The Management Stack, the Story Arc, and World Building

Story arc

If you care about how managers are developed, consider the story arc.

A protagonist meets with a crisis:  change is afoot!  She steps up, acts.  She meets friends, foes, tough breaks or luck. 

At a crucial moment, she succeeds.  Or she fails.  Either way, she’s transformed.

Consider a business owner’s (true) cautionary tale.  Once upon a time, she wanted to learn to manage people.  So she got an MBA.

She was transformed; school didn’t develop her management skills.

We become managers in Real Life, not in school.

Sometimes we talk about skills as part of a “stack.”  So, the Full Stack Developer has mastered a set of programming competencies.


  • Set goals, and create accountability
  • Give and receive feedback
  • Recruit and hire
  • Address conflict, navigate difficult conversations, “manage up”
  • Develop communication and presentation skills

Is this a basic Management Stack?   Sort of.

A better question:  how do we gain, and hone, the ability to lead people at work?   (Or to program computers?)


Expertise unfolds over time.  Like a narrative.  Protagonist, conflict, action, denouement, transformation.

Entering the workforce, we exercise the most basic job skills.  If we can organize our own work, set and meet goals, we may be asked lead a team.

We learn to manage workplace relationships, and negotiate interpersonal conflict.  We teach, coach, inspire, and organize others to achieve bigger things.

We increasingly decide what work will be done, and how our team will do it.  We set company standards, and attract internal resources to our teams.

We may step into a stretch role, and grow fast — or not cut it.

One day, we may take on an outward-facing role.  We set industry standards, recruit talent.  Or we bring new products to market, attract funding, or negotiate major sales.

Someday, we may bring our leadership skills to a different industry or field.

As protagonists, we navigate successive transits of the story arc.  Our expertise emerges, through practice.  Iteratively.

Conflict:  the need to operate at a new level.  Learning experiences and personal effort move the plot forward.  The newly transformed state begins the next story arc.

Early days, we don’t know what we don’t know.  Each transit adds complexity and ambiguity.  Trains our management vision.  If we’re fortunate, our hearts.

It’s not completely linear, ever upwards.

Sometimes people skip over plot points — especially hard ones.  Like “give and receive feedback.”  Spoiler alert:  this plot point is bound to return as the initiating crisis for a future story arc.

As leaders move into complex roles, mentors and peers play bigger parts in their development.  Partly because it’s hard to get feedback from team members.

(Managers and board members matter; context likely matters more.  Learning always requires deliberate practice and self-directed effort:  later on, it’s a primary force.)

When you lead your company’s management development efforts you’re writing your company’s story.

What’s important?  Synchronizing expectations for how your leaders act, in your world.  Engaging people with relevant experiences, like stretch roles, mentoring, or leading a project.  And designing ways for people to integrate development experiences and training with mentoring, feedback, and the work they do every day:  to make learning practical and real.

It’s a more layered process than matching each skill in “the stack” with a workshop.

Your story arcs and learning objectives have a context.  It’s an intersection between company history, individual talents, and where your leadership wants to take the company, and your culture.

Because when you’re leading for an organization, you’re not simply filling slots on the stack, or even developing a single story arc.

You’re using the past, present, and an aspirational future —  to build a world.

Thank you to Brendan Schlagel, Edlyn Yuen, Brennan Moore, and Richard Fye for commenting on earlier drafts of this post!

Big Empathy

9198798785_df14769549_zEmpathy is not a leadership skill.   It’s not a brand attribute.   It’s not a software design principle.

It’s a natural human quality that enables us to imagine walking in another person’s shoes.

It comes up at work powerfully when we need to have a tough conversation.  When someone is failing, disrupting relationships, or in the wrong role.

Everyone wants to perform well, and to be part of the team.  (If you think otherwise, leading people might not be your strong suit.)

When someone is not doing well at work, they’re not burnishing their resume — they’re burning career time.  Time that they’ll never get back.

The person who’s underperforming usually knows that something’s not right.  Even if he don’t know what it is, or what to do about it.

When this goes on for long enough, other people pick up on it, too.   Sometimes they tiptoe around it.   Or they snipe, gossip and and grumble.   It becomes the elephant in the room.

This is both inefficient and ineffective.

For everyone.

If one of your team members is underperforming, don’t let him flounder because you don’t want him to feel upset when you talk about it.

That’s so much smaller than empathy.

Clear, direct feedback that will help him to improve is the best demonstration of your empathy.

If you don’t know how to deliver the feedback, script it out.   Practice it with your manager, a trusted peer, or your HR lead.

When it comes to managing people, and being a leader at work, you need to enact the largest empathy you can see.

Either help your team member to do a better job, or help him to to move along.  That shows empathy for your team member, their teammates, and the organization’s stakeholders.

And if your future plans involve continuing to lead people, “having a difficult conversation” will come up again and again.

There’s no time like now to build this critical muscle.

Managers, want some basic best practices on performance management and feedback?   I’ve got resources:

Photo: Elephant Close-up by the Wildlife Alliance, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license 2.0.