Business

5 Practical Things About Managing People

This post is by Thaniya, Head of Mobile + Platforms at TED Conferences

managing people

Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

13 years ago I shifted roles from engineer to manager. I had a really tough time. As an engineer, I could say that “I” created that app or wrote that code. I was the pilot. I pushed buttons to release my work to millions of people all over the world. Even when I moved to do UX I was still able to point to things that were visibly my work. As a manager, I was no longer able to point to anything to call my own. Even though I had more authority I still went to a dark place. Then, one day I received an email from a professional colleague not at the company:

To shift into becoming a manager you need to shift your point of pride. A manager is an enabler of people. If you can be proud of the people you’ve enabled to become the best versions of themselves, then you have a chance of being a good manager. But if that doesn’t float your boat, move into a technical architect role. There’s no reason a company should reward great engineers with managerial roles.

Every now and then someone steps into your life and turns a lightbulb on. This was one of those moments. Honestly tho, the transition wasn’t easy. Fast forward to the present. By now I have managed teams ranging from two to twenty-five for all sorts of large scale media projects, most of which you’ve probably seen. In the midst of our company re-org I gave a talk on what I’ve learned over the past decade about managing people, distilled into five points:

1) Hire A-player. Give them space.

I always make a point to hire someone who’s smarter than me at something. It is the only way to elevate the collective intelligence. The TED product team is quite senior. All but two members have more experience in their respective fields than I do. For example: when I hired Michael McWatters, I told him that my role isn’t to oversee UX decisions. It is to enable him to make those decisions with all the touch points considered and goals set forth. My job is to make sure his goal is clear and that he has all the information required to move forward successfully. His job is to move forward successfully. The relationship between a manager and her team should be symbiotic, not linear.

Hiring A-players require that I need to create space for the team to get their A-game on. This means I need to be honest about what I am good at, and more importantly — what I’m not good at. I need to ask questions more than answer them — to listen intently, purposefully, learn from my team. I also need to check my ego at the door. If someone decides to create a different feature prioritization model in their project, I need to recognize that unless there is collective benefit elsewhere, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and I don’t need to orchestrate every movement. I’ve seen so many managers do this wrong. Letting go of control is very much like skydiving tandem with someone who has the parachute rope. It’s a reflection of how much you trust your own judgement in selecting your team member.

When you hire A-players and give them space, they will surprise you with great things.

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2) Get to know people. Let them be themselves.

Last year I went on a quest to learn everything I could about motivation. It was a tough year and I needed to motivate our over-worked team through it. I tapped into the minds of Harvard Business Review, Margaret Heffernan, Dan Ariely, and Simon Sinek. My favorite is Leadership is an art — a book about how Herman Miller approached their business. It was a gift from my greatest mentor June Cohen. What one key takeaway did I learn about motivation?

When people are able to be themselves — to be truly seen and heard — they become motivated on their own.

Thing is, if I take the time to get to know you, to know why you work and what you care about most, then when I come to you and say, “hey, there’s a project I think you’ll really enjoy..” I actually know that you will.

There’s also been a lot of chatters recently around biases in the work place. Gender and race issues are now at the forefront of media’s attention more than ever. What I find is while we yearn for equality in the work place we often times forget that equality isn’t a one-size-fits all concept when it comes to people’s behaviors. Treating every human exactly identically means we’ve failed to acknowledge that everyone is different. We are a product of our race, gender, culture, ethnicity, upbringing, and much more. By getting to know someone on a personal level I am able to build the right engagement loop to encourage each person in a way that resonates with them. And yes, I do it differently between men and women. Because guess what — we are different. We respond to different communication methods. The result is my team feels heard. The next step as a manager — and an important one — is to ensure that performance reviews reflect not only the outcome of the person’s work, but also how he or she enables others to be the best versions of themselves also. Admittedly I haven’t been as successful as I would like with this review structure when conveyed up the management ladder.

Photo: Ryan Lash / TED Retreat

 3) Make the space for a team culture to thrive.

When I first joined our bi-annual Tech team summit, I was furious that our CTO spent so much effort getting us all to go on bike rides and brewery tours together. We needed to align our team vision to the company vision and have strategic and tactical roadmaps defined. Otherwise, why would we fly across the country to come together? I was in all-business-no-play mode. Bless him for being so patient with me.

When a leader creates the space for a team to get to know each other as people, a culture creates itself from there. Why is this important? Well, as I mentioned in my previous point — when we are seen as people, we are more motivated as a team. This doesn’t apply to hierarchical relationships only. It applies to everyone on the team. We now have a team playlist for road trips, an inside joke spreadsheet and prank twitter accounts. The collective sense of belonging grows from everyone taking a little bit of ownership in creating it.

I don’t want to come out sounding like “Oh, let’s all group hug and work will magically unfold.” No. You do still need to have clear vision as a company. You need quantifiable / qualifiable — and achievable — goals for the team. The leader still need to set the compass very clearly. But you also need culture, and “culture” is not a business goal. It’s a benefit.

Journey of a TED Talk. Not everyone needed to dive into this but everyone benefited from seeing the process.

4) Champion process as much as product.

I love reading articles about product management, especially when there are unicorns involved. It’s no new news that the field of product management is very much a black-box. Going back to my point earlier about wanting to be able to point to something and say “hey, that’s my work”.. well, if tangible end-product is your motivator, being a product manager, ironically, could break you. Many product managers carry what I like to call the “Ikea wood peg” syndrome. It’s actually technically imposter syndrome. The little Ikea wood peg is such an instrumental part of putting all Ikea furnitures together. But once you are done with the assembly, provided that you did it right, the pegs are never visible. This was a major cause of anxiety in many of my product managers, myself included. Ease of use obfuscates complexity. The easier it is to use a product someone somewhere worked really hard to reduce friction. That reduction is inherently invisible.

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Invisible outcomes prevent you from getting the acknowledgement needed to feel needed.

Inspired by one member Jai Punjabi who loves to hog whiteboards around the office to map out his work, I began to enforce people to tell their process stories. By virtue of leaving trail marks everywhere I noticed that people began to understand Jai’s role better than others. Championing the exposure of your team’s process enables them to gain more respect for what they do.

5) Remember that leadership is about everyday actions.

Leadership is not about organizational structure. You don’t need to be a boss or a manager to lead. Leadership ultimately is about those small moments where you decide to do something — solve a problem, help others — whatever it may be. Watch this rather long but worthy talk from our technical advisor Matt Drance on leadership. It’s worth it, especially if you are a developer looking for what’s next.

I’ve built numerous teams in multiple organizations’ growth stage. I’ve introduced disciplines and roles never before held. Now I’m building my next team at TED (start-up style, because why not). These paths have never been pre-paved for me. I decided to do it because it was needed. It’s fun. It’s hard work. The most rewarding things are still intangible. Except for when my team feeds me deliciousness or tells me that I have this radical candor thing. I’m ok with that.

So if you believe you can create impact, don’t let the imaginary mountain before you stop you. Check your compass and do it.

Well I hope that was somewhat helpful. I write this as a tribute to the TED product team, who I learned so much from. Here’s a solid quote from Max DePree for closure.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality and the last is to say thank you.”

Thank you.


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