask yourself two big questions (and this post is broken up into two sections accordingly)
Do you really want to be a manager and why?
How do you get yourself to the right place and the right time to be ready for the opportunity?
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Part 1 - Why the manager path?
There are many reasons to become a manager - do you believe that you’ll have more impact, is it the only way to grow in your organization and/or do you want to grow and develop people?
Of course, the answer can often times be all of the above or a mix. But key things I have seen over the years are that being an incredible individual performer does not lead to being a great manager. Many tech companies now have senior individual contributor tracks so that people don’t have to lead teams in order to grow as a leader (check out Adam’s post from two weeks ago on Advancing from Product Manager to Product leader). If you are purely after more impact but don’t really want to model, coach and care1, find the team or an organization that honors and supports high performers without making them be a manager.
Personally, I enjoy coaching and supporting people - I’m a big believer in servant leadership so being a manager felt like a natural progression for me. Some of my earlier managers have reflected that I would be a stronger manager than an individual contributor.
When I became a manager for the first time, the best advice I received was to fire myself from my former job and re-hire myself for the new one.
🏻 Are you ready to coach, model and care for other humans at work?
I vividly remember one of my first direct reports trying her hardest, but not actually getting to the right outcome for a project she was driving. I struggled with how to coach and guide her without taking over the work (“just this once”) to show her how to do it. It took way longer for me to hone in on the right questions to ask her, to send her templates and examples of similar work and to paint success without doing the work myself than I ever imagined.
I have never worked harder to not give an answer, but guide and coach instead. Nothing about this was efficient - it took more time, energy, and patience for the result was still not as good as if I did it myself.
However, project 2, 3 and 4 went better - I improved my approach - I got better at asking the questions and clarifying the key outcomes. I also found ways to give positive encouragement and support without nitpicking.
Over time, I finally accepted that my team will approach and do a project differently than the way I would do it - and as long as the business outcome is achieved, I learned to let go of the expectation that it had to be done my way.
If you are interested to coach and grow people, you will have more impact - but the path to that is harder than I ever knew when I was setting out to be a manager.
📣 Are you ready to be the voice of the organization?
When you are hired to be a manager - you become a middle layer between individual contributors and the company leadership. While you will undoubtedly get more ownership and say in some decisions, you are still not the CEO or even the one with a decision making power on things many of your employees care about (compensation structure, organizational priorities, company values, etc.). This means that you have to be very thoughtful on how you show up to your team especially when you need to carry a message you didn’t create or were consulted on.
As a manager, I now take company pulse surveys and provide verbatim feedback very differently than I did as an individual contributor. As a manager, I don’t have the license to complain without trying to be part of the solution.
So when becoming a manager, make sure you are generally aligned with your organization’s values and goals. If you don’t like how your company does change management, training, communication, compensation, etc. - think about how you will need to represent and talk about this to your team in a way that doesn’t undermine the company. And if you don’t think you can carry the flag - consider whether or not being a manager is the right fit for you.
📝 Are you ready for the paperwork of being a manager?
As a manager, you are not just coaching your employees and delivering on business impact, but you also have an obligation to them, your company and shareholders in your role. You are no longer responsible just for yourself and your actions.
A huge part of being a manager at Microsoft was supporting our international employees in getting and renewing their work visas so they could keep working in the United States. This meant that I spent time doing a ton of paperwork, having many meetings with our legal and HR teams as well as interviewing other-like candidates to make sure that we were able to justify and support our employees in their immigration process. This was by far the most important role I needed to play for a subset of my employees and the stress they felt when there were snags, starts and stops in the process was palpable and impactful.
Other paperwork related tasks that require thoughtfulness include managing your employee’s paid (and sometimes unpaid) time off (do you care if they file their vacation or not - and how is that congruent with your company’s culture and policy), how do you answer questions about expenses and travel (even when there is a policy, there are always edge cases and exceptions), and how do you ensure that your team completes all their compliance trainings are just some of the things that take up way more time than I understood before I became a manager.
This is not a part of the job that should be overlooked or taken lightly - people’s livelihood is often held in manager’s hands and you need to be ready to own that piece of the job with appropriate seriousness and attention.
Part 2 - How do I break through to my first manager job in tech?
So let’s say the answer to all 3 questions in part 1 of this post are a resounding yes - what’s next?
As is often true in our lives, there are things you can control and things you cannot. It’s hard to know when a manager opportunity will arise, hard to know for sure if you will get it and even more impossible to predict if it will be rewarding the way you hope it would be.
But you can and should evaluate if you are in the right place for the time when the opportunity does come. Here are some things to ask:
🙋🏼♀️ Can you name 3 people who would want to work for you?
If you are going to get promoted on the team you are on and inherit existing employees, the question to ask yourself, is would your teammates want to work for you. And if not, why not? What are the gaps they see and what is the hesitation.
When I was promoted to be a first time manager, my then manager gave a choice to people on the team if they wanted to work for me or the other person who was also being promoted. It was eye opening that most of the senior produt managers chose to NOT work for me because I had less domain expertise than my peer lead so they thought I’d have less to offer.
Is your organization set up to promote first-time managers?
There is a big difference between an experienced manager and a first-time manager. Different teams seek different types of leaders depending on the maturity of the organization and the specific needs of the team/department.
It’s important to figure out whether or not your organization promotes from within and develops new managers or does it hire experienced managers externally.
Here is how I knew that I was on a team that had the right infrastructure in place to support first time managers:
I got to manager a team of 2 people to start but was able to grow the team to 5 over 6 months (mainly through college hires that were starting on the team)
I didn’t need to learn a new domain and I had enough expertise that I was able to support and grow the more junior members of the team immediatel
I didn’t need to hire anyone net new in the first 3 months as a manager postponing the stress of attracting talent
🤝 Do you have the trust of the organization’s decision-maker?
As you look to make the jump into people management, think about how you are showing up to your leadership team. Is your house in order? Do you drive clarity, energy and results in projects you work on? Are you seen as someone who can take a complex problem, and run it to it’s logical conclusion while bringing along partner teams, your manager and your peers?
I remember when I was on the cusp of becoming a manager, I had an opportunity to act as a leader:
I updated and improved our team’s brief template for my product area. I had gotten feedback from both design and engineers that the format and approach I took in my briefs was really helpful to enable the right conversation about the features we were discussing. So I shared it with the organization for others to use/replicate. It was the combination of the “what” and the “how” that helped me show up both as an owner as well as a team player.
Hopefully you have many opportunities to interact with your leadership team where they can see your work - both what you are doing and how you are showing up to do it. Don’t take those moments for granted but rather use them to show yourself acting as an owner of your area who commands respect of your peers and drives positive results for the business.
🙌🏻 Does your leadership team know you are interested in being a manager?
Last but not least, make sure your manager and her peers know you are interested in leadering a team and your rationale behind it. The chance of your direct manager having a lead role for you is possible but small, but the chance of the opportunity coming up on an adjacent team is important not to miss.
Make sure you have a career focused conversation with your manager at least once a quarter where you can talk about your longer term goals and growth opportunities. If you have time with your manager’s manager - I would also make sure that person knows of your aspirations.
Hopefully your leadership team will be able to help you identify the steps you can take on the team to prepare as well as they’ll advocate for you if they see other opportunities on nearby teams for you to be considered.
I hope that this post also helped you think through some of the “why” you want to be a manager so when your manager asks you, you are able to have a great conversation about your goals in becoming a people leader.