The 5 Essential Lessons I Learned Leaving the Management Department

Footprints on black sand. Image by Gemma Evans, Unsplash

After spending years in management, I decided to take the plunge and leave the department to move to a more prominent company and work again as an IC (Individual Contributor). As a manager, I learned valuable lessons that shaped my leadership style and impacted how I approach work and relationships. In the spirit of continued growth and reflection, I would like to share the five most important lessons I learned during my time in management.

1. If you put the team first, they will put the company first.

As a manager, I quickly realised that my primary responsibility was prioritising my team and their well-being. By demonstrating genuine care for their professional growth and personal lives, I found they were more motivated to put the company's interests first, creating a positive feedback loop that increased productivity and job satisfaction.

Empower your team by listening to their needs, providing resources, and removing obstacles, and they will pay it forward by delivering their best work for the company.

2. People first, problems second.

In the heat of a project, it's easy to get caught up in the issues that arise and lose sight of the people behind the work. However, I learned that focusing on the well-being of my team members was more important than obsessing over problems. Investing in my team's personal and professional development made us better equipped to handle challenges and collaborate effectively. Remember, your team members will ultimately solve the problems, so prioritise their growth and well-being.

3. Too many direct reports is bad news.

As a manager, believing that having a larger team will lead to increased productivity and success is tempting. However, having too many direct reports can be counterproductive and lead to a decline in team performance. The more people you're responsible for, the harder it becomes to provide individualised attention, guidance, and support. Instead, I learned the value of a more manageable team size, which enabled me to build stronger relationships and provide the resources and mentorship necessary for each team member's growth.

Striking the right balance in the number of direct reports is crucial to fostering an environment where your team can flourish. By focusing on quality over quantity, you can better understand each individual's strengths and weaknesses and tailor your leadership approach accordingly, leading to a more engaged and productive team that feels supported and valued.

4. You can't boil the ocean.

As a manager (and one with ADHD), I chase every shiny thing and attempt to tackle every problem at once, believing I can solve all of the organisation's issues. However, this approach proves to be overwhelming and unproductive. I learned the value of prioritisation and focusing on a few critical initiatives that would have the most significant impact. Remember, you can't boil the ocean but can make waves by concentrating your efforts and making strategic decisions.

5. Facetime is important.

In a world of remote work and digital communication, it's easy to overlook the value of face-to-face interaction. However, meeting with team members in person (or via video call) was crucial for building trust and fostering collaboration. Facetime provides the opportunity for more nuanced communication, empathy, and understanding. Make a conscious effort to prioritise face-to-face interactions, even if it's just a quick check-in, to strengthen relationships and promote a healthy team dynamic. My preferred option here (and having the luxury of living in the same city at the time) was to go for lunch every couple of weeks (on me, of course) and check in on how they're doing or even talk about the weather, anything to break out of the remote 1:1 cycle I find so repetitive and mechanical at times.

Bonus: Navigating the transition from manager to individual contributor

I struggled to transition from a management role into an IC one. I am grateful that the team I joined was patient and understanding of my situation. It was at a much larger org, and there were far more processes and mechanisms in the way of working than I was used to.

Thankfully, I found support from my peers, and it helped me, over time to reset my expectations and establish new boundaries (which I still occasionally require some nudging over).

Now, as a Staff Engineer, I am learning to love writing code as part of a team again and see the opportunity and the freedom to reach across groups in a less formal way to solve problems quickly.

I don't think I've ever been so productive in my career. Some of my peers are genuinely the most extraordinary engineers I've ever worked with – so while at first, it felt like a 'step down', it certainly wasn't, considering how much I now enjoy my job and can have an impact on the work we do.

Careers are weird and wonderful creatures and can often take you to places you wouldn't expect. In my case, I'm grateful for that.

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© 2023 Jack-Edward Oliver
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