#161 - Managers Make Connections
Plus: Placing Pieces in our Puzzling Teams; Simplified Sprint Zeros; Receiving Feedback
Manager, Ph.D. is a newsletter and community which helps people from the world of research and scholarship make their impact as excellent managers. We’ve already developed the advanced skills to be exceptional managers; we just need help with the basics.
One of the things that come up most often when I speak with new managers from the research world is the uncertainty of what the new manager should be doing.
Our role models from academia were constantly going to conferences and writing grants and giving talks and directing research. Maybe they did it well, maybe they didn’t, maybe they supervised well, maybe they didn’t, but they were always very visibly doing stuff.
Then, when we step up to be a manager, we start having one-on-ones, thinking about planning, providing feedback. We know these are valuable activities, but … it doesn’t really feel like we’re doing anything in the same way our supervisors were.
It’s hard going from a high-achiever, excelling personally at complex tasks, to being responsible for a team (and accountable for its success). We’re one step removed from the action. We feel something akin to sensory deprivation (#108), that we’re no longer personally accomplishing things.
A way I’ve started talking about this that’s helped some new managers recently is talking about our work as connecting our team members to things they need. Things they need to do their work, to grow professionally, to flourish and succeed.
This can mean:
Connecting team members to tasks
Looking for meaningful work that makes use of their strengths and ensuring team members get opportunities to take these on
Connecting team members to peers
Facilitating ad-hoc, time-boxed mentoring relationships between peers for particular skills or knowledge
Building an atmosphere where team members can give each other support and feedback
Connecting team members to others
Looking for people outside the team - maybe even outside the organization - who can provide needed mentorship and guidance to team members
Connecting team members to resources
Actively looking out for resources, trainings, courses, books… which can help our team members meet our goals.
This “connection” role is pretty new to most of us; we by and large weren’t social butterflies, the “person who knew everyone”, the nexus of interpersonal interaction.
But thinking of things this way seems to be a useful way of framing our more “meta” level involvement with the work of the team:
It’s not on us to provide all the knowledge and guidance our team members need. We absolutely can do some of the mentoring and coaching! But it’s even better when we can support our teams needs by providing different perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge than we bring to the table.
But, we very much have to do the work to make sure it happens:
We use one-on-ones and quarterly goal setting to make sure we have a map of desired growth areas for everyone
We use our team member’s needs to consciously grow our professional networks within and outside our organizations
We have to be actively involved in these connections even if they’re with someone else:
Discuss with the team member what they’re looking for and need
Discuss the proposed connection with them, help them prepare goals for what they want to get out of it, help them ensure it starts off propoerly
Monitor the connection as it is taking place, make sure it’s going well and meeting their needs
Help them wind down the connection once it’s reached its natural conclusion, or if it isn’t working out
Follow up on both sides of the connection, debrief on what went well, what was learned, and what could be improved
Learn from each connection and improve our skills and facilitating them
None of this means we shouldn’t be involved in the work of the team in other ways. But some our most valuable contributions are going to be in the “glue work” of building these connections.
Putting things in terms of the team members needs, and framing the work in terms of actively building networks of connections, seems to help some new Ph.D. managers. What do you think - how have you seen this connection work succeed, and struggle? What’s been successful for you? Let me know!
Before we get to the roundup: I want to spend some time this summer talking (via chat, email, or quick 15 minute reader input calls) with readers to find out what would be most valuable in this newsletter. So if you are:
A STEM Ph.D. manager I’d love to hear about you about the successes you’ve had, the challenges you face, and the resources you do (and don’t!) need; or
A Director of STEM Ph.D. managers, I’d really benefit from your perspective on what you find your managers needing, where you find them succeeding and struggling, and what kinds of resources would be helpful.
To make some time for this, during the summer the newsletter be on hiatus; we’ll be back in the fall.
I’d love to hear from you! Or if you think there’s someone else whose input would help improve the newsletter, please by all means forward this to them:
If you’re interested in sharing your experiences with me, please hit reply to the email, leave a comment, or set up a quick call! I’m happy to hear from you in whatever format you prefer.
And now, on to the roundup!
Shaping High-Impact Tech Teams: The Critical Art of Puzzle-Piece Placement - Allison McMillan, Tavlin Consulting
A team is a puzzle where all the pieces need to fit together. A team is an orchestra that sounds beautiful when it's working together really well. A team is also a living being. Every time someone leaves or someone joins a team, it's a new team, a different team, that has a different personality. Teams are constantly evolving and changing.
Through our academic and research career, we were rewarded for being individually bright, “high promise”, etc. Leaving aside whether that was a good approach for that context, we tend to carry that through when we’re the one doing the deciding about new opportunities. Is this person the “best”/”strongest”/… candidate?
But we our job isn’t curating a menu of individuals; we’re building a team, and that team performs or doesn’t perform together.
McMillan has a lovely article on fitting the pieces together as a team, its importance, and how she does it. This means:
Valuing team skills (indeed, it’s much easier to help someone improve their individual domain expertise skills once they have some basic foundation than it to help them improve their team skills)
Considering how this candidate would strengthen and complement the team. That means each time you hire, even if it’s for the “same” team, you’ll be losing for slightly different things.
McMillan gives some straightforward behavioural interview questions she uses about team work and some of her thought process when it comes to putting these complex and dynamic puzzles together.
Cavillo has a great article on “Sprint Zero”, using the first time boxed sprint of the project cycle to lay the groundwork for more successful project execution laid on:
By applying a good Sprint Zero strategy, teams can lay a solid foundation, align stakeholders, and optimize the subsequent development.
Laying the groundwork means not just doing the usual kickoff activities:
Project charter, including definition of success
Setting up the collaboration tools
Discussion of architecture
But also creating the necessary interpersonal and technical infrastructure:
Lines of communication outside and within the team, to encourage feedback and continuous alignment
Documentation and knowledge management
Technical infrastructure like CI/CD pipelines
I really like the idea of having these happen within the sprint cycle (or whatever routine chapters of project work one uses in one’s framework) rather than outside of it — I guess you’d think of this as a few spikes. Integrating the usual kickoff activities (generally outward focussed) with some of the more team and technical activities also seem really valuable.
Both of those tie together things that are too often thought of as separate — planning “versus” execution, working with stakeholders “versus” working on the project — but for a successful project, they really need to be integrated. “Spike Zero” is a new concept to me, but I look forward to trying it.
Cavillo’s article has a lot of very specific actionable advice, I commend the article to you to find out more.
Managing Your Own Career,
Ever offered a little feedback and got blowback in return? Or received feedback that made you feel upset, or just like the person was in a completely different universe?
Cast has a nice, comprehensive article on the emotional charge that receiving feedback can have. The article helps us to both defuse the charge so we can be better at receiving feedback, and to give feedback in a way that is less likely to trigger defensive reactions in the receiver.
We spent a lot of time through school being graded and evaluated, and too often our reaction to feedback in the workplace is to take us back to school - we gear up to argue to the TA that in fact they were mistaken and we do indeed deserve those five marks back.
That’s not helpful! Feedback in the workplace serves different purposes. It could be evaluative, as Cast explains; but it could also be coaching or appreciative. Even if it’s evaluative for is, it’s principally sensor data along a path for us, not a final grade. We need that data and those calibrations to improve our effectiveness for the future. It’s vital for our career to be able to seek and accept that data, critically assess and prioritize it, and decide what if anything to do about it in the present, and when to revisit it.
The problem is insecurities can get triggered one of three ways by feedback; as Cast describes them, the triggers are:
Truth - the feedback doesn’t feel true to us
Relationship - we don’t trust the person giving the feedback in the context of what the feedback is about, or we don’t trust the person for other reasons
Identity - The feedback seems to imply something broken in ourselves rather than in something we can practice and improve
And - look, I don’t think it’s too much of a generalization about us to suggest that pretty often the trigger for we people from research, people who strongly identify with their work and have been constantly assessed on their “promise”, “brilliance”, etc., is that it challenges our identity. We might lash back with complains about it not being true, but the challenge to us, the thing that gets our back up in the moment and keeps us up later that night, is that challenge to our identity.
I’ve already written too much here, but I feel strongly about the importance of regular feedback, and have a lot of advice for how we should do it. In that advice, though, I don’t talk much about this emotional component, frankly because I don’t feel expert about it. Cast’s article is a super useful, dense, actionable discussion of this vital aspect to making sure feedback lands productively. Two things I particularly like about it:
It builds on guiding us to receiving feedback well to give us strong advice about how to use that insight to give feedback well; and
It very pointedly rejects the “assume positive intent” trap — yes, we should make a real effort to take what we can out of the feedback, but sometimes feedback is not given in good faith is in fact just abuse.
I strongly recommend the article and I think I’ll include it in my resources on feedback.
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox, or schedule a quick Manager, Ph.D. reader input call.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,