Everyone's a great manager until they start managing

We don't need you to watch the Kanye documentary that's on Netflix right now. It's many hours long. And it manages to be equal parts infuriating and sad.

Without spoiling anything, there's a moment toward the end of the third episode. Where Kanye and Justin Bieber are recording in Wyoming. And Kanye turns to Justin and says:

This is something you might deal with, where I'm telling the team a million times what I want. And it's subtly crushing my soul and my ego and my respect and my dignity as a boss.

And, bosses, if we're being honest, who among us has not felt this at some point? Like, maybe we wouldn't use those exact words. OK, basically no one other than Kanye would pick those precise words. But the struggle? The thing where you're trying to get an idea out of your head and into someone else's? That's one of the hardest things to explain until you've lived it.

The easy take is that Kanye is being an asshole to his team. That no matter the level of "jeen-yuhs," there's no excuse for belittling your people. And, anyhow, that's no way to get people to do great work in the first place. We can get behind that take, but it misses something important.

It's easy to dip into "I would never talk to my team like that. If I were in charge, I would be a way better boss than that." That smug satisfaction about what you would do if you were in charge? Well, we understand the appeal.

This is how many of us start out on the path to management. Thinking we will do a much better job than the bosses we've had along the way. And it sounds really good, right up until you sit in the seat.


In theory it's easy

We meet a lot of people who are just shy of management. Sometimes there's a pending promotion. Other times there's a tag that labelled them High Potential in an HRIS somewhere. And occasionally it's just super-keeners who want to be the boss, but like, faster.

They want to know if they can take management training ahead of time. Can they just skip over the gawky, awkward parts and jump straight to the better salary, high-trust team, HBR case study version.

No. You can't. It's not possible to leapfrog all of early management. You can, for sure, skip some of the most treacherous parts. And you can, for sure, improve your management with practice. But that practice is key. It's not enough to sit at home and think about what you would do if you were Kanye. The learning is in the grappling. And you can't grapple in theory.


In practice it's hard

We worked for a CEO once, years ago, who said, "I'm a very good manager when I make the time for it."

It seemed like a sensible thing to say. He was a thoughtful guy, an authentic communicator. Of course, the organization was growing fast and he had a lot on his plate, so he couldn't always make that time. But he was confident that, were he to make the time, it would be good. And if you worked with him, you basically believed it.

In the years since, we've spoken with many more leaders. Founders, executives, newly minted managers, and some of those High-Potential Leaders of the Future. Not all of them feel the way our CEO did. A lot of them worry about unknown unknowns. A lot of them come to our programs because they don't know if they're any good. Because they're making it up as they go and they feel like they are probably getting at least half of it wrong.

But a significant chunk – maybe a third of them – come in with very similar language. I know what to do, I'm just not doing it right now. I am capable of being a great boss for my people, I understand what's involved. But there are trade-offs to make, and I'm making different trades.

The problem that wasn't clear to us back then is very clear to us now. If you're a great manager who doesn't make the time to manage, you're a shit manager. 


The management is in the doing

Sometimes when we work with bosses, we'll ask them for memories from their own career that stand out. Positive or negative, we ask them to think of a moment where their own boss had an impact on them. At this point we've heard thousands of them.

The negative stories make your heart hurt. Bosses who yelled. Bosses who belittled. Bosses who sat on their employee's heads and bosses who were nowhere to be found. A lot of the stories describing a negative moment end with something like, "... and I went back to my desk and started job hunting."

Something interesting happens with the positive stories, though. Most of the time, the positive stories don't describe a moment at all. Even though we ask for a moment of impact, what we get back are broad descriptions, about the entire management relationship.

"She always made me feel like it was safe to try things."
"They pushed me to take on things I didn't know I could do, and had my back the whole way."
"He took the time to understand where I wanted to go and put things in front of me that would help me get there. Even when it meant leaving his team."

The positive stories aren't about a cool technique, or a well-run meeting. They're about bosses who communicated expectations and context. Who gave uncomfortable, but important, feedback. Who kept their one on ones. Fundamentally they are about bosses who put in the work. Made the time. Over and over. It's the sum total of that effort that people point to when you ask them to for positive management moments from their own careers.

So, listen. When you see bad management out there in the world, it's healthy to want to do better. Sometimes the response we have to other people's actions makes our own values and priorities clearer. That kind of critique and reflection is valid. We've certainly done our fair share.

But you are not measured by your critique of others. You are measured by your own work, and your impact on those around you. So if you feel like you know what to do, if only you made the time. Consider this an explicit invitation to make the time. We're all great bosses in theory. It doesn't count until we put it into practice.
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One More Amazing Thing

Technically two more amazing things. The first is that BPX Spring sold out while we were in early bird. That has never happened before. 🤯 

And the second is what keeps you humble even while you're selling out in early bird. If you were here two weeks ago, you may remember we were talking about how the red chili flakes at the bottom of the drawer lose their heat. Last night, one of our siblings sent this message.

Can't make this stuff up 🌶

I used new chili powder in my soup. Has more kick I guess

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