The (Baseless) Shame of Not Knowing

2820521078_1d5f4d7caa_oWhen I was a kid, I learned how to ride a bike, ice skate, read and play music.

Today, I can still do all of these things.   Though sometimes my mind makes a promise that my body can’t fill!

With sufficient practice, maybe I could play as well as I did when a good part of my free time was spent playing music.

Who knows?

What I do know:  there’s a body of knowledge.   There’s qualified instruction.  And then, there’s practice.

In my travels through the NY tech/startup community, one thing I’m seeing is a bunch of people being really hard on themselves.   And sometimes we’re hard on one another, too.

Managing people is hard.   It’s harder than playing the piano.   After all, the piano is a machine.  If you strike middle C, you’re going to get middle C.

Not so with people.   There’s a lot more to cause and effect at work.  I’ve started to think about management “use cases.”


  • Setting expectations/goals
  • Giving/receiving feedback
  • Asking the right questions in an interview
  • Having a difficult conversation

These workplace interactions encompass probably 80% of the situations you’ll encounter when managing people.   The first time you encounter a situation, it’s hard.   The 5th time, it’s at least known.

Having to let go of someone is a variation of the “difficult conversation”.  That should probably never feel too easy.

It’s a bit easier to up your game at the conversation you’d have with someone who’s perpetually late.

Yesterday I had a few conversations with colleagues at Orbital about my upcoming #Management Intensive.   We talked about referrals they made (thank you!) to people I didn’t hear back from — as well as my conversations with people in the community.

Of course, I’m not for everyone!   But rolling out my program, I’m seeing some emerging managers who are reluctant to admit that they’re not skilled people managers.

I perceive a lot of what I read as “shame” around not having management skills down.

That’s a real shame.

I feel no shame about not speaking Russian, knowing only a little about how to program, and about being a base amateur in the kitchen.

Very simply, these are things I’ve never learned.   I never sought out the information.  Nobody taught me.  And I didn’t practice.

Leading people at work is a 10,000 hour skill.   You need access to the right information.   You need qualified mentoring and coaching.   And you need practice — and feedback.

(BTW, this is as true for a first time founder as it is for a new Team Leader.)

So, I’m excited about the people who will be joining me starting this Friday.   And grateful to everyone at Orbital for making space for us!

More than that, I’m interested in continuing and expanding the conversation around what makes us good leaders at work.  And how we can engage more people in helping one another to develop this aptitude.

This element of workplace interaction is creating the level of human decency we have in our workplaces.

Of course it’s not easy.

Click here to join a waitlist for my next open enrollment #Management Intensive!

Photo:  Seth Sawyers, Piano teamwork via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.

What’s An Emerging Manager?

under original management againMedicine has interns and residents.  The law has clerks.  The fire service has “probies.”

In tech, we have the notion of a “junior programmer.”

In management, there’s no understood role for a “junior manager.”

This is important.

Once, corporations and the military cranked out America’s managers.

These were not good old days.  There was no golden age of management.

However, there was a notion of “readiness” to manage at a particular level.

Like today, pedigree mattered.  Readiness was assessed by experienced managers, mostly white men.  I don’t imagine that readiness was consistent across industries.   It didn’t need to be:  more people spent their entire career in one industry.

Readiness contained a lot of stuff.  Including actual readiness.   (There’s baby in that bathwater.)

In 2014, I spent some attention considering how we develop managers today, in the absence of structures that used to serve this purpose.

And I started to talk with people about The Emerging Manager.

The Emerging Manager is an individual who has been managing people for somewhere between several weeks and several years.

She might be a developer leading a team for the first time.   Or, he might be a startup CEO or founder.  An emerging manager might lead 2 people, or 60.   She might be 23, and barely out of school; or 45, with a track record as a subject matter expert.

So being an emerging manager isn’t about career experience, or time in the job — though learning to manage people is a 10,000 hour endeavor.  It’s not about the size of the team.

“Emerging” happens in the first hundreds and thousands of hours of learning to manage people.  The work is to develop fluency in a set of basic management skills.

  • Setting, communicating goals; delegating work; giving people feedback
  • Interviewing/hiring with consistent results; advocating for your team/people; managing conflict
  • Addressing performance issues to a satisfactory conclusion; developing other managers; managing extreme change

In a way, these groupings are skill levels.   (It’s a little more complicated, too complicated for today’s post.)

Any emerging manager who wants to plug away at this for long enough will develop a solid proficiency — under the right conditions.

Some of the right conditions:

  • Setting an intentional path through the learning process
  • Finding mentors and coaches
  • Working in an environment with some structure and process around the work of management
  • And…the emerging manager has to want to develop this expertise.

“Subject matter expertise” is not included in any of these groups.   Not because it’s not important.   But because it’s not an emerging management skill.

I’ll come back to this here.   And also next week in a talk at BrooklynJS, where I’ll be presenting some thoughts on programmers as Emerging Managers.   Sign up to join us!

Update:  here’s a link to the slides for my BrooklynJS talk.   Thanks for the warm welcome, BrooklynJS.   And special thanks to the person in the crowd who whooped when I mentioned that my dad had been a programmer at Univac in 1960.   Dad loved hearing this!

Photo: Adapted from Somethings new change by Stephen Dann, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.