The Small Team I Manage is now BIG … Now What?

by Mike O'Neill

As companies get flatter, teams tend to get bigger. If you are managing a team that is growing, you have probably noticed that the old way of doing things no longer works.

In 2006, Julie Zhuo joined Facebook as a product designer. Julie is now the VP of Product Design and leads the large team responsible for the design of the Facebook app. Her new book, The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks To You offers a number of excellent insights to managing growing teams. Here are some excerpts:

People often ask me what’s different about my job now than when I started in 2006. Looking back, these are the five most striking contrasts between managing small and large teams:

DIRECT TO INDIRECT MANAGEMENT. If your team is five people, you can develop a personal relationship with each individual where you understand the details of their work, what they are good at, and maybe even the hobbies they enjoy outside the office.

When I got to more than eight reports, I started to feel like I didn’t have enough hours in the day to support everyone well while also thinking about hiring, ensuring high-quality design work, and contributing to product strategy.

This is why managers of growing teams eventually start to hire or develop managers underneath them. But this means you are further removed from the people and the work on the ground. You’re still responsible for your team’s outcomes, but you can’t be in all the details. Decisions will be made without your input, and things will be done differently than how you might personally do them.

At first, this can feel disorienting, like you’re losing control. But empowering your people is a necessity. One of the biggest challenges of managing at scale is finding the right balance between going deep on a topic and stepping back and trusting others to take care of it. As a team grows, learning to give this trust is essential.

PEOPLE TREAT YOU DIFFERENTLY.  When people don’t know you well and see that you’re in a position of authority, they’re less likely to tell you the ugly truth and challenge you when they think you’re wrong, even if you’d like them to. They might think it’s your prerogative to call the shots. They might not want to disappoint you or have you think badly of them. Or they might be trying to make your life easier by not burdening you with new problems or imposing on your time.

Be aware of this dynamic. Are your suggestions being taken as orders? Are your questions coming off as judgements? Are you presuming that things are rosier than they really are because you’re not hearing the full story?

Happily, there are some countermeasures you can take to make it easier for people to tell you the truth. Emphasize that you welcome dissenting opinions and reward those who express them. Own your mistakes and remind your team that you are human, just like everyone else. Use language that invites discussion: “I may be totally wrong here, so tell me if you disagree. My opinion is….” You can also ask directly for advice: “If you were me, what would you do in this situation?”

CONTEXT SWITCHING, ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. When I managed a small team, I spent many afternoons with a handful of designers at the whiteboard, exploring new ideas. We would get so deeply into the flow of our work that hours would pass unnoticed.

As my team grew, my capacity to spend long, focused blocks on a single topic began to shrink. More people meant that we could tackle more projects, which mean that my time fragmented. I’d receive 10 emails about 10 completely different topics. Back-to-back meetings required me to immediately shed the past discussion and get mentally prepared for the next one.

Over time, I came to understand that this was the job. As the number of projects I was responsible for doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, my ability to context switch also needed to keep pace. I discovered a few techniques to make this easier: scanning through my calendar every morning and preparing for each meeting, developing a robust note-taking and task-management system, finding pockets for reflection at the end of every week. Some days I’m still distracted. But I’ve come to accept that there will always be a dozen different issues to work through at any given time — some big, some small, some unexpected — and as the manager of a large team, you learn to roll with it.

PICK AND CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES. When I managed a small team, there were days I’d walk out of the office with zero outstanding tasks left — my inbox was cleared, my to-dos were crossed off, and nothing else needed my attention. As my scope grew, those days became rarer and rarer until they ceased to exist completely.

The more you look after, the more likely it is that something under your purview isn’t going as well as it could be. It might be projects falling behind schedule, miscommunications that need to be cleared up, or people who aren’t getting what they need. At any given moment, I can list dozens of areas that I could be working to improve.

But at the end of the day, you are only one individual with a limited amount of time. You can’t do everything, so you must prioritize. What are the most important topics for you to pay attention to, and where are you going to draw the line? Perfectionism is not an option. It took me a long time to get comfortable operating in a world where I had to pick and choose what mattered the most, and not let the sheer number of possibilities overwhelm me.

PEOPLE-CENTRIC SKILLS MATTER MOST. I remember hearing about a CEO who made the executives on his team switch roles every few years, like a game of musical chairs. I was skeptical. How could a sales executive be expected to know how to run an engineering organization, or a chief financial officer become a strong chief marketing officer?

Nowadays, I don’t think an executive swap is as far-fetched as I once thought. As teams grow, managers spend less time on the specific craft of their discipline. What matters more is that they can get the best out of a group of people. For example, no CEO is an expert across sales and design, engineering and communications, finance and human resources. And yet, she is tasked with building and leading an organization that does all of those things.

At higher levels of management, the job starts to converge regardless of background. Success becomes more about mastering a few key skills: hiring exceptional leaders, building self-reliant teams, establishing a clear vision, and communicating well.

People who master those skills will be well-equipped to lead teams of any size.


SOURCE: The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You – Julie Zhuo




I’ve found that entrepreneurship only gets harder every year,

and as your team gets bigger, the stakes get higher.

Jennifer Hyman

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