Over the years at Gauntlet I have come to manage a team of 20+ people across a variety of disciplines - Finance, Product, People Ops, Growth, etc. I wrote down what I thought was important for managers (and to some extent, ICs) to focus on. As I have started to advise more projects, I’ve noticed that others have struggled with clarifying management responsibilities and so I wanted to share this more broadly. For anyone reading, this will mostly apply to those working at smaller start ups.
What does it mean to be a manager?
Drive impact, scale and growth
Really simply, you need to figure out how you and your team can help the company succeed. Every company is a machine. You take in money and output software. That software then drives more money coming in, mostly from customers but occasionally from investors as well. You need to figure out how to help the company take in more money or output better software. That’s impact. As the company grows, a new challenge arises - this becomes less direct for most individuals and we need to figure out how to ensure individual efforts maximize collective impact. That’s scale. I cannot reiterate enough how strangely hard this is. You need to constantly work to drive alignment across the organization and within your team to achieve this. As Boz mentioned - comms is the job. Lastly, you need to ensure that you not only grow your ability to drive impact over time but all of your reports as well. To do this, you need to give your reports real ownership.
A bias towards real delegation and ownership
It’s really hard to scale your impact if you do not delegate to ICs very aggressively - you can only do so much yourself. It’s also really hard for people to grow if they don’t have real ownership over the initiatives they are working on. Delegation is giving people stuff to do - real delegation is giving them stuff to own. When you onboard a new employee, you face the question - is this person set up to succeed yet? You need to embrace the firehose. There should be no “ramp” when people join. A ramp is something you eat at a farm to table restaurant. Success is when a new employee actually takes ownership over their responsibilities at the company and drive impact. You cannot know if they are able to do this without giving them the opportunity to prove that they can - and with this comes the chance that they can’t. No one can achieve success without risking failure. You need to have credible failures. This means you focus on high-value, high-variance outcomes, and if you don’t hit your goals, you should die trying. You must be results-oriented, and rise to the challenge of doing so over not just one quarter, but many. It’s really hard to do this without support.
You are responsible for your employees work. If you delegate the work to them, and you should as much as possible, you should serve as the backstop to ensure that if they are not going to hit their goals, together you will. This ensures that as managers work to grow their reports as contributors, and those employees (and the company itself) are able to succeed. This starts with being very proactive.
You need to get ahead of things. If you or someone on your team has a goal, you need to do as much as possible to track progress and right the ship if things get off-track. Beyond this, you also need to give feedback as early and often as possible. At the end of each quarter, you should have a conversation with each of your reports to discuss how things are going. At the end of each half, this conversation will provide important context to their review which can greatly affect their compensation and career trajectory. Performance should be strictly tied to impact. If you are not proactive, you may have to surprise someone with negative feedback that they have no chance to address beforehand. This is very damaging to trust - it’s hard enough to address the feedback you get, it will feel very unfair when you have to tell reports that they are getting a lower score because of feedback you didn’t even give them yet. I will continue with a somber example as this is so important. It’s just impossible to hire the right people all of the time. Over time, we will all be faced with a circumstance where we need to let someone go. It’s not fun. However, if you set expectations really well, you will at least be on the same page with this person in that you gave them every opportunity to succeed. If not, the incredibly sad look you will inevitably receive will be replaced by a different, worse look - one of deep indignation that shows how betrayed they feel. Feedback is only one part of helping your employees succeed, you also need to manage up and advocate for them.
Managing up is really two things -
- Letting leadership know how they can better support you and your employees and increase your impact
- Helping leadership understand what’s going on so they can make effective decisions.
Good employees do what you tell them to do. Great employees tell you what to do. They work to figure out how to move the company forward, get your buy-in, and tell you how to help them. Managers need to be great employees. Not just to lead by example, but because they hold the success of everyone who works for them in their hands. I mention earlier that you need to constantly drive alignment - managing up is a big part of this. To help your reports, you need to reach out to management/leadership to ensure you have everything you need to do so.
Telling leadership whats going on is essential to all sorts of effective decision making:
- Resource allocation - they need to understand both costs and progress to understand how to reallocate resources over time
- Realignment and direction setting - if they don’t know what people are doing, how can they know that different teams at the company are aligned on what progress means. Impact is limited by people missing their goals, but even more so by people hitting goals that are not impactful.
- Fair reviews - Management cannot reward employees for work they don’t know about. You need to advocate for them.
You need to be your reports strongest advocate. This happens throughout the quarter, where you should make sure to communicate everyone on your team’s impact. It becomes more important at the end of each half, when you do reviews and calibration. At this time managers will need to make a case to their peers for each of their reports. It’s hard to make that case if you don’t have any ammo going in, and this should push managers to ensure their employees are growing and succeeding. If you are proactive about this responsibility, it should be easy to tell a story for a fair and good review. Strong advocacy doesn’t mean that you can just propose that all of your reports get a top review score - you need to maintain trust with other managers and you need to be honest about progress to do so.* Management knows they ask a lot from managers on their team, but they should hold themselves to that high standard as well.
A high standard
You need to hold yourself to an incredibly high standard. This means that you need to raise the bar for what is expected of employees and what is possible. This is not because you want to admonish those who do not meet this bar, but because you want to inspire people to meet it. If you work at a company that is good at this, you wont just be the best version of yourself, you’ll be a new and better person entirely. Every pitch deck template you see has a “why now?” section or something similar. Each one of these ends up pointing to a more straightforward question - “What are you going to do that everyone else thinks is impossible?”. You need to make the impossible possible or you are by definition, not innovating - without innovating you will inevitably fall to competitors. When you first start at a company as an IC, you might even be able to do well even if the company isn’t hitting its goals. As you advance, this is less and less the case. This is not “fair”, but that’s the point. You have to take responsibility for things you don’t control. The founders will - they have to. Your customers just want to save money. Your investors just want to make money. They don’t mention fairness. If you don’t hold yourself accountable, your customers and investors will.
There are some specifics here I have not totaly edited out. For instance - Your company might not have a bi-annual review cycle or do calibrations like Gauntlet did at the time of writing. However as a manager, I’ve found these concepts to be helpful. I hope you do too.
*This sounds a bit like politics. There is a fine line between politics and effective management. Effective managers ensure that their team has the scope to drive impact and that the company understands what they are working on and why. Effective politicians jockey for more scope to improve their position at the company, lean on other teams to help them hit more goals without giving credit, and frantically brag about their team and their accomplishments to create a positive perception. The difference between the politician and the effective manager is really a matter of intention - the manager puts the company first, the politician puts themselves first. It’s on management to align incentives as much as possible to that the opportunity to push yourself forward at the expense of the greater organization is as small as possible. Still, as a leader at your company, you need to set an example that shows that cynical politics are not what the company values.