Vinod Khosla once said that 50% of venture capitalists are net negative, 25% are neutral, and only 25% are actually helpful. My experience with VCs has been more positive, but those numbers are roughly accurate in my observation of the field of management. If we're going to get better at retaining employees, we're going to have to get better in the field.
It starts there, with the recognition that management is a different field.
Most tech companies still require a CS degree and internships for a junior hire. That person is then trained extensively on the job and given responsibility slowly.
By contrast, companies decide someone's going to be a manager and that's it. New managers become responsible for about a third of their employees' lives, with zero instruction or explanation.
Untrained managers often default to the idea that less management is good management. A lack of management may be marginally better than bad management, but it's still not good.
Here is my non-exhaustive list of good management practices that lead to happier, more motivated employees, and higher retention.
On the other end of the spectrum from the laissez faire management described above is micromanagement. I'm sure we've all been micromanaged and know it's a violation of Autonomy, but why do people still do it?
My impression is that micromanagement comes from a manager's inability to understand that they've entered a new field. Their primary skill as an individual contributor is now a background skill that will help them understand their team. Micromanagement isn't management, it's just individual contribution via Siri.
To that end, I don't believe in player-coach models. I don't want managers coding or selling. I want managers empowering their teams and clearing obstacles so their people get better at coding or selling. We live in the real world and have to do sub-optimal things, but this is imperative over time.
Every first time manager needs to be trained. Period. Full stop.
You're giving these individuals awesome power, control of a business function, responsibility for the output and support of a number of people. Training is how you build guardrails for new managers and walk them through the change in responsibilities.
A well-developed expectations/leveling system is helpful reinforcement, but start somewhere. A one hour lunch and learn, "Here's what I've learned." "Here's how I think about this kind of problem."
New to management yourself? Find mentorship. Who's the best manager you've worked for? Your friends have worked for? Would they introduce you?
Working Out Loud
It’s common, especially once a manager stops coding/designing/selling, that their teams wonder what the heck they’re spending their time on.
“Is my manager working on the things that will make my job better?”
Great management means finding ways to share our work and priorities with the team. I've done this with a Trello board, at the weekly team meeting, and via standups. Find something lightweight enough that you can stick to and easily share.
Great managers read. Great anythings read, but great managers read about motivation and how people have worked together to create great things. The kind of books I like (more here):
Turn The Ship Around, David Marquet
The Alliance, Reed Hoffman
Where Good Ideas Come From, Stephen Johnson
With my teams, I start a management book club to continue education from management training. Andy Grove stuff is generally too command-and-control for my style, but find what works for you and your team.
Every team should meet on a regular basis. Team meetings are about alignment. As Patrick Lencioni describes in The Advantage: building trust, so that we can have healthy conflict, which lead to decisions we can commit to, holding each other accountable to those commitments, all of which are required to achieve results. When we work with our teams, we should be looking for sore spots. Making implicit differences of opinion explicit and driving them to a decision. Andy Grove introduced the concept of “disagree and commit,” which means everyone is heard, but then a decision is made and everyone on the team supports it. The alternative here is politics and dithering, driven by ego, rather than the right thing for the business.
The most powerful tools in the manager’s toolkit have to do with the individuals we have on the team. Never forget that you have peoples' livelihoods in your care.
We should be on the lookout for people whose personal goals align with the future needs of the organization. In interviews, this isn’t “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s “What do you like to do?” “What motivates you about your job?” Do we have those things? Can we offer them in the foreseeable future? Hiring is also a chance to augment the team. Think of this not just in terms of technical skill, but interpersonal dynamics, diversity, work habits, etc. Especially in Engineering, the state of the art is still to drill people over minutia they could've googled in three seconds. But if you already have great coders, won't they help this person out? What might you spend time looking for instead?
So now you've got this great person starting. A new employee wants you want, to get up to speed and contribute as quickly as possible.
I’m sure you’ve had that job where you joined and sat around for weeks. That sucks. It wrecks all the motivation and energy you had coming in.
If you don’t have them already, develop documentation for getting new employees from 0 to 1. Build up a set of tasks designed to guide them around their area of responsibility. It’s also common that one or more team members didn’t agree with your hiring decision. Left unaddressed, these people may sabotage a new hire. No one gets to pre-judge whether a new hire will be successful. We must make clear:
This team is new and not just the old team plus this person. Things will change by definition and that's why we hired this person.
If a new employee's output isn't great, negativity from a longer tenured employee could easily be the reason. Even in the world where the negative employee is right and we've mis-hired, that tenured person's own actions mask it.
It’s strange to talk about firing in a post about retention, but I most often think of firing as a failure of the hiring process. Sometimes it's behavioral, an employee doesn't share your company values. Other times, they aren't up to or interested in the work the company needs done. Either case should cause you to reconsider how you evaluate candidates.
Bad work habits are obvious, less obvious may be toxic relationships within a team. Toxic relationships, permanently broken trust, rapidly escalate until both employees resign. Hopefully this is rare, but it does come up and you need to move quickly to save even one of the employees.
In any case, the team will remember how you treated every employee on their way out. So firing must be handled with a lot of delicacy, respect for the individual, and a well thought out communication plan.
Is This Enough?
Not nearly! This is part of a four part series:
And remember management is a field. It's a new career path. I know you will spend as much time studying and seeking to improve at it as you did for your career prior.