Do you feel like you don’t do enough ‘real’ work?

'I didn't do any real work today!' Sound familiar? A day of 5 meetings, then just a few hours in between catching up on emails and some management admin, and the day is gone. By the end of the week you feel like every day has just gone by in a blur and you haven't touched a line of technical work. You have become a blocker for your team and you know you aren't doing the technical work you promised. Worse still, if you have recognised you don't have time for the technical stuff and have started to give it up and delegate it you feel inadequate and that you don't contribute anything meaningful. You've become that manager. Sound familiar?

This scenario is one I’ve seen played out time and time again. I experienced in first hand early on in my career as I accelerated extremely quickly and left the ‘real work’ of programming and developing behind. I was even told by another manager that I didn’t appear ‘technical enough’ and would not get a promotion. And I’ve seen it time and time again in every sector, not just clients in tech, and with friends and family too. It seems to be the curse of the ambitious woman (spoiler… it’s just not women who feel this way!).

As we up-level to managing deliverables, outcomes and people, it can easily feel that all we do is that management piece. And it doesn’t feel enough. Our education system encourages this: we go to school to learn the ‘hard’ stuff from programming to physics and the ‘soft’ skills (what I like to call real skills) are viewed as just that: soft, unimportant and somehow not worthy of note or merit. 

This feeling is further compounded by the great frequency of bad managers. The managers who don’t appear to contribute anything useful at all and seem to just waste everyone’s time. In addition those managers worry that they appear useless or not a technical contributor (because that is what they knew early in their career too) so they try and hold on to some technical work, which they don’t have the time for. And then worse still: there are the managers who spend all their time desperately trying to hold on to something technical, while managing, so that they actually become out of date and lose their credibility.

Sound familiar?

So here’s the rub: as we up-level so do our tasks. 

The 1st class degree that gave us the technical prowess and skills to get that first amazing job is what we know as our barometer for measuring success and talent. I was one myself: I felt that not programming meant I wasn’t achieving anything.

Every leader I work with has at some point struggled with ‘I don’t achieve anything’, because they are measuring their achievements based on their ability to spend time programming, developing and researching: the stuff they shouldn’t be doing anymore.

This mindset not only lets us down and makes us feel awful, it is also terrible for those around us.

Firstly, this feeling massively amplifies any impostor syndrome we are feeling. That comment of ‘you don’t appear technical enough’ held me back for a year! I was scrabbling around trying to find the time and energy to continue to be the great team lead that I was at that time, which was reaping huge rewards for the project I was running, and to somehow find something ‘meaningful’ technically rather than just dipping in to help others out with their problems. I survived the year, but honestly, I could have got ahead much faster if I’d realised that I didn’t need to be worrying about that ‘technical’ image. 

My worth was demonstrated in my ability to lead my team and their amazing outcomes. In addition, when I ‘gave in’ (because that’s what actually happened) and just focused on leading, I spent my limited ‘technical’ time staying up to date with the broad areas that impacted everyone in my team, so that I could help out appropriately. I needed to be able to solve problems for them, not do their job.

As leaders we don’t have time and shouldn’t have time to work on this stuff anymore. By doing that work you belittle the work your team contributes. It is very easy to be so swamped but holding on to the work that you want to do that you stifle progress, how hold up deliverables and you are unconsciously telling your team that you don’t trust them. You fail to help them grow and you inevitably drop other responsibilities that are your real job now. You also stop them growing as individuals as you make it all about how you would do something. The hallmark of a great leader is to create greatness around you, not to stifle it or create a herd of clones. 

We need to get comfortable with our team knowing more about something than we do – that is their job.

We need to get comfortable that the management overhead is a real thing and takes significant time and effort.

We need to get comfortable with enjoying what we do well.

The world desperately needs great managers, so if you have a flair for management and leadership then don’t worry about holding on to the work that you did straight out of college – that desperate clutching at something else to make you ‘worthy’ will never serve you. Instead, embrace the fact that you can be leader of a great team that can create great outcomes. That is where your real value lies.

Equally, if you don’t enjoy management be honest with yourself about it! Sadly, the current world is set up to promote great technical experts into managers. And yet the skillsets are so completely different. But before you jump out of management do check that you aren’t feeling that you don’t enjoy management because you are holding on to that need to stay ‘technical’ because of social pressure, resulting in overwhelm and under-delivering.

Finally, remember that to avoid being the manager who is viewed as a hindrance and not knowledgeable rather than as a great leader, you need to do the following:

  1. Stop stifling progress in your team by holding on to work that you don’t have time for.
  2. Stop being a blocker for action by insisting that all technical work needs to come through you unless, that is your main job function.
  3. Stop needing to contribute ‘technical’ expertise if it isn’t your real area of knowledge. It doesn’t make you sound clever and relevant – it makes you sound poorly informed and not up-to-date.
  4. Focus on ensuring you have the high-level technical knowledge and overview that those doing the day-to-day necessarily don’t have. That is where your real value lies. 
  5. Aim to turn your team into superstars: get comfortable surrounding yourself by people who are better than you at something. If you feel threatened by this you haven’t realised your own value. Remember your job is to enable your team to do the best work possible.
  6. Work on communicating with your team what you bring to the table. The strategic piece that shows what you are all contributing needs to be shared with them so they know why you are relevant and important to the team’s function. Don’t be that manager who appears to be always busy, but doesn’t seem to product very much. Your team deserves to know the bigger picture and what you are doing to get them all there. Giving them the bigger picture will also help them stay motivated and focused.

Do you have an underlying unease at what you do as a manager. Are you always busy but never feel that you’ve ‘done a day’s work’? How are you measuring your success? Are you measuring the success of your team rather than your individual contributions? 

I’d love to know how you feel, and whether you are working at the right level.

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