Junior boss: why we have bad managers

Software developers are exposed to bad managers and, boy, do we like to complain about it! They are obsessed with short-term metrics that don’t help us get stuff done. Instead of getting out of the way, they interrupt the flow at every occasion. They want to be the boss but don’t understand the work. Every single one of us knows a David Brent.

Why is corporate leadership so inept?

In a not so distant past, I was a project manager and when I started out, I wasn’t all that great at it either. When I look back at those early days, it’s clear to see why most managers have trouble excelling at their jobs. Leadership is a skill and we are not training our leaders well.

Management is a skill

On one of my first projects, I had to plan my team one week ahead. I was PRINCE2 certified, so I knew all about long-term plans and milestones. It turned out that writing down how many designers you needed to do something by next Thursday was not so easy.

Every week was an emergency. Really.

I told myself my case was exceptional. How was I to predict that X would happen? That one developer told me it was going to take 2 days and now he needed 2 more! Of course, he messed up my plan! The lady that planned the “resources” had to hear my excuses every week and constantly told me to do a better job. Even with that direct feedback, it took me a big year to be in a position to comfortably make a plan.

While making short-term plans is a brutal school, making long-term plans is much more dangerous. You have so much more time to lie to yourself. You’ll start moving things to “phase 2” to buy more time. You kid yourself that the team will be more productive in the second half of the project. There will be advanced calculus with estimates until the puzzle sounds reassuring.

If managers only learn how to manage on the job, is it any wonder teams complain? How much damage does trial-and-error of junior managers do to your business? How many senior managers never got better because they never got real feedback?

Feedback is for the weak

For managers, not knowing stuff is considered a weakness. We can claim that we’ve moved on as an industry, but vulnerability is still not rewarded. I’m not talking about asking your team dumb questions. I’m talking about expressing doubt in front of superiors and peers.

“I’m not sure this will work…”
“Let’s try this experiment…”
“Let’s move the deadline just to be sure…”

All of these are pretty reasonable statements, but they will not help managers score career points. We tend to gravitate to the confident leaders. The ones that make it work. The ones with 0% doubt and 100% vision.

If reflection and introspection are not rewarded, how can you improve? If questioning yourself is a taboo, how can you get better as a leader? You can’t and so you don’t.

The show must go on

We grow when we stare our mistakes in the eye and do better the next time. That’s why success theatre is a growth killer.

Success theatre is that weird dance managers do at the end of a project. We went 40% over budget, the quality is abysmal and our team morale is low. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate, right? I’ve seen management cut cake with the logo of a nightmare project. I’ve witnessed “proud of our team” speeches where that team refused to join. There are always follow-up projects and they will be even more bloated and unlikely.

Putting a spin on the end-result of a project is the default. In a system where failure is a weakness, everybody seems to succeed. Without the feedback loop, is it any wonder our managers don’t learn?

Let’s do better

When a junior developer joins the team, we set up all kinds of processes to get them on track. Let’s start by pair programming. Here is the “newbie wiki”. Let’s give you an easier ticket to start and take some more time for code review.

What do we do for managers? We give them access to JIRA and “you’re on your own, buddy”. We need to do better.

Let’s not focus on methodologies and certificates but on leadership skills. We need coaching programs and apprenticeships. You shouldn’t become a leader without having a mentor. Period. No team should have a junior boss. Pair managing should become the default.

We need to figure out ways of giving feedback to leaders. You want your team members to give you direct criticism. If you are the untouchable boss, they’ll give it behind your back. Organisations should set up systems so teams can evaluate and correct their leaders.

Leadership is not a character trait. It’s a learned skill. Let’s make sure we train our future leaders better.