Current role: Host, Coaching for Leaders podcast
Location: Orange County, California
What is your background and how did you get into management?
I had the privilege of managing lots of part-time staff in college (poorly, I might add). I discovered early on that while I did not naturally manage well, I had a desire to get better in order to help others grow.
In my first full-time job, I was managing a team of part-time staff within six months. Another year later, I was overseeing a quarter million dollar business with full P&L responsibility and a team of full and part-time direct reports.
Looking back, I was promoted too quickly. That caused me issues and I made mistakes early on that make me cringe today — but it was also very much a trial-by-fire experience that helped me learn a ton very quickly. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
How did you end up or why did you start Coaching for Leaders?
Three main reasons:
First, I’ve always had an interest in the technology of podcasting and communications in general, and so I thought it would be fun to start a podcast. At the beginning, it was just a hobby.
Second, I was considering the next step in my career. At the time the show started, there were lots of changes happening in the industry I was serving and it looks like I’d need to make changes down the road on my own career path. I turned out I was wrong, but it prompted some creative thinking at the time.
Third, and probably most relevant, I couldn’t find a show like Coaching for Leaders.
In 2011, when the show started, there was not a leadership show on iTunes that I could find that had all three of the following things: great content, consistent weekly airings, and good audio quality. Some leadership shows had one or two of those. I decided that if I could do all three consistently well, the show would likely be valuable to others.
Is this a full-time job now?
My work is like a lot of people’s these days. It’s very much project-based, so there are a lot of different things I have my hands in. Coaching for Leaders is the biggest of several projects.
What are the biggest challenges that leaders face?
The number of challenges. There aren’t many things in leadership that someone hasn’t figured out or that a whole lot of people haven’t figured out.
Here’s an example: How to delegate. That’s something that if you do a Google search on, you’ll find lots of great articles, courses, videos on how to delegate effectively. But the challenge is, oftentimes you don’t recognize when you need that skill — or if you do, there’s not someone to directly coach you on it.
That’s just one of the hundreds of things that a leader has to be thinking about on a daily basis.
What are the common mistakes that managers and leaders make?
Getting selected for a role because you were very good at your previous job. For example, you were the best software coder on the team, so suddenly you become the manager.
The problem is two-fold. One is, you’ve moved someone into a leadership role that is a very different job than what they were doing previously. A lot of us, when we get into management, we go to the same place, we wear the same outfit, we’re working oftentimes with, if not the same people, similar people or people within the organization…but the job is entirely different.
Optically, it looks similar, but it’s a very, very different kind of job. Many managers are working managers, so they have their own statement of work as well, but they are now managing a team and now needing to hold people accountable and give tough feedback and set a vision and coach, and those are the skills that most of us never learned in school or, if we did, it was a passing mention.
It’s a very different skill set than what we did in the last job. And so it’s a huge change, and there are some people who make that change very gracefully and very effectively. But a lot of us struggle with it. I know I did.
The other challenge is for the organization. If you take in the best performing person out of the role they were in and move them into the leadership role, the team suffers too. The best-performing person or one of the best people in the previous role, is now gone. So the organization takes a hit twice (you learned your new job and you no longer doing your old job). Worse, a lot of managers just keep doing their old job and never really make a transition to lead well.
It’s hard in a lot of organizations to break that cycle.
What would be your advice then for managers who are just starting out?
Seek out a lot of data points for feedback. if there’s a formal or informal mentoring program, do it…but don’t stop there, and if it isn’t there, go create it for yourself.
Go around in the organization and talk with people who are in similar kinds of roles as you but maybe are a little bit ahead of you by a year or two or maybe are ahead of you in a position. Be curious and ask questions and bring problems to people that you’re working through so you get perspective on how you can move quicker through some of the challenges and not make some of the early mistakes that a lot of leaders make.
Find people in the industry through associations and industry groups and networking and going to conferences. Find people who are on the journey along with you and spend time reaching out and making connections and setting up calls with people on a regular basis and building friendships that will help to support you in a way that you get more data points other than just you. Otherwise, it’s so easy for leadership to become a lonely job, very quickly.
Almost all of us who have the privilege to lead have also struggled with the loneliness and isolation factor that leadership often brings, and especially early on.
There are organizations and there are certainly managers in every organization that do this really well. If you are fortunate to have that kind of person in your professional life, by all means, take every advantage of it.
But don’t stop there.
That person will disappear at some point. I hear often from clients who say, “Wow. I had this wonderful manager and then they left for another opportunity or we got reassigned or they got reassigned, and I didn’t realize how good I had it until they left, and now I’m kind of stuck like I don’t know what to do next.”
Be smart and proactive to build relationships lots of places. I don’t see a lot of people doing that. But those who do really set themselves up well for their support throughout their career.
How should managers best manage all the demands on their time, email, calendars, meetings, things like that?
I wish I had a perfect answer to that question because I struggle with this every single day. On my better days, and certainly for the people I work with, what I find really works is being exceptionally clear to myself what is important. And so the way I do this in practice is I spend time every week, usually on a Saturday or Sunday evening, and I plan out the week. I work to get very clear on what I’m going to attempt to accomplish this week and what is important.
For me, if I don’t do that, I’ll end up fighting fires all week and reacting to things instead of responding.
Get that daily/weekly list down to 2-3 items. Sometimes I see documents from organizations with, “Here’s are 15 priorities for this quarter.” You can’t have 15 priorities because you can’t even remember 15 priorities, much less affect change for all of them.
Also, make time to think and plan. We do have this fallacy in North American business culture that if you’re not on the phone, in a meeting, writing an email, that you’re not “working.” The reality of leadership is, if you’re going to lead well, part of good leadership is stopping and thinking and having margin and having time to think through things. I do more and more of that today than I’ve ever done before, and I need to do more of it. And so creating that space is really essential.
Could you share an internet resource or tool that you would recommend to managers?
The Look & Sound of Leadership podcast from my friend Tom Henschel. His show is 15 minutes, once a month, and he shares a dramatization of a coaching interaction he’s had with an executive leader. It’s really well done, and he’s very gifted at making things very simple but also powerful.
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. A lot of leaders have been told, “be a better coach,” but coaching is one of those words that a lot of people use but haven’t really defined. Michael’s book is the best I know of on coaching, and he specialized in helping time-crunched managers easily coach in 10 minutes or less.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
This series asks engineering managers to share their experiences with the intent of helping other engineering managers learn and improve. Have someone you want to see featured or questions you think we should ask? Contact me.