Picture this, it's a nice warm summer day and you are relaxing next to a lake. There is no breeze in the air so the surface of the water is very still and you see a duck. It floats by, calm and quiet, with just a small V-shaped ripple in the water behind it. You admire its graceful nature. Doesn't it make you feel calm and focused inside?
With those surroundings, do you ever think about how darn fast the poor duck's feet are paddling? He's swimming like crazy, pushing water by him, making currents under the surface, anything he can do to keep his forward motion going smoothly.
Let me shift gears for a second. Have you ever gone to a restaurant with family or friends and all you want to do is sit at a table and visit with them? But then the waitress comes to the table and doesn't just take your order, but elaborates a bit too much on her day and on the internal workings of the restaurant. I really don't want to know that the fruit truck didn't drop off all the right produce this morning. I also don't want to know how far the waitress had to drive to get to work today. I just want to enjoy the company of my family and friends and order dinner. In this example, the waitress is not being a duck. She absolutely is showing her duck feet.
Now let's talk about you as a manager, or even as an employee. We all have lives outside of work, some crazier than others. Sometimes, just a specific day is a bit more chaotic than others. As someone that others in the company look up to, how do those people feel when you, their role model, come to work frazzled and stressed? What if you show up to meetings unprepared and late? Should others be concerned that you are overwhelmed? Do you think they perceive you as being capable of doing your job? What message are you sending?
All managers and senior folks that are role models are involved in a lot of situations at work that are ambiguous and sometimes chaotic. Work situations change rapidly. Things may occur that can't be shared in order to not randomize others. I think one main goal of a manager is to play interference between the chaos and randomization so that the solid, straight-forward work that needs to be done by the team of engineers gets done. So how you as a manager handle that chaos is an extremely important component to how good of a leader you truly are. If you get on your soapbox and rant, expose your team to all the indecisiveness and ambiguity, or show that you can't absorb all of that leading to your stress level being high and overflowing into meetings and other conversations, then you need to step back and remember the duck. A good manager is always a calm duck floating on the water. Yes, your feet are always paddling like crazy, but the rest of the world only needs to see (and only wants to see) the duck.
Is there a right time to show your duck feet? Sure there is. Let's say you've worked really hard on something with extra hours, reaching outside of your comfort zone, collaborating and innovating with others and it's made you super-busy. Yes, those items you should summarize to your manager so they see some of what it took to get to your end result. They won't appreciate the end result as much if they don't understand the pain and sweat you went through to get there. But that's a different message than if you describe every turn in the decision-making process, every (even small) roadblock you overcame, and every tangent you investigated before coming to the final conclusion. Paddle hard and paddle straight, but consider only letting others know paddling had to occur.
This same analogy can be used when thinking about customers. Getting a final solution delivered to a customer can take a lot of time and a lot of randomization until the team gets aligned and requirements get met. You don't need to expose the customer to all those gory details. They don't need to know how many bugs were found during development, how many builds were broken, how long it took to deploy the solution. As a customer at that restaurant, I'm thinking "I really don't care that your produce truck didn't show up today, just serve me my food". So why would your engineering customers want to know that this last important component didn't show up until the last milestone? Now granted, I work in an IT department where my customers are other employees who also see the internal workings of the company, so it's a fine line between calm floating duck and crazy, paddling duck feet. But external customers should never see the duck feet of your engineering team. And your engineers should never see the duck feet of their managers.
So how are you showing up to others? As the graceful duck floating on the water or the crazy paddling duck feet underneath?