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START OVER SMARTER

As a leader, your job should change every six months even if you stay put

Cate Huston
By Cate Huston

Engineering manager, Automattic

Leadership roles evolve, especially through periods of transition. As a leader, I have found my own role changing as challenges on the team change—around every four months I realize everything is fundamentally different, and the way I need to spend my time changes, too.

Recently the number of my direct reports more than doubled, and I added two different roles reporting to me. This was a very obvious instance of change, and I opened up a discussion on our team blog about what that meant. I confessed to certain things I had noticed about myself when I felt overwhelmed, and asked them four questions:

  • What do you see as the most important thing(s) I do (generally)?
  • What are the most impactful things I do for you specifically?
  • What is one thing you think I should stop doing?
  • What is the biggest area of your work where you want/need me to support you?

But even when it’s not as obvious, your job as a manager can still evolve. Maybe you used to have mostly new managers reporting to you, and now they’ve found their feet, meaning you can be less involved and spend your time on something else instead. Maybe your team had some kind of pressing problem—a big project with a looming deadline or bad releases that needed to be fixed—but now it’s on track, so what do you focus on next?

I would go as far as to say once you have significant responsibility, your job should change at least every six months. Your team should be evolving and you should be leveling up your direct reports. So at least twice a year, set aside some time and think about the following questions:

  • What are the biggest challenges for my team?
  • What are the biggest challenges for my peer group?
  • What are our biggest challenges as an organization?

Then look at how you spend your time. Does it align with the challenges you’ve laid out? Does it reflect your priorities?

Ask:

  • What can I delegate?
  • What should be dropped?
  • What new things do I need to take on?

These can be difficult questions to ask when you’re overwhelmed, and the answers we land on might scare us. Having a coach can be useful here, as it forces you to step back, consider the big picture, and explain it to someone who is not deeply involved nor invested in any outcome but you being your best self.

Left to our own devices, we might avoid doing the work of figuring out this evolution, either because we don’t want to confront the current challenges on our teams, or because we’re afraid that if we give things up, or because we’re so maxed out that we can’t contemplate the thought of assigning ourselves even one more thing to do. But these thoughts are illogical and counterproductive at best, and downright destructive if not kept in check. So let’s dismantle these ideas one by one.

1. You don’t want to confront the new challenges faced by your team?

This is literally your job as a manager. If you fail to do it, you’ll eventually get found out.

2. You’re afraid to give things up?

Perhaps this is because you fear you won’t have enough to do—but I can promise this is almost certainly not going to be the case.

Perhaps you fear a loss of status or information, or believe that your value is measured only by your direct contributions, or that if you are not in certain meetings you will be seen as unimportant or unnecessary. Keep in mind, managers who can successfully replace themselves are extremely valuable. If you can’t trust your organization will value this, then you have other problems; just know it’s a skill that will be valued elsewhere if not where you currently are.

It’s also worth remembering that while meetings are often part of your job, it’s no one’s job to go to meetings. What are meetings supposed to accomplish? Does the meeting need to exist at all? Can the outcome be accomplished more efficiently? Do you genuinely add value? Will anyone or anything be worse off if you took the meeting off of your calendar or gave your place at the table to someone else?

3. You’re afraid to take on something new?

When someone feels so overwhelmed that they cannot do anymore, it’s easy for them to believe there’s no time to step back, no time to invest in other people to take some of this off. This is madness—you cannot overwork yourself out of the overwork trap. The only way out is to work smarter, and to get rid of some of the stuff that is currently filling your days, whether that means someone else does it or it doesn’t get done at all.

So, where to begin! Some ideas:

First, think about the team.

  • List your team challenges: What are the most pressing things for your team to accomplish over the next quarter / next year?
  • List your team constraints: What are the biggest things currently holding your team back? What constraints, if broken, would unlock the most potential?
  • Spend time on your team brand: What’s the gap between where you should be and where you are? How can you push that forward?
  • Build peer support into your team practices, rather than expecting to be the person who supports everyone else.
  • Look at the big picture at your organization and consider how your work and your team fit into it.

Then, think about yourself.

  • Rebuild your schedule: Eliminate everything from it and start from the beginning. What goes back in?
  • Ask people what you do that is most valuable.
  • Give away things you know.
  • Give away things you’re not sure about.
  • Ask your peers what they need.
  • Ask your boss what they are worried about.

Finally, take a vacation. There’s nothing like having people manage without you for a bit to highlight the things you can let go and the things you do that are really useful.

Remember, you have value, independent of your economic utility. Your wants and needs matter. It’s okay to keep something you enjoy as long as it’s not getting in the way of other people or other priorities. In this regard, I learned two things recently. The first was that even as I “gave away” something related to my favorite part of my job, there was satisfaction in seeing someone else do it in a better and more timely way. The second is that even though I gave away the task, I hadn’t given eliminated the work—instead I found a new collaborator, one who was just as committed to ensuring the work got done.

The discussion post I put up for my team had some good advice and suggestions. There also was a theme of making sure that my own needs were met, too. It was a nice reminder that we don’t make our teams happy at our own expense, and that fulfillment—like everything else—is a team sport. And when you’re confident that the new version of your role will be at least as fulfilling as the current iteration, it’s that much easier to embrace the change.