Becoming a Manager: Losing Direct Control

When my wife was expecting our daughter, someone gave me this advice, "When you have your first child, you lose all your free time.  When you have your second, you lose all the free time you didn't realize you still had."  Becoming a manager* can be a similar experience.  When you become a lead, you lose direct control.  Instead, you have to trust what others tell you.  Very recently we had a small re-org at work and I'm transitioning from a lead** to a manager and I'm quickly finding out that I have now lost all that control I didn't realize I had.

As an individual contributor, you have complete control.  Maybe someone tells you what to do, but when it comes to executing, everything that you do gets done exactly how you want it to be done.  As a result, you know first hand the status of your part of the project.  Becoming a lead results in a loss of this control. Instead of doing the work, you have to tell others to do the work.  This results in work being done in ways you may not have intended.  You no longer have direct knowledge of the state of the project, but rather have to rely on what your team is telling you.

Becoming a manager amplifies this state of no direct control much farther.  As a lead--it turns out--you still have a lot of control.  You get to tell your team what to do and (sometimes) how to do it.  You then get to directly monitor their work.  As a result, you have direct knowledge of what they are working on and how they are attempting to accomplish it.  If something isn't to your liking, you can request a change.  As a manager of leads, there is an extra level of indirection added to the mixture.  This extra level of indirection is known as a lead and all of your instructions will be filtered through this person.  They will be applying their ideas of how things should be done before passing on instructions to the individual contributors who will then apply their own opinion before anything is actually accomplished.  This adds a lot more variance to the outcome.

As a brand new manager I don't yet have any tried and true strategies for dealing with this loss of control.  I suspect it means being a lot more careful with what you measure.  At the lead level you are interacting with the individual contributors often enough (you are having 1:1s aren't you?  and scrum standup meetings?) that you have a good pulse of the project.  You don't need to be terribly precise in what you monitor because you can measure almost everything.  As a manager, your purview is too large to measure everything.  Instead, you'll only be getting a small amount of information from each individual contributor.  Thus, picking the right things to monitor becomes a critical factor in your success or failure.

As with the lead, there is a fine line to be walked between being aloof and micromanaging (or interfering as it might be known at the manager level).  When the work is being done by people who are not direct child nodes of yours, how do you interact enough to know what is going on but not so much that you disintermediate the relationship?  These are all interesting questions I'm now facing.  As I gain more experience, I'll try to revisit this topic with some advice on what does and doesn't work.


* For the purpose of this post, a manager is someone who manages other managers or leads.  This position is sometimes referred to as an M2 or manager of managers.

** A lead in this context is someone who manages individual contributors but not other managers.

Comments (1)

  1. Having been a manager* for a while now, I’ve learned more about what it means and what changes it requires

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