Interviewing for a new job mostly sucks, but the fun part is you meet a whole lot of new, smart people, and also are called upon to reflect on what you’ve learned. Here’s a question I got asked recently in an interview and some thoughts on it. (adapted from the original Twitter thread)
Question (from memory, not verbatim):
I’m leading a team, I understand my goals, all I really need from my leadership is a budget and some time, but instead I’m constantly blocked waiting for decisions, and having executives swooping in at the last minute without context. It’s profoundly disempowering, why does this keep happening?
Great question, why is this such a common experience?
Especially given the fact that anyone who has been managing for a minute is aware of “swoop and poop”, and is actively trying to avoid it. So why are so many people experiencing the swoop: as senior managers we don’t think that’s what we’re doing.
Let’s take a look at how we might have ended up here.
As a senior leader, responsible for a large and important portfolio, it is critical that I ensure that my teams will be successful, because the success of the company (in part) depends on it. Additionally I’m often uniquely positioned to balance strategic tradeoffs between competing priorities, open new areas of investment, align my peers across the company, and report up to the leadership level above me. Under these circumstances, when I’m asked a question or to greenlight an initative, naturally I’m going to quickly educate myself on the topic, maybe check the status of a related questions or two, and briefly align with some key stakeholders. It is that kind of lightning turn around of a complex array of interrelated issues that can leave you feeling winded at the end of the day having never left your office chair. But we have a problem. As senior management our perception of time is different (a topic I touched on in my “Managing Up” talk, watch it here). What felt brisk to us, is an age to the person who is blocked, waiting in uncertainty about the future of their work. This is all they’re thinking about, but it’s 1 of dozens or hundreds of things we’re juggling.
It turns out there simply isn’t time for us, as a senior leader, to be the diligent, competent, thoughtful leader we aspire to be on all the topics that arise.
And that’s hard to accept.
As leaders, we’re being asked to be comfortable being accountable without knowing the details. Being okay with saying, “I don’t know” when our boss asks for those details. Being okay with not having had an opportunity to share our opinion with the team. Being okay not doing the things we’ve been asked to do our whole career. Because most of us got to where we are by sweating the details, being the expert, asking the hard questions, being persuasive in sharing our perspective, generally having everything on lock.
Does it help to understand what the systemic forces are that produce this problem? Maybe. I’m generally of the opinion that if you want to create real change you have to start with the systemic forces. I could give you some tactical tips for when you find yourself in this situation (and again, you might find the “Managing Up” talk interesting). But because this was a question I was asked in an interview, and I’m a senior engineering leader, I’m going to instead talk about what a senior leader can do.
As a leader you need to find a way to get comfortable with engaging on topics you’re not competent on. Share your early and unfiltered thoughts, but skillfully enough not to randomize your teams. Communicate your varying degrees of confidence on the topics being discussed (“this may happen or that may happen, but either way I’m not worried unless this happens”). Build a culture where when you show up with your half formed opinions gleaned from skimming a few critical documents people are comfortable pushing back.
Instead of control the move becomes having an org you trust. An org that understand your values, goals, thought processes, and decision making. An org that doesn’t have to ask you a question, because they can imagine the good you and bad you sitting on either of their shoulders, advising them, without the real you ever having got looped in.
Find that path to being okay with being accountable, without being in control.
A leaders inability to find that path, because of their anxiety, or past experiences, or whatnot isn’t the only explanation of disempowering behavior. There are lots of other possible explanations, including just bad leadership. But it explains a surprisingly large number of unsatisfying interactions even with people who are good, or just competent leaders.
Very few things are as uncomfortable as being accountable for something you have no direct control over or knowledge of, but that’s the name of the game if you want a high functioning team that takes ownership in their work.