21 Insightful Quotes on Leveling Up: Becoming a Manager of Managers

May 26, 2020

On Friday, March 6th, senior female tech leaders & engineers came together to celebrate International Women’s Day with over a dozen tech talks & panels during the Girl Geek X Elevate 2020 virtual conference. Today’s blog includes quotes from a session with Arquay Harris, Senior Director of Engineering / Slack; Bora Chung, SVP of Product Management / Bill.com; Ines Thornburg, AVP of Customer Success / Splunk; and Gretchen DeKnikker, COO / Girl Geek X. In addition to the YouTube video replay, a full transcript from the talk is also available.

  1. “When you make the transition from managing individual contributors to managing managers, what happens is you go from this very directive, sort of supporting, coaching state of mind to managing to outcomes.

    When you have a person who is also responsible for managing other people on the team, you don’t want a person who is managing or doing things in the way that you would do them. You want them to manage in the way that feels comfortable for them.

    I would never say to a manager, ‘Hey, I want you to do this, and this is step one, two, three.’ It’s like, ‘This is the outcome. How can I support you to get there?’ You have to really trust them to be able to do it. And so the unlearning comes from wanting to be the person who is the hero, jumps in, saves the day, maybe writes the code — to really growing and empowering that next generation or that next level of leadership.” —Arquay Harris, Senior Director of Engineering / Slack

  2. “One mistake I made when I became a manager’s manager was just having one-on-ones with my immediate direct reports. They also have a set of teams and maybe not as frequently, but making sure that I check in with the team members made a big difference. When I hear some of the key themes and strategies being played back in skip level one-on-ones, I think that’s when things are going well. If you hear a game of telephone being played and have a disconnected kind of direction and alignment, you’ll know that things are not going well. Do those skip level one-on-one check ins. They’ve served me well.” —Bora Chung, SVP of Product Management / Bill.com

  3. “I had to learn to balance my time across the different responsibilities in a way that, frankly, I wasn’t getting too involved. I learned to trust the expertise on my team and learn what was good enough. Perfection is not always the end goal. We have to continue to progress multiple workstreams at one time in initiatives, and really make sure that no one gets left behind.” —Ines Thornburg, AVP of Customer Success / Splunk

  4. “I struggled to learn when to stop helicoptering in and trying to rescue everyone. I’m still learning it, but to me, the biggest difference between a junior employee in a very small startup versus a manager’s manager is learning how to do helicoptering in and helicoptering out at the right moments.” —Bora Chung, SVP of Product Management / Bill.com

  5. As you grow in your career and you become more visible, have more responsibilities, the one thing that I’ve learned is that when you say something, the impact of what you’re saying really is that much stronger, that much more gospel, so to speak. When you’re facilitating a meeting or when you’re communicating, you have to realize that, again, as your responsibility grows, people really listen.

    You have to be careful, so if you’re trying to facilitate a brainstorming, for example, what I’ve learned is to facilitate the dialogue, get the conversation going, but I reserve what my opinion is until the end, because I don’t want everybody to just think that my opinion is the right one, because it’s certainly not. That’s why I bring together, and when I’m doing hiring, I always try to look for complementary skills.

    So I’ve learned to really be cautious about what I say and when I say it and to whom I say it, because I realize that what I’m saying does affect and impact a lot of the folks on the team.” —Ines Thornburg, AVP of Customer Success / Splunk

  6. “Be friendly, not friends. If my team’s watching, they’re probably laughing about this, because I say this a lot. Very early in my career when I made that transition to manager, these people are your best friends. You hang out with them every night and when you are friends with the people who report to you, you cannot be impartial, right? You can’t say to your best friend, ‘You really screwed up on that thing. I need you to work harder in this area.’ It can be really awkward.

    And so what I really learned later in my career was how to set boundaries, because I do you a disservice if I’m not able to give you that really constructive and helpful feedback and help you grow. And that doesn’t mean that you have to be this monster who’s just a robot, but boundaries are really, really important and I just wish I’d learned that earlier.” —Arquay Harris, Senior Director of Engineering / Slack

  7. “In the early part of my career, I was thinking that I should be the smartest person if I’m the manager, and I was somewhat reluctant and afraid of hiring people smarter than myself. But what I am realizing is that it’s absolutely cool to hire people smarter than me. It actually elevates the team. It improves the quality of the thinking and ultimately, what we deliver to our customers is going to be much stronger. So I think I had to shed that a little bit of early stage career insecurity to really put together a strong team.

    I don’t have to be the perfectionist that knows all the answers. Sometimes a great value as a manager or manager’s manager comes from asking the right question, maybe asking the powerful question that nobody else is asking, because they are afraid or there’s a big elephant in the room.” —Bora Chung, SVP of Product Management / Bill.com

  8. “As your responsibility grows, you’ll have lots of different experts on your team in different disciplines, different business units, and you can’t be the expert on everything. It’s just physically impossible as your organization grows, and so what you do need to do is to be really, really comfortable working with these teams of experts in helping them accomplish their mission.

    As a leader, my value to my team is making sure that we’re working towards the same goals and cascading those company goals down. I make sure everybody understands those goals, that we’re progressing on those goals, and that we’re communicating our progress effectively in working together.” —Ines Thornburg, AVP of Customer Success / Splunk

  9. “Really, you should make your management style situational to the person and to the stage that they are in their career. It really just goes into this first quadrant, which is directive, which you might do to a more junior person. You might say, ‘I need you to log into this machine, do this work,’ and then you move up into coaching, which is you have a little bit more skill and it’s like, ‘All right, you kind of know what you’re doing. How can I coach you through it?’ Onto supporting, which is, ‘You know what you’re doing. How can I support you? How can I help you get to that next level?’ And then the final magic kind of golden quadrant is delegation, and that’s just, ‘I don’t even really need to tell you what to do. You probably are bringing me the problem, telling me what it is that needs to be solved.’

    The thing that’s really interesting is it’s not really a straight line. You might kind of hover, depending upon your skill set, maybe in communication you’re in full on delegation mode, but at technical proficiency, maybe you need a little bit more support.

    When I’m managing managers, I really try to think about each individual’s strengths and how I can help really, really uplift a person’s strengths, and how do I help them really either correct for or counterbalance any weaknesses that they may have?” —Arquay Harris, Senior Director of Engineering / Slack

  10. “Understanding what type of leader you are and what you can contribute is way more important than a very specific checklist of skills. If you’re interviewing someone and they haven’t done that exact thing, can they describe to your their approach or their philosophy? What I really look for is ‘is this person a structured thinker? Do they have best practices or some kind of toolkit or some sort of methodology in the way that they approach leadership?'” —Arquay Harris, Senior Director of Engineering / Slack

  11. “When I first transitioned to managing managers, I thought I needed to know everything and I was so embarrassed when I didn’t know what was going on. It took me a while to realize I’m just air traffic controller. The less information I have on a tactical level, the less opportunity I have to screw things up… I should just let the expert be the expert.

    And then my most amazing moment as a manager’s manager was when I walked in, I was planning this 10,000 person conference and there were hundreds of people setting up all of these little tiny details that we’d spent a year making. I only knew the names of like six people that I could see at any given moment. And I was like, ‘Okay, this is working. They have this. They’ve got it. I don’t even need to know what’s going on right now. This is amazing.'” —Gretchen DeKnikker, COO / Girl Geek X

  12. “It’s really fulfilling and rewarding to see people grow — to see them go from kind of more junior manager to senior manager to director, to see them be able to come into their own as a manager, develop their own styles. That’s probably the best thing about progressing to higher level of management.” —Arquay Harris, Senior Director of Engineering / Slack

  13. “Part of management is about soft skills and developing and augmenting those skills in your team. So that means communication skills, collaboration, meeting facilitation. It means executive presence, making sure that when you’re representing your company or your team, that you do it in such a way that you’re proud of that. So, when I know I haven’t prepared my team and I see a train wreck about to happen, that’s cringe-worthy.” —Ines Thornburg, AVP of Customer Success / Splunk

  14. “My most proud moment is when I’m absent on a sabbatical or extended vacation and the team doesn’t even notice that I’m gone. I think that’s the ultimate success of coaching and grooming the right team. If they noticed you were gone, your team isn’t quite where you need them to be.” —Bora Chung, SVP of Product Management / Bill.com

  15. “During my skip level one-on-ones, I start with a very broad question of ‘How are things going?’ I try to also let the manager in the middle know that we are having the skip level. I think the worst outcome is if the manager in the middle gets alienated in this conversation.

    I don’t really have an agenda during skip level one-on-ones. With some folks, I talk about just their career aspirations. With some folks, since I’m one level away, they could maybe ask more questions about the big picture strategy and whatnot, so it’s a little bit different, but I always let the team member drive the agenda.” —Bora Chung, SVP of Product Management / Bill.com

  16. “I want to be the finalist on all interviews because I really take pride in knowing people. One of the things, as a leader of a large organization, that I like to understand is, is career aspirations. This is where we have a much larger purview of opportunity as a leader, and frankly if I have a conversation with someone and I understand really they want to be in another part of the organization at some point in the future, I would love to make that match and keep that talent within my company rather than seeing people leave and take all that wonderful knowledge and great talent to another company.

    I don’t want people leaving my organization necessarily, but at the same time, if we can promote from within and give people more opportunity within our organization, people appreciate that and I love a team that culturally has a strong morale and knows that we’ve got each other’s backs.” —Ines Thornburg, AVP of Customer Success / Splunk

  17. The top trait to focus on developing if you’re interested in a management role is adaptability, because the thing about being an IC is that it’s a pretty defined trajectory to go from associate to engineer to senior to staff to senior staff, right? You might not know exactly what it is but some part of it is mapped out.

    It’s a little bit more opaque when you’re talking about leadership, because in any given moment, you could have to deal with people’s emotions and you have to coach and you have to support and you have to discipline. It’s just all of these things that you have to do, and so you need a growth mindset. You have to be willing to iterate and change.

    If you’re a person who’s really rigid and you like things just so, you maybe want to consider something else.” —Arquay Harris, Senior Director of Engineering / Slack

  18. “At more junior levels, there’s a mindset that meetings are a waste of time. Meetings are your lifeblood when you get to a certain level. If you spent your whole day in meetings, you were doing your job all day — and I think that’s a mindset thing that a lot of people really struggle with changing.” —Gretchen DeKnikker, COO / Girl Geek X

  19. “There are two major mental shifts that occur when you transition into engineering management. ICs generally think about execution for the most part, so you have to start to blend in execution as well as strategic thinking. So I think that’s maybe the first shift you need to make to become a manager.

    You’ll also shift how you think about time horizons. Let me take product development as an example. Maybe when you’re an IC, you’re thinking mostly about next release, the release after that, but when you eventually become a manager, you think about an annual roadmap or a three year vision. I think those are maybe the differences in time horizon of your thinking, and there’s not a right or wrong.

    I think there need to be different parts of thinkers. Some people need to execute, some people need to think strategy. Some people need to think next release, some people need to think about the three year vision, but I think those are some of the shifts that need to occur in order to transition into a managerial role.” —Bora Chung, SVP of Product Management / Bill.com

  20. “To overcome bias and avoid being stereotyped as the ‘quiet, introverted Asian woman,’ I spent extra energy on developing what we usually call the executive presence and executive gravitas, because especially when you become a manager of managers, it’s not just your personal brand and personal reputation any more. It’s your team’s effectiveness that you have to be responsible for. I try to overcome the bias by being more vocal and represent the team more actively.” —Bora Chung, SVP of Product Management / Bill.com

  21. “I think one of the hardest things about being a woman in engineering, especially a woman of color, is just the big issue of low expectations. What happens to me a lot in particular is people think that I’m not technical.

    I’ve had interns be like, ‘Do you code?’ which is a ridiculous question that you probably never ask a male who’s a director of engineering. You face that a lot and it’s really unfortunate.

    On the bright side, I think things are changing, particularly as we get more and more women in leadership positions, I think just having different voices in the room is really contributing to the conversation.

    When I was coming up, there weren’t a lot of people who look like me who did the job that I do, and so it just wasn’t a thing that I could even see myself doing. The idea of a CTO was Andy Grove, right? With the khaki shirt… a blue shirt and khaki pants. So make yourself aware and available, and let people know that you are a source of information.

    Sponsorship is a big thing that people are doing right now.

    If there’s someone that you see who you think has potential, maybe encourage them. If I have people on my team who show interest in management, I try giving them some tasks. Like, ‘Hey, maybe try managing this intern for a summer and seeing how it goes, or maybe you might want to run the sprint meeting.’ That kind of thing. Just give them these little nuggets to see if they have the aptitude and really understand what management is.” —Arquay Harris, Senior Director of Engineering / Slack

To hear more from Arquay, Bora, Gretchen and Ines, check out the transcript from their March 6th panel during Elevate 2020, or watch the video replay on YouTube!

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