What does a manager DO, anyway?

Once you’ve built up some seniority, you start asking yourself: should I go into management? Will I be good at it? Will I enjoy it? What does a manager do, anyway?

(Note: here I’m using the industry word “manager” and not the Microsoft word “lead.” Also I’m speaking of my experience in the software development industry; your field may vary.)

Let’s start with the last question. There isn’t really a formula for what to do, just as there isn’t a formula for what your job is as an individual contributor (IC), or whatever you call a non-manager. Every person, every team, and every role is different. Even the same manager on a different team has a different job. When I started as a manager, I expected there to be a training to tell me what I was supposed to do – and I never found any! I took trainings and read books, but it turns out those were all about how I was supposed to do my job, not what the job was.

So let me share my take on what a manager is. A manager does three primary things:

1. A manager is a conduit & lens for information.

In other words, communication is a primary responsibility. A manager communicates upward with upper management: sharing information about their team’s plans and progress, and receiving information about goals and priorities. They communicate laterally with partner teams: asking other teams to do work for their team, coordinating on common goals, and responding to other teams’ requests. And they communicate downward with their team, sharing what they’ve learned and keeping track of what everyone’s doing.

That’s a lot of communication! No wonder this amounts to essentially being in meetings all the time. It also means documentation: writing down decisions and plans, putting work into tools, organizing things so people can find them, etc.

An important part of this role is clarification. To a large extent that means helping to break problems down into parts and prioritize them. A less obvious component to this is speaking and acting as appropriate in the context. In some situations, formality is required; in others, it’s a hindrance. Communicating upward with management requires clear and efficient messaging – precise wording they’ll understand with just the right amount of information (and no more). Communicating with partners means learning their frame of reference and speaking in terms they understand. And then the manager’s own team has their own precise set of terminology that makes communication efficient. A manager has to listen for context, learn and translate messages to and from the words that are most meaningful to the audience at hand.

All of this is done while attempting to balance the team’s autonomy vs. their efficiency. More senior team members need the autonomy to own their area and work without their manager’s presence, while more junior team members need the simplicity of having a manger (or other leader) involved. And everyone needs time to actually get work done. A manager cannot and should not be involved in everything their team does. They should constantly be deciding whether to hand off a meeting or a problem to someone on their team, or stay involved.

2. A manager is the overseer of the plans/schedule.

The most important piece of planning is setting and prioritizing long-term goals. The team needs to know which direction they’re headed, and how to make compromises when resources are tight. These decisions are not made unilaterally; a manager works with everyone around them to make them.

After setting a direction, getting plans in place means working with their team to turn goals into designs and tasks. As before, this requires the right balance between doing it themself and delegating. It also means asking lots of questions, sharing and soliciting feedback. A big danger of being a trusted leader is that people will assume you’re right, and you need them to keep their brains engaged and poking holes in the things you say.

As plans start shaping up, leaders need to clarify trade-offs – there’s always more work than there is time to get it done, the team needs to get honest about what’s not getting done. A manager needs to communicate realistic expectations to their leadership and partners, and say NO to things. Saying no to their own boss and management chain is one of the more difficult things a manager would have to do, but the need may come.

A less obvious part of planning and scheduling is managing randomization. Things come up – whether due to outside forces, or due to the team making mistakes – and someone has to handle them. That could be the manager, if the incoming workload is light enough. Or it could be heavy enough that their team may need to dedicate people to handle randomizations and plan them into the schedule. Either way, this is something that must be done intentionally rather than haphazardly.

All of these decisions are made while trying to balance business goals/customer needs vs. engineering debt/risk vs. the team’s personal goals, too. Sometimes those trade-offs are hard; sometimes they’re easy.

3. A manager cares for their team’s needs.

This is the most overlooked role of a manager. They need to be watching out for their team’s happiness. What gets in the way of them doing their best work? Sometimes the solution is better equipment, tools, and processes. More often the solution involves thinking about interpersonal dynamics – how people are working together, what’s frustrating them, what mismatches in expectations or values are causing friction.

A team collectively needs:

  • Motivation: a feeling of purpose, autonomy, and being valued
  • Balance: the right mix of people so nothing’s missed and everyone’s mostly doing work they enjoy
  • Connection: feeling a common bond with each other

Whether it’s choosing goals, metrics to track progress, changing process, celebrating successes, hiring people, organizing team events – a manager is in the best position to watch and improve all of these things.

Individuals on the team also need:

  • Growth: Just the right level of challenge/discomfort to keep improving and doing more
  • Support: Feedback, empathy, obstacle removal, and defense when they’re being challenged

A manager’s role is to be the personal coach & helper for the people on the team. The better job they can do of making their team feel safe talking about whether they’re happy, the better job they can do of keeping their team happy. And in the end, sometimes making people happy means letting them leave, even helping them leave. When you care about people, you prioritize their needs.

Yes, of course, a manager’s job includes filling out performance reviews, getting people promotions, and sometimes delivering tough messages. But these things are not the job – they’re tools used to do the job. These tasks can be scary, but you can get training and coaching on how to do all of them. Ideally it is the manager’s manager’s job to help do these things right, too.

EDIT: It was pointed out to me that I never mentioned hiring, here. That can take a significant amount of energy sometimes. Like performance reviews, it’s a necessary part of the job. In my mind this comes in under the “balance” bullet point above, finding people that can not only do the work but that balance with the rest of the team.

In summary

Now that I’ve said a lot of words about the job, let me break it down in a few words. As an individual contributor (IC), your job is mainly to put your head down and get work done. As a manager, your job is mainly to keep your head up and watch what’s going on – to keep everyone on the team doing the most important work, at maximum efficiency and maximum happiness.

Really, all leaders on the team do all of these things. You don’t need to be a manager to do them; in fact you should do these things no matter what your role is. But the team’s lead is there to make sure it’s done… It’s their job to watch out and keep things from being missed.

Notice that nowhere here did I say the job of a manager is to be the “boss.” They don’t make all the decisions. In fact, the lighter touch they can have, the better. If a team would fall apart if their manager were to disappear for a month, they’re not leading – they’re controlling.

Going back to the original questions: I didn’t really answer “Will I be good at it? Will I like it?” Well, if you generally like people and want to help them, have a humble attitude and a willingness to learn and do better – you’ll probably be as good as anyone. It’s hard to feel like you’re good at management. You’ll probably have to settle for “good enough.” And there are plenty of books and trainings on how to do better.

I have other things to say about what I learned about being happy, but be prepared to have many of the things that make you happy as an individual contributor ripped away and replaced with new things you have to learn to like. It’s a very different job. I compare it to the difference between parenting and being childless. Being childless is simpler, but there are many new things to make you happy as a parent.

There are also many things you can do to contribute to your team without being a manager – but those are for another day.

2 thoughts on “What does a manager DO, anyway?

  1. I love this post! “If a team would fall apart if their manager were to disappear for a month, they’re not leading – they’re controlling.” This is gold and something that I never thought about but rings so true.

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