Managing Up and Barely Holding On
When company attitudes around training and growth unwittingly produce ineffective managers.
Managers: everyone has one, and everyone has an opinion about what makes a good one.
Many agree that it’s a difficult skill to acquire. And there’s a prevalence of managers that employees hate: the micromanager, the never-gives-me-any-feedback manager, the yells-and-screams manager, the only-gives-me-tedious-tasks manager, and the would-be-better-if-they-were-actually-trained-to-manage manager.
Within growing startups, you often see more of the latter than any of the others. Whether a byproduct of their humbler beginnings or by design, the number of managers with direct reports or making product decisions can increase rapidly as a startup grows. Sometimes, people are promoted to management within months of getting hired, and in no case do they receive any training leading up to their promotion, or following it.
Moving Up Too Fast
I was drawn to my current company because of how young it was. For my entire career, I was the youngest by at least five years – oftentimes by more than a decade – in every department I’d worked in. I was lucky to have had amazing mentors who came from various backgrounds, all of whom had ten years or more of professional working experience, but I didn’t want to languish as a coordinator for three or more years. Moving up was difficult, if not all but impossible, because of a company-wide penchant for giving employees vague, meaningless titles. There were no true career paths, and people remained in the same role for years at a time. In most of the corporate environments in which I worked, I found I had little say in what I was working on: the goal, in all of my manager’s eyes, was to do what they told me to do, in the manner prescribed by them.
CC-BY dcJohn, filtered.
I’d often pray that I’d get a creative assignment or two to showcase my skills in other areas, but those were few and far between. So when I joined my startup, I was excited by the prospect of – finally – being able to move up the ranks quickly and be able to participate in a score of different projects that weren’t always directly related to my day-to-day tasks.
After joining, I was surprised by how quickly the pendulum swung in the other direction; I was no longer the youngest, but one of the oldest, in my department. Everyone was extremely talented and capable, but I worried that the penchant for “learning on the job” in an entry-level position was carrying over into management when people were being promoted too quickly.
The Cost of Promotion
I’ve seen colleagues promoted within six to nine months into higher-level positions from junior-level posts, often with no more than 2-3 years of solid work experience. There’s never mention of management skills training included in any transition plans, to the detriment of the teams that report to these managers. Age isn’t a perfect indicator as to how talented or hard-working someone is – I work with very bright and hardworking individuals who happen to be young – but benchmarks for success in junior-level positions aren’t the same benchmarks that indicate success in managerial roles. This is especially evident when a junior-level person isn’t prepared prior to being promoted by being given ownership of a large project or overseeing a team.
The problem stems from the company scaling too quickly, and relying on the same “get shit done at all costs” mentality that got the company off the ground in the first place. Lack of employee training isn’t unique to my startup: companies across the board are cutting back on training. Newly minted managers haven’t received training around employment law, diversity training or handling issues within their team, and HR has remarkably been hands-off in these key transition stages.
New managers are instead left to create their own ideas around good management based on their own beliefs around what good management looks like.
Most of what I’ve learned in my professional career was learned on the job, with bits and pieces of informal training peppered in. I cannot recall a time when I was formally trained and certainly some training would’ve been helpful. Management positions within startups especially should include a transition plan where new managers are trained and encouraged to meet with team members, explain their role, and define the working relationship, together with their teams.
As much as moving up quickly is a priority for many in early startups, we should be concerned with how quickly people move up without training or experience, and how this contributes to massive inefficiencies that we see in many fast-growing startups.