It’s taken me 15 years in this industry to figure out how to be any good at what I do. I don’t know how to write it all down yet, but I’m going to give a piece of it away to you in the next 5 minutes.
It starts with an observation that is controversial to many folks, even though I think it’s like saying that water is wet:
Managing people is exceptionally hard to do well. People are complex, and organizations are just full of them.
I have managed many people at a variety of scales, and worked with leaders of other organizations big and small. I’ve trained up new managers and watched them grow into strong leaders. I’ve sat with them through hirings, and firings, and watched them struggle with both. I’ve had members of my teams get married, get divorced, have kids, lose kids, attempt suicide and (mercifully) fail. I have had an employee die, and to this day the social network birthday reminders gut me. No one who takes management seriously, and does it well, finds this stuff easy. No one who’s been at it for very long imagines that there are shortcuts.
But, as PT Barnum probably didn’t say:
There’s a sucker born every minute.
The infatuation with management shortcuts, particularly in startup culture, is rampant. The charitable explanation is that a lot of classic management practice feels slow, and founders are trying to unfetter their people. I think the harsher, truer explanation is that many founders are inexperienced managers, and don’t understand the trade-offs they’re making at their employees’ expense.
Let’s Try a Quiz
Score 1 “My management culture is messed up” point for each of the following:
- We have an unlimited vacation policy
- We don’t do regular 1:1s, but we have open office hours/are super available if anyone wants to chat
- We don’t have a process for interviewing, we just hire awesome people when we meet them
- We super care about diversity, but we don’t want to lower the bar so we just hire the best person for the job even if it means diversity suffers
- We don’t have defined levels and career paths for our employees, we’re a really flat org
- We don’t have formal managers for every staff member, everyone just gets their work done
- We don’t have, like, HR HR, but our recruiter/office manager/only female employee is super good if you want someone to talk to
- We don’t do performance improvement plans for employees that are struggling. We just have a super honest conversation about how they aren’t a good fit and fire them
- We would have some hard explaining to do if our salary list accidentally became public
I’ll give you your first point for free. I’ll give you second one because it’s hard to run a business and there’s always something you wish you could get to but haven’t yet. I understand that. And, if you’re on the bubble, I’ll give you one more if there’s a thing on this list you are trying to change.
So how’d your company do? Fewer than 3 points? I’m happy for you and your colleagues. 4? 5? More?
What a Waste
I’ve talked to people who score 7s and 8s. Sometimes they’re proud of it.
What I’ve learned is that a high score on that silly little quiz tells me two not-silly things about you: you’re wasting time and you’re wasting your investors’ money. And what’s extra sad is that you thought you were doing the opposite.
You thought you were saving time by cutting needless process and especially needless meetings. Ugh, meetings, right? But a lot of these practices will increase turnover and lower productivity.
You know what costs a lot of time? When good people quit. You lose accumulated knowledge, you take a significant velocity hit, and you often have knock-on morale drag on the staff that stay. 1:1s take time, but they let people get things off their chest. They also feed motivation and team identity. Defined levels and career paths take work to develop. But they’re a straightforward way to give people mastery goals and direction. A well designed PIP takes longer than summary dismissal, but it can turn a struggling employee around and lift an entire team’s output.
Some of these policies do seem to save money. As the commenters point out, unlimited vacation can be a useful way to avoid paying out accrued timewhen employees leave. And not hiring an HR person does save you their salary.
But a core value of good management is that your investment in your employees pays off as they grow in scope and impact. Well managed employees make your company better. They mentor new people, take on new skills, and take personal ownership in the quality of their team’s work.
Ever look at some company getting it right and think, “How did they hire all those amazing people?” I’ll tell you how. They grew them. And they retained them. And that attracted more great people. People talk, and that flows both ways. Skimping on your people is a foolish (and gross) way to save money.
Don’t Take My Word For It
I try to manage well and thoughtfully, but there is certainly no shortage of disagreement out there on the right way to run things.
Valve software’s culture doc is near-biblical for many folks, yet it garners a pretty high score on my test. They make more money than I do, and better games, too; maybe they’re right? I don’t know. Former valve folk are not gentle with their description of a culture that “felt like high school” with implicit favour-based power structures operating behind the scenes. I don’t want to work in that kind of place. Maybe you do?
Remember when GitHub was so proud of how they didn’t really bother with traditional management? Somehow, even with their unlimited PTO, it didn’t go well.
I hear they’re hiring more managers now, and I’m hopeful for them. My hope is not that they feel beaten and subjugated and pay their manager tax. My hope is that they realize how harmful their hubris is to the employees that helped them build such a central piece of the technology landscape.
An Extremely Boring Manifesto
Look, management may be hard, but this test is pretty easy to pass. And it proceeds from the first rule of startup club:
The First Rule of Startup Club: if you’re not planning to be the best in the world at something other people already do well, then don’t mess around with implementing your own version of it, use theirs.
We usually cite this in reference to databases, or unit test harnesses, or snack providers. But it’s just as true here.
I don’t need you to be the best in the world at management. But if you’re not planning to be, if you’re not going to be really studious and dedicated to it, then for god’s sake stop messing with it. I promise you can’t build a better management system in your spare time.
- Set up every employee with a clear direct manager, and expect them to hold regular 1:1s. Discuss their current work, but also their goals and development.
- Be clear about every role or, if you can’t manage that, at least every role with multiple people in it. Define the expectations of the role, and where it’s headed. Employees should know which level/role they’re in.
- Set salaries according to role and calibrate against your market (your HR person can help here).
- Have a basic process for sourcing and interviews. Eliminate bias where you can. Interview for well defined roles so that you know what your salary range is, and don’t get anchored off of savvy candidates manipulating the offer phase.
- Give people benefits and vacation that make them feel loved and help them be excellent, without exploding your burn rate. Make sure they take that vacation.
It’s stupefying to me but if you do those things you’ll be head and shoulders above many of your peers in industry. You’ll be able to attract and retain talent better. Your employees will grow and take on broader leadership roles. Word will get around that your company is run by grown ups.
What’s even more amazing to me is this: most people won’t. Most people will still try to shortcut things, and then wonder aloud why they can’t find great people. They’ll conclude that they need to pay higher salaries because their people keep fleeing. They’ll miss targets, they’ll fail, and they’ll explain that startup is just super hard and maybe they were just too early. 🙄
Like most manifestos, this one’s easier to read than it is to live. I understand that business is full of conflicting tensions and priorities. But if you can’t do these things, these table stakes things, then I need you to seriously consider the possibility that running an organization is not for you. Find a cofounder who understands this stuff. Hire and empower leaders to operate while you stick to the ideas and get out of their way. Something. These are people’s lives you’re dealing with. If I sound irate, that’s why.
And to those of you out there who do understand this, who operate for a living and do it well: I see you. You are heroes who don’t get enough credit. And if you’re ever in Toronto, your first drink is on me.