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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Becoming the Boss

One of the reasons people go to work for startups is that sense that anything could change at any time. You could go big, you could go bust, you could pivot into a completely new area. About a month ago, I got my first taste of this when, following my boss's departure from the company, I found myself in the role of head of engineering. And what a change this has been.

Call it the Dunning-Kruger effect, or simply call it arrogance, but I think if you had asked me before I was put into this position whether I could do the job well, I would have told you certainly yes. Did I want the job? Not really. But I could totally do it if I had to. Sure, I've never had full responsibility for such a large organization before, but I'm a decent manager, I have leadership skills, and I know my technical shit. That should be enough.

Here is what I have learned in the last month. The difference between leading 6 people in successful completion of their tasks, technical guidance, and the occasional interpersonal issue is nothing like being responsible for 20 people delivering quality releases, keeping their morale up, knowing when things are going wrong in the technical, interpersonal or career sense, and having to additionally report everything to your CEO and heads of business. When there is no buffer in your department above you that people can go to when your guidance is lacking, the weight of that responsibility is 10 times what you ever expected. A sudden transition of leadership even in a solid organization such as ours stirs up long-simmering conflicts. I'm down one pair of ears to listen and mediate.

And then there's recruiting. Helping with recruiting, giving good interviews, and saying good things about the company is nothing like owning the sell process from the moment of first technical contact with the candidate over the phone or at coffee, through onsite interviews, and into a selling stage. Good candidates need to be coaxed, guided, and encouraged often several times before they even get in the door. And one bad interview with you, the head of the department, can sully the name of the whole organization to a person even if you didn't want to hire them. I know this, but that didn't stop me from conducting a terrible phone screen a few days ago where my stress and impatience showed through as rudeness to the candidate. I thought I knew how to recruit but one bad interview and I'm in my CEO's office for some clearly-needed coaching.

I have known for a long time that even in the lesser leadership roles I've held in the past, the things I say and do echo much larger than I expect them to. But that was nothing compared to the echoes from being the person in charge. My stress causes ripples of stress throughout the staff. When I speak harshly to people over technical matters, it is yelling even if I don't intend it to be. One snide comment about a decision or a design invites others to sneer at that decision along with me.

The best advice I've gotten in the past month has been from my mother, who told me simply to smile more. My echo can be turned into echoes of ease and pride and even silliness and fun if I remember to look at the positives as much as the negatives. When I remember to smile, even if I'm unhappy about a decision, I find myself able to discuss that decision without inviting judgement upon the person that made it. When I smile through a phone call with a potential recruit, I sell the company better. When I smile through my 1-1s people feel that they can raise concerns without worrying that I will yell at them. When I smile, I see people step up and they take on bigger responsibilities than they've ever had, and knock them out of the park over and over again, which makes me smile even more. A smile is the thing that keeps me tackling this steep learning curve of leadership. So I try to smile, and every week I learn more than I've learned in a month at this job or a year at my previous company. Because change is scary and hard, but in the long run, it's good.