On the cusp of senior management - will she make it?
Career growth is a tricky thing. We have ups and downs, two steps forward and one step back. How will she fare?
I've had many managers report to me. Some I hire from the industry. Some I convert from the IC (individual contributor) ranks.
For some context, at Amazon the first two levels of management are usually called "line managers". Those are the Level 5 (junior manager), and Level 6 (manager) roles. No solid difference in the jobs, except that Level 5 managers are expected to have less autonomy while they learn the job. As a side note, they're not usually called junior managers to their faces because that's not a great title. They're simply managers, and everyone knows the expectations.
The next level up are "managers of managers". These are leadership positions where you're not managing the "people who do things" (ICs) as much. Instead, you're managing through other managers. It's a huge step change in how you perform your job.
This includes Senior Manager (Level 7), and Director (Level 8). In my experience (and in the feedback I've gotten from others), these two jobs aren't terribly different (at least for smaller Director jobs). It's more a matter of scale.
This means that there's a tough gulf to cross between Level 6, and Level 7. At that point, your job changes dramatically. And many managers don't make it.
A Morning Meeting on Tuesday
I ran a fairly large organization. And I was worried about one of our major projects. This wasn't unusual. I worry about things.
For example, when we're traveling with a big carry-on, I worry that there won't be room in the overhead bins, and I'll be forced to gate-check my bag. And then they'll lose it. Because that's what airlines do. And my whole vacation will be ruined because I won't have any of my stuff. This is why I tend to pack in tiny bags. In fact, if you work at Amazon, you likely can find my Wiki on ultra-light work traveling. I went to Brazil for a 10-day work interview event with a single small backpack.
That being said, one thing about being a leader of an organization is that there are always things to worry about. And that means I highly value when one of those worries goes away.
"Ok folks, I want to know how we get this back on track." I say. "As you all know, QA found 3 major bugs last night, and this was our final QA pass. Unless we get those cleaned up in the next 2 days, we're going to slip our launch date."
"Slipping the launch date is probably ok?" Emma says. Emma's a very conservative manager. But in my opinion, too cautious, and seldom acts with urgency. "That launch date was set by the PMs. I mean, we didn't set it. It's their fault if we can't make it."
"Hold on." I said, halting this line. "If we didn't like the dates, our time to object was when we agreed to the date 5 months ago. We need to deliver now, unless it's impossible, or a bad idea. I'm not convinced it's a bad idea yet."
I'm annoyed at Emma. She's not a top performer when it comes to getting work done quickly, but that's different from completely missing the commit part of disagree and commit. That's a pretty big gap in expected behavior for someone as senior as she is.
"My team will get it fixed by tomorrow." Fiorella says.
The room looks at Fiorella. That seems like a fairly declarative statement to make, when we're all waffling on next steps. Particularly as I know that at least one of those bugs is not in her team's codebase. I wonder how she can back this up, so I don't say anything.
"We were going to start a design sprint for our next feature." She says. "It's not critical to get done now. I'll pause this sprint, and put my whole team on these bugs. I think we can get them fixed in the next two days. I read the bug reports on all three, and I'm pretty sure I know what's wrong with at least two of them. I'd like to cancel the rest of this meeting, and I'll let everyone know if we're ok by 1pm?"
Fiorella is a newly hired development manager from outside the company. She just joined my group. Which makes this impressive in a few different ways.
She focused on our goal (getting our launch done), not trying to figure out how to get out of needing to launch.
She read all the bug reports before the meeting. The bugs were found the previous evening, and this is a morning meeting. I was willing to bet most of the managers in the room didn't know the details of the bugs yet. This demonstrates a bias for action I really appreciate.
Not only did she read the reports, but claims she knows what's wrong in at least two of them. This means she thinks she understands our systems enough to read a report, and figure out what's wrong. That's a level of dives deep I'm impressed with. Not to use the laundry list of Amazon LPs, but they're useful to explain the various behaviors we expect & love.
She asked to wrap up the meeting and get to work. We Amazonians love nothing more than delivering results. "Can we all stop talking and go get work done?" is a thing I love to hear.
She gave a specific time for a follow-up. That's awesome. It means I know she'll follow up with this group, and when exactly to expect it. It takes all the stress off my plate, including the follow-up. I can now pass that time along to my peers and management chain.
Considering how much I loved that response, I was willing to take a bet on Fiorella's competence.
"Sounds good. Unless anyone has an issue with it?" I pause for a few moments. No one frantically objects. "Ok, Fiorella will follow up by 1pm. Let's go get work done."
"Let me know if you need anything." I say directly to Fiorella.
A few hours, Fiorella responds to the entire group, copying the QA team and our management team. Perhaps a slightly broader group than I would have expected, but it's written so clearly that it works. She says that all 3 bugs are fixed, and QA has agreed to re-test today. If no further blocking issues are found, we're still on track for launch.
This means that she didn't just get the bugs fixed, but she also worked with our QA leadership to get our schedule back on track. Most managers would punt that type of coordination to their managers or project managers. It's easy to stand out when you have a bit more initiative than others.
I hit reply on Fiorella's update to send a message to my manager (so he's also aware of things), and I let him know that he should watch Fiorella in future meetings. I explain her behaviors, and say that she might be someone to watch for in the future. My manager replies to say that he agrees she seems promising.
Considering that your manager frequently has a say in the promotions you try to submit for people on your team, it's always a great idea to give them an early heads up when you have a promising team member.
A Thursday afternoon walk by (a couple of weeks later)
My manager swings by my office, and knocks on the door frame.
"Hey Dave, just a quick bit of feedback." he says.
I quickly think through the last day. Did anything particularly bad happen? Anything good? Is this bad feedback for me? Good? Did I mess something up? I did tell Rhonda that she could take the afternoon off for her dentist appointment, but I really doubt my manager would care. Besides, how would he know? I did take a really long lunch today at the BBQ restaurant with my managers, and I already expensed it, but I can't imagine he cares about that little charge. And I'm totally ready to defend it because we absolutely talked about work things. At least a little. I wish he'd talk faster and break the suspense.
"I spoke to Fiorella today. She's pretty awesome, just like you said!" he says.
Ah. Ok. Got it. Whew!
"Oh yeah? What happened?" I ask happily.
"I had to get a status update to our finance team on our headcount." He says. "I tried to get it from recruiting, but they weren't getting back to me, and I was in a hurry. Fiorella heard our finance partner talking to me, and offered to get me the info. She didn't just get me the info, but showed me a spreadsheet she uses to track all her team's upcoming interviews. She's quite organized! Quite a manager you have there. Nice job Dave!"
Funny thing. Managers are a bit of a black box to those who manage them. In other words, if a manager reports to you, it's often hard to tell if they're doing a good job. You can never tell how much a manager has influence over the success of the people on their team. They might mentor them, or ignore them. They might purposefully hire someone awesome, or get lucky, or unlucky. They might retain great employees through excellent management, or that person simply happens to stick around regardless of their team's culture.
That being said, managers are usually given the benefit of the doubt, and are credited with any successful employees they have on their team. In this case, it means that my manager is happy with me because Fiorella impressed him. And that means that Fiorella's success is good for me, and it's good for her. I believe this is called a win-win. Or maybe win-win-win. People are always talking about win-win-wins. But I can never remember what that third win was for.
A Wednesday midday meeting (a month later)
Many leaders across our organization are attending a product proposal review meeting. Consider it the pre-pre project meeting where the product management team tells us the vague direction they'd like to head, and we give them a vague understanding of how much it might cost in engineering time. And then they probably tell us that we're wrong, it'll be easier.
My product manager peer looks around. "Where is Fiorella?"
I realize that she's missing. Considering the senior leadership of our organization is in this room, it's a huge opportunity for her. She was one of the only engineering leaders invited, so it's more conspicuous that she's not here.
I say, "Oh, she probably got tied up. I'll check on her."
I quickly message her on chat. "Hey Fiorella. I'm in the product proposal meeting. Remember, I got you invited to speak for the engineering teams, but you're not here. What's up?"
She replies soon. "I had an engineering review of a tech design for another project. I assume you can handle that meeting without me?"
I feel like she usually has more situational awareness. For more senior employees, I would rather not spoon-feed them opportunities. You take an opportunity, or you don't. Part of the point of giving autonomy is that people can make their own choices. But in Fiorella's case, I decided to try once more.
"My peers are all in the room." I type. "It's a good opportunity for you to get visibility with them. Can't your team handle the design review?"
"No, they need me here." She types back. "They're not ready for doing this on their own, and we've had this planned for weeks. I'll need to miss that one."
I make her excuses, and move on with the meeting. But I'm disappointed. A massive part of moving to the next level of management is being able to delegate to your team. Fiorella flubbed three major things.
I went out of my way to tell my peers that she was great, and would represent engineering. With her no-show, it looks strange for both of us. If nothing else, she should have talked to me ahead of time.
She demonstrated that she is unable to trust her engineers to lead an engineering design review without her. She has a pretty large team at this point, and is at the brink of swapping some of her engineers into management. I feel this is in the wheelhouse of most moderately experienced engineers, and certainly future engineering managers, so this is a concern.
This is a good type of meeting to demonstrate senior leadership. She seemed to demonstrate that she cares more about lower level tactical leadership (individual project design reviews) than broader strategy meetings. Not a great message to send.
A Monday morning one-on-one (a few months later)
Over the previous months, Fiorella continued to prioritize her team's engineering tasks, rather than broader leadership meetings. Regardless, her team has delivered on her commitments, and delivery impresses everyone. Her teams have gotten multiple new opportunities as a result, and she now has three junior managers reporting to her.
On your path towards senior manager, having multiple managers report to you is a strong step. You're essentially hanging a "future senior manager" sign on your work profile for everyone to see.
"Well Fiorella, things have been going quite well!" I say as a start.
She nods, and says nice things about how she likes the work, and she just wants to make certain we're doing everything possible to get her to her promotion, which is her primary career goal right now.
She and I have been very transparent, which I appreciate. I've also repeatedly reminded her that 10+ hour days is not a great way to scale yourself.
"My biggest feedback right now is that as you start growing your new managers into their positions, that you need to identify things they can take over." I say. "I know mentoring them will be a big task right now, but I'd love to see you start to step away from the day-to-day engineering tasks."
She nods. "Yes, as soon as they're fully ready, I'll begin to step away from the standups and other meetings like that."
I shake my head. "We've had this conversation, but I want to be clear. There are some lower risk tasks your new managers can handle without you there. We need to see your teams operating independently. Processes like standup can be delegated, and you can coach those managers through those tasks."
Fiorella nods, as if we agree. "Yes, absolutely. They need a bit more time to get their feet under themselves, but I'm going to delegate to them soon. I'm carefully ramping them up first."
"I want to make sure you understand." I say a bit more forcefully. "It's not just important that your team delivers for your promotion, but we need to see that you're building more managers. That means we need to see them independently leading."
"Absolutely, I agree!" she says cheerfully. "I have some great managers in place."
I nod and move on. I suspect that it's somehow not clicking, but she's emphasized that she'd like me to move on. I must respect her autonomy in this case. She's trying to be a senior manager, and part of that is knowing how and where to step back from your tasks. Even if I suspect there's an issue here.