Managing smart people is a privilege, but can also be confusing at times. When is it time for you to step in, and where should you let them lead without interference? When it comes to decision making, especially with important decisions, there is a lot you can do to help this balance feel natural and beneficial for everyone involved. That’s true even if your people are more experienced than you are.
As the product lead, you are responsible for everything that is happening in the product. That’s true even if other people are actually doing the work. With your employees, it is even more true: you are responsible for everything they do — good or bad.
That responsibility sometimes feels like a contradiction with your desire to let them lead. But the truth is that no-one in the company, not even the CEO, can lead without having to account for their actions in front of someone else. Leadership doesn’t mean that you get to do whatever you want.
As a manager, not only you must question your people’s decisions, it will actually make them better at their job. Of course, there is a way to do it so that it doesn’t feel abusive but rather collaborative.
I often see that managers avoid this altogether, in general and specifically when managing people who are more experienced than they are. But this is the wrong call. Alienating yourself from your people is only going to make it worse. You shouldn’t be afraid to step on their toes, because in most cases that’s not what you are doing, you are simply leading the team. Make sure that you are doing that with the proper respect and truly make this a conversation, and everyone will benefit from it.
There are three steps to doing it right, and you must go through all three to be a great manager.
Step One: Understand Their Decision
As a manager, you need to understand why your people make certain decisions. What might come naturally if you are an expert in the field, can feel weird if you aren’t. But this is your opportunity — and obligation — to ask questions.
By asking questions and asking them to explain their logic to you, you do two things. First, you are learning about the domain in question so that over time you are able to contribute more to the discussion. Second, when people need to explain themselves to others they think differently than they do when they simply need to make a decision themselves. I am sure you have witnessed this first hand.
So when you ask questions, don’t be afraid to say “I didn’t get it” and ask for further clarification. It can be that this clarification is needed only because you are not an expert, but more often than not it is because there is indeed something missing in how they see things or have analyzed the situation.
Step Two: See if You Agree or Disagree
Once you understand why your people make certain decisions, you can ask yourself whether you agree with them or not. Separating the understanding part from the agreement part is a very powerful tool. Normally, people mix them together, and by doing so they are missing the opportunity to truly listen and understand how the other person sees things. In a way, by being less experienced, you are forced to focus on understanding first before you make a judgment call, and that’s actually a good thing regardless.
However, don’t feel that if you are less experienced you can’t have an opinion. Maybe you disagree with some of the underlying assumptions they made. Or maybe when you see this in the broader context, something doesn’t add up.
If you disagree with the direction your people are taking, you must speak up. Agreeing to disagree doesn’t work — both when they do it to you and even more so when you are disagreeing with what they are doing but letting them continue with it.
As a manager, you need to be able to have your people’s back. You won’t be able to do that if you don’t agree with the direction they are going in. Even if you think you can, you surely won’t be able to do so if you didn’t open it up and discussed it thoroughly. And guess what? This is exactly what step three is about.
Step Three: Bring Your Added Value
You have to remember that you are the manager of the team for a reason. No-one gave you this role because of your pretty eyes. You might have experience in other domains, you might have been longer in the field, or simply due to the fact that you are a co-founder of the company, and that’s not a meaningless detail. Regardless of what the reason is, the fact that you are their manager means that you have a perspective that they don’t.
As I mentioned last week, you need to constantly share that perspective with the team so that they can make better decisions themselves. But when that didn’t happen and you disagree with their decisions, make sure you explain yourself to them. Share your concerns, highlight any points that they have missed. It can be a matter of perspective, experience, or simply because thinking about everything alone is hard and having a second opinion on the matter unveils additional layers and blindspots.
I know you are not approaching this with your ego (or you wouldn’t have hired these smart and experienced people at all). But be careful not to put yourself too much aside. You have what to contribute here, and you are here for a reason. Moreover, you must participate and make it your own if you want the company to succeed. Hiring great people is the first step. It is the teamwork and the collaboration that brings phenomenal results. They didn’t join your company to be alone, they came working for you. Don’t forget that, and don’t walk away on them.
My free e-book “ Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you at www.ganotnoa.com/ebook
Originally published at https://ganotnoa.com on February 3, 2021.