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Human Skills 007 - Teambuilding and Management
with Miriam Connor
Being a manager can feel incredibly contrived and awkward, especially when you are managing people who are more experienced or older than you are. But at the root of it, you're still human, and so are the people you're managing.
What stood out to me most about this interview with Miriam Connor is her continual focus on the humanity of our situations at work. How leading a team is like being a party host, how becoming a new manager requires getting comfortable with letting people struggle, and the importance of kindness and treating people with respect.
How do you make a team feel like a team?
I think the way that I think about it is that on a very basic level, this is just a group of people. And what are the things that make groups of people get along? Like, if you go to a party, are there things that the host can do that's going to make it more likely that it's an enjoyable party and you all talk with each other and you have a good time?
Not to say that work is a party every day, but to some extent, as the manager, you are a little bit the party host who's trying to at least make people not go home and complain about how terrible it was.
One thing I think about is just how I show up, that I need to be sufficiently authoritative and confident that people feel secure, that I'm going to be able to tell them the right things to do and help them do that. But I don't have to be exclusively authoritative and confident and distant. So I try to make personal connections with people both one on one and in the group. And this is very dependent on your personality, but I'm comfortable sharing funny stories about what happened to me as jumping off points to kind of talk to other people about what happened to them. For me, it's very natural to be chatty in a meeting and I almost have to pull it back and be like, "okay, let's do work."
But I do think it's important for you to be setting the stage, if you want to feel communal, where people have that sense of community. People don't have to be friends in the classic definition of friends, but you want good feelings with each other. To set that stage like, "hey, we're a group of people, we're here, it's a little bit funny, it's a bit contrived that we all ended up having to be pseudo friends and do a project together. But now we're here, so let's just act like people."
So I think that for me is the first stage. And then the second stage is really trying to understand each person and how they might want to belong to the community. Some people really like to talk and share. Some people don't want to do it as much. I think in general, it's good for everybody to be talking and sharing a little. And this is both kind of on the social side, but also on the technical side, because from what I've seen, if someone is really always quiet, except very a slim set of people, they're probably not feeling like they belong. And so it's about creating the right opportunities, both opportunities for the people who are naturally talkers to just lead and do that, and opportunities where it feels really safe for everybody to talk.
The go around the room thing is great if you want everybody to talk, but you need to be very sure that it's something everyone's going to be comfortable about. And so I would never say, "Everyone go around the room and tell me your biggest fear." Or like "everyone go around the room and tell me your biggest accomplishment" or anything that's super personal, but maybe like, everyone go around the room and... actually one that was a hit was like, "tell me if you would have a rat for a pet. Or you kind of think that's weird."
Everyone's gonna have an opinion on that. And it is unlikely.... I now, as I'm saying this, there's edge cases. I can imagine a reason why someone might have about rats that is not comfortable to share in a work environment, or maybe if you're like an exterminator, I don't know. But there's kind of things that are fun, but are pretty safe.
And then I think the other piece of that is there's different ways that people like to contribute. So some people are pretty verbal. I'm one of them, I'm chatty. Some people, that's not how they like to think and that's not what they're always comfortable with in a group setting, so having a lot of opportunities for written communication. If you're doing a brainstorm, I definitely recommend having people write things first and then potentially optionally share out loud what they wrote.
And then, one more thing I think about is what is the mission of the team or the project and how do you get everyone to feel because that is sort of ultimately the thing that's going to bind this group together. So when I was building up my last team at Humu, we started with five of us. I think we got five more in a pretty short period of time. And also in that period of time, we were going towards this beta release of the project we were working on. And it was a pretty new kind of launch for us to do. We didn't do kind of these staged releases with a beta release in the past. So it was new and exciting, a lot of work, and the thing that everyone was talking about on our team especially. This was like the big focus, every conversation, something about the beta release.
And so, to me it was important that everyone on the team, including the people who just joined, were part of that so that... it felt like this was this great opportunity where everyone could hit a milestone together and celebrate and go from there, feeling like we are the team because we accomplished this.
And so this isn't necessarily what I would always do, but in that circumstance when I was bringing on new people, it was like every week and maybe the last person joined maybe only a couple weeks or three weeks before the launch. I wanted their starter tasks to be something that was related to this release. For a lot of people I was like "what is an extra feature?" We said it wasn't required. It would be cool if if it was there, but if they don't finish it in time, it's not a big deal.
But give people those tasks so that once we had this release and we had the celebration, it was like every person on this team was part of it and can sort of authentically celebrate and feel like they're part of this event that happened. And I think that works really well to bring everyone together because after that, we all were the team that built this thing.
What is the hardest thing for new managers?
I think something that's really hard for new managers is calibrating your expectations of what should and is likely to happen. I remember when I first started managing, I managed an intern and I had to do their evaluation at the end. And I felt so unmoored from any sense of what an intern should do because this was my first one. I hadn't been an intern. My kind of experience up to that point was pretty unique and maybe not analogous to what a lot of the interns had done. And it was just like... I thought they did a good job, but I don't know if they did a good enough job or way better than expected for whatever this bar is that I just really don't have a good sense of.
And that's specific when you have performance evaluation. For some people, that's like, "I came to a company and I immediately kind of got in my head with all the levels are and I off the bat can evaluate people." So it's not necessarily that, but there's just like, how long to expect someone ramp up. That was a really hard one for my new managers because they've never done that. They never ramped someone up before. And I think to understand ramp up, you need to have managed someone who you ramped up for maybe one or more years to see the full arc to expect between new and truly ramped up.
And if you haven't done that, you might see them kind of on this part of the arc, and you're like, how are they going to get over here? But if you have done it, you've seen that there's ups and downs and different rates of growth throughout maybe six months to a year before they're truly fully on board, especially an entry level person. So coaching new managers on how to deal with this and sort of just the patience both to let someone figure it out and to let someone struggle a little bit as they're figuring it out. Those are things that are kind of hard to get used to because they're pretty uncomfortable.
It's uncomfortable to have someone who you need to keep coaching, coaching, coaching every time for them to really get what they need to do and if someone is really new to tech that is very likely what is gonna happen just because they're figuring it out. And then it's also hard to watch that person really struggle with the task that's very easy for you and you could step in and be like "do it this way." Because you're both waiting for it to get done and you kind of watch someone in some emotional turmoil as they're trying to do this thing. And having the patience to just let that happen, because they were going to learn from that turmoil and also reminding yourself, which is something that's really hard for me as a new manager, that actually my direct reports did not expect every day at work to be the most joyous day of their life.
They didn't expect that they were going to come to work and never struggle with anything. And I was like, "they're struggling, I did it wrong. This is supposed to be summer camp and they're supposed to be so happy and hitting all these milestones and feeling amazing all the time."
And then I realized I wasn't mad at my manager when I had trouble with the task. I just tried to figure out how to do it. And so, yeah, I think calibrating yourself to how people are going to be doing it, how they're going to behave, what the problems are they're going to have, and how long it's going to take for certain things to happen is really hard until you've just kind of been in it for a while.
Do you have a mental model for what management is?
As a manager, there's a way to think, "my goal and everyone's goal is to climb the nodes in the hierarchy and extract the maximum income from those nodes", and there's a management style that will do that. There's a management style where you just do that by yourself, there's a management style where you try to bring those people up with you and maybe that helps push you up even further.
But I think that ignores the human element that we're going to work every day, we have to talk to these people every day, it's a huge part part of our lives and it's actually just like a lot less crappy if those are good positive relationships and you are treating people kindly.
And so as I'm talking this through, I think the one way I think about this as my role is "I have been granted a certain amount of power. How in the context of having that power and being in this particular structure and hierarchy, do I treat people kindly?"
And that is to me by giving them the maximum opportunity and making work as positive as I reasonably can, while still contributing to the goal that everybody in this hierarchy or in this organization has decided to move towards. I will say that's a lot easier is you and everyone in the organization think that's a good goal and think that's something worth doing in the world. But in any case, "how can I organize the people I'm responsible for to make progress in service of this goal?"
Part of the goal is "make money." How can I make money and do whatever the hopefully good thing is I'm trying to do in the world? And set these people under me up for success, both while they're working for me and in a way that once I'm not there and we're all in a different hierarchy and a different structure, they have the skills to both operate successfully in that structure and be kind.
I think that that's just one way of thinking about management. I think most people think about management in some sense of mentorship, although not probably 100% of managers. But mentorship can mean a lot of different things depending on what you're trying to mentor somebody to do. And I think for me it's how can I make it possible for these people to succeed and also be kind in a way that that makes the organization a more positive organization.
Note: These recommendations are straight from Miriam in her voice
I listen to a lot of podcasts that explore how power works in America. I'm listening to one called Five Four Pod. It's about what the creators consider bad Supreme Court decisions. Those are different situations than being a manager, but people in power often underestimate the effect of their power on people, and also overestimate how normal the structure they're in really is. So I encourage anyone who is in management to be thinking about those two things. Are there artificialities in the structure that you maybe need to commit to, but that you might need to recognize are artificial. And what you're doing, are you forcing someone to do something in a way that if you really thought about it you would think was uncool.
Another book I love that is totally random but good for thinking about how things can be both real and made up is The Myth of Mars and Venus by Deborah Cameron, which debunks a lot of myths about how men and women speak differently (or don't), and I just think it's a valuable ready for anybody
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