Oct 1 ’04

Never Say Never: My Foray Into Management

by Editor in z/Journal

I swore I’d never do it . . . I’d never become one of them. I’d never drink the Kool-Aid, get the lobotomy, or trade in my laptop for an Etch-A-Sketch. I’d remain pure—a technician—unsoiled by politics or the hard choices a budget sometimes requires. I swore I’d never become a manager, but I did.

One Monday morning, Joe, my boss of nine years, called me into his office to tell me he had accepted early retirement and upper management wanted me to fill his position. Me! Why me?! What had I done?! Apparently, I had done enough to give them the idea I could perhaps get the job done.

I spent the next month with Joe as he cleared out 22 years of neatly filed notes, reports and studies, passing on what he thought I could use. I began attending meetings with Joe, and then, later, in his place. I began conducting the weekly staff meeting Joe had established and began attending his . . . er . . . my boss’s staff meeting. I began morphing myself into this new role. It wasn’t easy.

Then suddenly, the month was past and there I stood all alone. It took me two days to get the courage to move into my new office. I closed the door, sat down behind the desk, feeling awkward, elated, and intimidated all at once. Could I do this? There was no way to know except to try, I pondered, basking in the unfamiliar sunlight of my first window.

Then all hell broke loose. Month-end fell on me like a safe from a third-story window. All I could do was react. Unexpected, new workloads crashed in on our CPU-constrained complex and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. At this point, I really appreciated my former boss’s expertise. How had he managed such chaos with apparent ease and grace, I wondered? In the end, he would have been quite challenged, as our postmortem revealed. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson: Management is a state of confused helplessness, punctuated by episodes of terror.

After the dust settled, things got better. I began to get on top of my problems. And they were mine alone, as I soon realized. That realization really hit home. I must not only assume, but also take ownership of my responsibilities. And I’ve had plenty of opportunities to take ownership. I quickly learned that I was responsible for things I didn’t even know existed, much less owned. The phone would ring and a new responsibility would emerge. At first, I was overwhelmed, but I soon discovered I was allowing these responsibilities to crush me. I learned I didn’t have to do that. I had an option called “delegation.” I’m allowed to delegate. I am encouraged to delegate. I can’t do this if I don’t delegate. I must delegate—that’s why I have those people working for me.
I discovered there is a certain beauty in delegation: Although I am ultimately responsible, I can share the burden of the myriad responsibilities with my team. I don’t have to solve the problem; I just have to ensure the problem is solved. This was very liberating. I now steer the cart full of steaming opportunities, while my team pulls it, instead of trying to push it uphill by myself, only to have it roll back on top of me. The key to this is having a good group of people working together as a team. Wisdom dictates that you surround yourself with the smartest and best people you can find. The better they are, the more you will be freed to concentrate their efforts.
Now I have a new problem: organization. How do I organize the efforts of this fine team? There are six team members; all very capable, all very experienced. How do I keep up? Should I even try? How much minutia do I attempt to comprehend and maintain without miring myself in the details? Or worse yet, bog down a team member? After 24 years in the trenches, I’ve discovered that I’m all about details, and as we all know, the devil is in the details. I realized that I have to let go. I’m encouraged to let go. I can’t do this if I don’t let go. There is this voice inside me that says “Delegate and let go . . . ” That’s why I have these fine people working for me. This is the hardest part for me, but I’m getting there.
I must allow my staff to do what they do best. I assign projects and expectations, and allow them the freedom to complete these projects in their own fashion. I provide guidance, when necessary, and await the results. I believe when I’m doing this most correctly, my team becomes an extension of myself, expediently accomplishing my goals and achieving my mission. It’s like using power tools—I can get so much more accomplished than I ever could before.
Over the course of my technical career, like everyone, I was managed and mismanaged by good and bad managers. The good managers I try to emulate, having learned from them what to do, as well as when and how to go about it. The bad managers were equally, if not more, instructive, teaching me, by example, what not to do or how not to do it. I also consult with my peers. My challenges are nothing new, just new to me. And I was raised right. “Use all the brains you have and all the brains you can borrow,” Joe always said.

I’ll never say never again. I’ve made the fundamental change I swore I would never make. Most days, I’m delighted I did it. I enjoy managing; it’s very rewarding. But I miss the nooks and crannies and nuances of the technology. The sandbox was always such a lovely place to play! I remember my predecessor often said he enjoyed technical work vicariously through his people. I never fully understood what he meant by that until now.