Last year, I published a note on Mistakes I made as First Time Manager on the internal portal of Meta (and eventually on my personal blog). That note received traction beyond my imagination. Inspired by that, I thought I should share mistakes I made or observed others make as Manager of Managers with the hope that some of you might find it useful. I am realistic enough to know that as manager of managers myself right now, I am probably still making new mistakes and some of my team members as well as my peers have helped me realize them. So the past tense in the title is inspired mainly by the facts that the mistakes below are the ones I am aware of and worked on, and not that I am done making mistakes.
Unlike in the previous note, my mistakes as manager of managers have a theme that can be summarized in one word – Leverage. Specifically, either lack of awareness or ability to command or demand leverage from the team.
use (something) to maximum advantage.
“the organization needs to leverage its key resources”
It is no surprise then that most of these mistakes roll up to this meta theme – inability to claim leverage from the team.
This could happen in many ways –
Too much focus on internal growth irrespective of capabilities
When I first became manager of managers for the first time, I had a couple of individual contributors around me who were high performing ICs. We decided to make one of them a manager reporting to me. He initially did great, but soon after our organization grew further both in people scope and complexity of subject matter. The area also needed the ability to influence some partner VPs which this person completely lacked.
I made a mistake of prematurely putting this manager to be responsible for this area. As a result, he struggled with this expanded responsibility and it came to the point where I began to feel that I was doing his job in addition to mine.
Standing by your people even when facts suggest there is problem
One of the leadership qualities that I admire and aspire to have is to be there for my people when things get tough. However, on the occasion above, I took that to the extreme. There were enough signals that this manager in my team was not scaling, but instead of giving him feedback, I pushed back on the people who were providing a valuable signal.
My big lesson learnt is that standing by my people also means providing them valuable feedback they deserve and sometimes taking them out of the difficult circumstances.
Trying to be in the details of everything
This one is the manager equivalent of the example I have cited in my previous note. At a certain point, the size and scale of the organization means one cannot be in the details of everything. However, till that point, I used to take pride in knowing what every person in my 125 people – 3 geographies organization was working on. It took a lot of effort and time much of which could have been better spent on more impactful things.
Given the complexity of our products, this model stops scaling at Meta much earlier. Therefore, tracking the top 3-5 important things for every team, or even better, creating team wide OKRs is a much more reasonable model for tracking important things.
Making hiring mistakes
At Meta, we are blessed with a very structured hiring process that we put a lot of effort into. With well calibrated interviews and interviewers, our probability of making mistakes in hiring is relatively low.
I made some egregious mistakes in hiring earlier on in my previous company. One of the most memorable ones – I had a critical senior manager role open for a while. The company had a policy to reclaim unhired pids at the end of the quarter and I could not afford to not fill that role.
Then we had this candidate. 4 of us interviewed him, without any planning or notion about what skills we are testing. Three of us came back with a hire decision, based on mostly technical stuff. Quite frankly, with hindsight, we heard him say what we wanted to hear.
The fourth person on the panel came up with no hire decision. He warned that the candidate was not a good culture fit.
I chose to ignore that signal and hired the candidate anyway. And predictably the person turned out to be a toxic empire builder. People in his team and around him were miserable. And the panelist who had predicted this never stopped reminding me that he did.
Hiring in a hurry and therefore hiring the wrong person in the team is almost always worse than not hiring at all.
If you ever need to hire someone outside of the standard process, make sure you create a structure to your hiring process – understand signals you want to get, choose panelists who are experienced to get those signals, plan suggested questions to get the signals and be appropriately skeptical about the hiring decision.
Lack of diversity and inclusion
Always ask yourself who in your team can bring counter opinions to the table. Ask yourself who is the voice of conscience of the team. And pay attention to them very closely. There are many in my current team who argue with me and many times we do not agree, but it is worthwhile conversation to have.
I remember a conversation with one of my team members over a year ago, where he gave me an earful on a decision I was about to make. (I don’t remember what the decision was but I do remember the spirit of the conversation). After the conversation, he mentioned he is happy that he made his point and I heard him out, no matter what decision I made. I stuck to my original decision but cannot be grateful enough that he voiced his opinion.
Often it is tempting to have people in the team who have mindshare with you. And at some level, that is healthy. But taken too far and it creates an echo chamber.
Having thought diversity on the team is as important as the diversity of background.
Not getting enough ongoing signal from the extended organization
This is yet another important job as your organization grows. Keeping in touch with the pulse of the organization is an important part of a leader’s job. Since I have made mistakes on the other extreme (trying to know how everyone is doing), I am historically not guilty of not getting enough signal. At Meta, mechanisms such as Pulse and upward feedback are valuable tools. Yet I worry a lot about staying in touch with the team, especially in the context of remote work.
Enough of Mistakes – Here are Some best practices I have learnt
Define ideal org structure and work from there
When there is significant change to org size, draw an ideal org structure based on roles leaving incumbent people out. Once you have drawn the ideal org structure, start putting incumbents into various roles, being brutally honest about their capabilities and weaknesses in supporting the assigned roles.
In such an exercise, you may still take some risks, but at least all those risks will be calculated risks. You will have an idea where to focus your closer attention. You will also have an idea of the cumulative risk you are taking.
Connect with extended organization – invest in relationships
Staying in touch with the extended organization is extremely important. If you invest in relationships, people in your team will be comfortable to open up to you. You will know what is on peoples’ minds. This typically results in you getting early warning around brewing problems that you can solve before they explode.
Identify key people in the extended organization irrespective of levels
Organizations are not hierarchies. Organizations are fundamentally social networks with some element of hierarchy to give them structure. Just like in social networks, your organization has all sorts of skills and personalities. Some are influencers who can help amplify larger team morale (in either direction). Some are thought leaders who can inspire the others in the team. Some bring deep competencies that make your organization successful.
It is important to identify who those are, how to stay connected with them to get feedback to improve the organization.
Manage by objectives and key results
OKRs is one of the best ways to focus the effort on goals of the organization. We operate in an organization structure that is product oriented. As a result sometimes common foundational areas are at a risk of falling through the cracks because they are everyone’s responsibility and hence no one’s responsibility. Getting objectives aligned and have joint ownership of key results is truly helpful in this context.
To err is human and we learn from our mistakes. Would love to know mistakes you might have made or seen made, that are worth sharing so that we can all learn from them.