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!

What Not To Wear: Don’t Get “Hooked”

One day inventor George de Mestral returned from a walk, his dog’s hair matted with burrs.   He removed the burrs and examined them via microscope, noticing how the hook shape of the bristles attached the burrs quite nicely to his dog.   Thus the product most of us call Velcro was conceived.

Wikipedia says that a piece of this product 2 inches square can support a 175 pound person.

Herein lies my metaphor about workplace relationships.

Resistance is a potent dynamic; it’s a key reason that people don’t get things done at work.   I’ve been honing a model, a view of how resistance operates in workplace relationships.

“Deflective resistance” is when someone avoids connection, confrontation, or conflict by actively blocking or moving attention from an issue.   You may see fireworks, emotion, and action…but the central issue remains unresolved.  Progress stalls.

In nature, a skunk will spray another animal that seems to be a threat.   Sandbags and newer technologies are used to deflect enemy fire and bomb blasts in combat.

In one of my favorite classics,  North by Northwest, an undercover agent is sent by her criminal mastermind “boyfriend,” to seduce a man who is a perceived risk to the bad guy.  The agent and the good guy fall for one another — and then stage a dramatic break-up to protect the undercover agent’s true identity.

Challenging relationships often involve two people enacting the same pattern, repeatedly — this is also true at work.

Protection is a goal of deflective resistance.  Blame can be used as a tactic, amped up by adding emotion.

Your Customer Service manager, Greg, misses a deadline.   When you approach him about the deliverable, he blames people on his team…and steers conversation to a missed deadline in Finance, and becomes visibly upset that you’re treating him unfairly.

If you go on the defensive about your fairness, you’re no longer talking about Greg’s deadline and no longer holding him accountable.   You’ve been hooked.

To work with resistance, I advise clients to watch for people wearing their hook-side-out Velcro suit.

Watch for emotion — check for drama.   Examine what is being protected, and you’ll likely find a workable direction for your energy and attention.

Break the pattern.  Check your hairy Velco suit at the door, or you’ll risk rolling around without any progress.

Or carrying a 175 pound person who isn’t pulling his own weight.

The photo is Velcro, by fellow U of C-er Quinn Dombrowski, quinn.anya, used under Creative Commons license.   And according to Velcro, Velcro the product does not exist — Velcro the corporation exists to manufacture it.   Glad to clear that one up for you.   And I actually found a photo of an apprehensive kid in a Velcro suit, too.