#167 - Write that First Draft, But Be Careful - The Written Word Has Superpowers
Plus: Make requests specifically; A over B for hard decisions; Different leadership approaches; Raise your potential ceiling
Manager, Ph.D. is a newsletter and community which helps people from the world of research reach their full potential managing teams and enacting changes. We’ve already developed the advanced skills to be exceptional managers; we just need help with the basics.
If you’re new to the community, drop me a note! Some past issues from the archive which you might be interested in include:
#111, “The Complete Intern Checklist"
#130, “Taking On A New Responsibility”
And whether you’re new to the community or not, feel free to email me, or even have a quick chat with me about problems you have, or things you’d like to see!
“I was told there’d be no writing”, I muttered to myself I don’t know how many times during the course of my Ph.D. program. As a student I took great pains to avoid any courses that involved a lot of writing, so imagine my horror when papers and dissertation and… took up increasing amounts of my time.
I still really, really hate writing!
But, you know, too bad. The job isn’t just to putter around with mathematics and analysis all day; the day is to have and test ideas, and share them with the broader research community so that they’re adopted.
Still, I think a lot of us can probably sympathize with that point of view. Certainly a lot of experts who have become managers that I work with avoid writing stuff whenever possible. This is almost always something I encourage them to consider changing. Writing is, frankly, kind of amazing.
Writing forces us to clarify our thoughts - which is why it’s so hard, but worthwhile.
And because it’s so hard, and people do it so sparingly, the written word has a shocking power to influence. Words are a very effective way to communicate ideas; written communication can be referred back to over time; written communications can be easily shared.
So when I’m working with expert managers, I often share with them the benefits of using writing to advance their ideas, open up leadership opportunities, and communicate effectively.
Across the Organization: Volunteer to write that First Draft
When there’s an effort going on that crosses many teams, proposing some effort, after some initial kickoff-type meeting volunteering to distill the ideas shared into the first draft of a document / policy / project charter / plan is incredibly valuable.
Who ever is writing the draft documents is going to be seen as showing leadership, proposing clarity over the chaos of brainstorming meetings; they’ll be asked to participate in further drafts, and presenting the materials; and that first draft often shapes discussion forward long word and section of the draft has been rewritten.
So participating or leading the first draft
It gets things moving, helping you be seen as a leader.
It ensures that your teams needs and perspectives is represented - don’t do this manipulatively by privileging your position, people will see right through it, but if you let someone else do it you run the risk of your teams needs and input not being fairly represented.
It gives you a legitimate opportunity to contact others that were involved in the meeting, to ask for clarifications - “I’m putting together the document from our meeting last week. During the meeting, I heard you say X - is that right? Does that suggest Y, and Z?” - that increases your visibility across the organization.
You’ll continue to be part of the leadership of future drafts
It means you’re much more likely to be involved in presenting the final result to higher ups
It increases the likelihood of you being involved in the implementation, if that’s what you want
There are a tonne of leadership and growth opportunities here if you’re willing to seize them, on top of just helping an effort move forward that you care about.
Within your team: Don’t Write Up Plans/Roadmaps Until Things Are Settled
First drafts are influential. Within our teams, our voice is influential. The combination of the two have so much influence that it’s a bit dangerous.
Don’t write and share first drafts of detailed roadmaps, plans, etc with your team until whatever process you and the team have for making decisions is finished. It’s one thing for team members to volunteer alternative ideas when everyone’s brainstorming; it’s another to criticize a fully-fleshed out proposal from the boss. It will stifle input from your quieter or shyer or newer team members.
Within your team: Write Up Objectives
On the other hand, big picture goals and objectives and “how we know we’re being successful” type documents are very good and very useful to write up and share. They can continually be referred back to, they offer a clarity. Focus on the what, not the how, and make sure they’re updated as necessary.
Stakeholders: Write and Share Notes of Meetings
When you’re meeting with stakeholders, it is extremely valuable to write up your notes of the meeting soon afterwards, and share them with the stakeholder. This helps a number of ways:
The practice forces you to listen carefully
Writing things down clarifies your thoughts, and is something you can refer back to
It gives you an opportunity to make sure that you got their input down correctly, forestalling misunderstandings and conflicts
It makes them feel valued and heard
This sort of practice really is just professional behaviour 101 and yet I see it way too seldom. Doing this well takes some time, but maintaining stakeholder relationships is important, and what’s the point of the meeting if you don’t both agree on what was said?
Stakeholders, Team Members, and More: Thank You or Recognition Letters
Finally, writing up thank you or recognition emails, or even better letters, is incredibly powerful.
This can be to an individual; it can even be to a group. In one of my earlier jobs, I wrote up “Christmas Letters” at the end of the year, summarizing the progress we had made over the past 12 months, highlighting accomplishments and thanking everyone for their contributions. This was work I really had to do anyway for reporting upwards, and after how well it was received the first time I just kept doing it.
A reader shared with me that they did something similar fore each individual on their team, sharing what they had seen each accomplish and how that impacted the team; this was even more powerful.
And of course, it doesn’t have to be after some long time. Thanking someone in writing for something they’ve done that impressed you or made your life easier is incredibly powerful, and you will be amazed how quickly you get a response to these messages. People you otherwise can’t get a hold of for weeks at a time will respond to these messages instantly, and will remember them for longer than you’d imagine.
Writing has an outsized ability to influence, connect, lead, and help people feel seen and recognized. That makes it absurd for people like us to so consistently underuse it. Yes writing’s hard. It gets easier (but not easy) with time. But you owe it to others, to your team, and to yourself to do more of it.
This ties pretty neatly into the “writing things down gives them outsized power” idea above. Stating things as questions is just as powerful, and again, one has to be responsible with this power, especially with our teams.
Once you’ve been a manager long enough, you will almost certainly have had the experience of mentioning something in an offhanded way or (especially) idly asking a question, and then finding out later that your off-the-cuff utterance was interpreted as A New Priority and spawned hours of work that didn’t need to be done, or changes that didn’t have to be made.
The way I’ve handled this - and I’m not sure it’s the right way or not - is to smile appreciatively, murmur some encouraging words, wind up the effort as being just want I wanted, and then (re-)learn the lesson myself for the next time: be clearer about what I’m asking and why I’m asking it.
If this does happen to you and your team, in a way it speaks favourably about the approach you’re taking to management. Managers who are constantly barking orders or making an infeasible number of requests often start getting tuned out; team members often figure out that they’ll get distracted by the next shiny thing or the boss will just keep barking about it until it gets done, so they quickly learn to keep on doing what they’re doing and wait until something’s been asked about multiple times before bothering to start. (Come on, admit it, you know places like this).
Managers who are judicious and thoughtful about their requests, though, and do more listening than talking, will find that their words are taken seriously.
Unfortunately that means sometimes they’re taken more seriously than intended. So it’s up to us to be clear about what we intend if we want to make sure our teams are doing their best work in the most important areas, and not being overly distracted by what we ask for.
The fact is, when we are making requests, there’s a lot of context in our own head and we just sort of assume the context is clear to everyone else, too. This is the curse of knowledge. Other people aren’t hearing the tune in their heads, so they have to make guesses about what’s meant based on limited data. And if a request is coming from someone with authority over them, and someone they respect, when they fill in those blanks they are going to err on the side of over-responding to the request.
This exact same situation plays out when we’re the one fielding requests from senior decision makers. Sharing some clarity on what the request is for and what is being imagined as an adequate response to the request is absolutely essential if we don’t want things derailed.
In this blog post, the author provides some excellent, concrete advice on ways to be clearer about our requests so that we’re not wasting our teams’ precious time or focus. It can be done by being clear on the asker’s side:
Be clear about the amount of time you’re expecting is required to handle the request - so you can be corrected if you’re wrong, or to give the listener an idea of the scope you’re imagining
Be clear about the prioritization of the request over other activities
Distinguish between whether you want new work or just to find out if something’s already been done
Be clear about why you are making the request, thus giving an idea of what is actually needed
Or it can be done by asking for clarity if you’re the recipient of the request from your own managers:
Ask how much time is appropriate
Ask what is going on and what it’s needed for so you can best support them in response
Don’t be afraid to ask.
It’s a great short article and well worth reading.
Making Hard Decisions - Lara Hogan, Wherewithall
Any decision that’s challenging to make is because there’s two or more roughly equally good or promising things you’re torn between.
A good way to be clear about the decision you’re making and why, and to make sure that subsequent decisions (yours, or team members’) are all pulling in the same direction, is to make the tradeoff you’re making explicit.
As Hogan says:
In order to [thing], I’m choosing [x important thing] even over [y important thing].
We’ve seen this formula before, in #86 (Rubick’s tenants for faster decision making, and Rapoport’s discussion of guardrails). And we talked briefly about the idea in #165, when going back through your decisions, to see if there are consistent tradeoffs you’re currently making, to make future decisions easier.
This “A over B” preference doesn’t have to be forever, or for all things - but it may mean that right now, you have to focus on the short-term over the long term, or big risks over safe bets. Hogan suggests making this time-bound: for this quarter, or for the next week, or whatever, operating preferring A over B.
Also, and this is really clever (I haven’t seen this before): she suggests trying it the other way as a way to explore the decisions - what decision would you make in this case if you preferred B over A? What would the outcome likely be? Is that better, or worse?
Hogan goes into much more details, definitely recommend reading the article and subscribing to the Wherewithall newsletter.
Managing Within Organizations
Developing leadership styles - Will Larson
Lawson writes this intended for executives, but it’s a useful way to think about influencing teams of peers and people across the organization about approaches to take.
We all have an approach we typically use to convince people that our preferred approach is the right way. Usually, it’s the approach that works for us. It’s about data, extensive argumentation, examples from elsewhere.
That’s a perfectly good approach! But different people, and different situations, this won’t work. For instance, if our piece is only one of several in a complex effort, or if we don’t see context that other areas of the organization have.
Lawson describes three approaches:
Leading with policy: This can work for us if there has been some existing policy or strategic goal or OKR that applies here
Leading from consensus: This can work for us if we want to get things moving and we just need to do the legwork of getting everyone on board to some outcome. Building skills developing consensus across the organization takes time but is extremely powerful and long-lasting
Leading with conviction: This is largely anything else
And goes into details of the mechanics of each approach.
Building out our toolkit of approaches is extremely useful (and raises our ceiling - see below). Making a point of building other decision-influencing tools in situations where they’re more likely to be successful is hugely important as we progress in our careers.
Managing Your Own Career
Don't Leave Leadership Vacuums - David C. Baker
This article by Baker, a very sage advisor in the world of expertise consultancies, is mostly on a different topic, but I want to emphasize one particular section that is extremely relevant for all of us:
That’s true for you and me, too. The technical stuff we know (the knowledge we transfer) is pretty easy, but it’s the other stuff that’ll get ya. I’d like to articulate that into a phrase:
Your abilities set the floor for your potential.
Your leadership sets the ceiling.
This, in a few words, is why I started this newsletter. “Your abilities set the floor for your potential. Your leadership sets the ceiling.”
As STEM Ph.D.s we mostly focussed on (and were rewarded for) building and applying deep technical expertise of some sort. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course.
And, frustratingly, we actually did learn some pretty advanced peopling skills working within, even leading, complex collaborations. But that’s almost never pointed out to us, and almost all of the more basic management skills were never even modelled for, much less taught to, us.
So we have all these STEM PhD experts, who have taken a step forward and volunteered for the challenging, complex, and frankly emotionally tiring work of managing teams within complicated organizations. We do this because we know we can have bigger impact, we know we can be useful in not just doing the work but shaping what work is done, and helping team members flourish.
But without any support, we’ll only be able to go so far — and we’ll be exhausted, stressed, and doubting ourselves the whole time.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We have more than enough ability to learn the basics of and then more complex management skills (yes, #166, management, not leadership). We just need some initial help. And that’s what this newsletter is for.
That ceiling in our career can be as high as we want it to be. We just need to learn other tools to add to our toolbox.
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,