Individual Contributor to Manager: Navigating the Shift

Presented by Myrsini Koukiasa at You Got This From Your Couch

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These transcripts were captured live by a captioner. As such, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

MYRSINI: Hi, everyone, good morning, good afternoon, evening - wherever you are. Thank you very much for having me. This is not a topic I'm an expert on in any way, but, I'm here to share my experiences, and learning that will hopefully help you if you are, or when you're at a senior stage in your career. I'm Myrsini Koukiasa. I work at Vonage. If you didn't catch our message earlier today, we do communications, APIs. I've been with the company for two and a half now, and since last April, I've been a manager of a small team. My background is in events and comms campaigns and I've worked in tech the last seven years or so. I mention all this as it is relevant to what we will talk about today. I recently became a people manager, and although I've managed teams of volunteers, interns, and other colleagues on projects before, this was the first time I would be directly responsible for individuals. Whatever size company you work for, they probably or hopefully have some sort of training they provide, and support for your managers, even if you're a new hire. At Vonage, I went through webinars, six-week hands-on training, and I if I needed support from my own manager or HR, they were there. I found some things that are not really taught in training. Challenges might come up that you don't consciously think of, or might not feel comfortable talking about. We will focus more on this aspect today.

This is for you if you're a manager, or if you're working towards becoming one. This is something in this talk for everyone. I'm interested to see what type of role or stage in the career folks are at at the moment. If you head over to Discord and the Professional Development channel, the organisers should be posting a question for you, so let me just check on Discord. If you head over to Professional Development, I will wait a bit and give folks the opportunity to have a look at the question, and the possibilities of the answer. So, it is about at which point in your career are you at. Are you a manager, a new manager, wanting to be a manager, or you've not thought about it yet, or maybe you don't really want to be a manager - you're fine just going at your path, being an individual contributor. Let's see what people are saying. The most popular so far is you want to be a manager, but you're not one yet. So this is fantastic. So hoping you can get some things out of this talk. There are a couple of folks who are already managers, so, if you have any input on this, feel free to share in the channels as well.

Okay, let's move on. So let's look at what we will go through. First, we will define the two types of role, the individual contributor, and the manager. Although this might seem volunteered, there are some nuances we will look at to set the stage right. We will go through some examples of what challenges might come up if you're a manager, and how you can mitigate this. Finally, we will do a small exercise and explore how you can leverage any experience you have from any part of your life to navigate becoming a manager better. I'm hoping that by the end of this, you should be able to think creatively and look back at your experience to figure out how you can tackle challenges but also be able to figure out what you're good at, and how you can use this to your advantage.

So let's look at defining the roles first. Who is an individual contributor? They're often someone who is an expert in their field. A professional without management responsibilities. They can be good at things like communicating, time management, working independently, and whole other bunch of stuff. They may be the manager of a process, or a project that they can complete as part of a team. Or individually. But they're not responsible for managing a team of people, own maybe cross-functioning, and cross-functioning means although they don't have direct reports, they can manage part of other people's time as part of a specific project. They could be on track to becoming a manager. However, they could still be growing in seniority without that being the case. Taking myself as an example for quite some time, at Vonage, there were only two people on a small sub team, so there was no-one else to manage, just me and my manager. When we started growing, the management path opened up.

Now for managers: what are the main changes in comparison to the individual contributor? They are responsible for individuals, they're happiness, and career progression. They manage a team, and have a more strategic role than before. Another interesting way to think about this is that when you're a manager, you're not just in charge of a group of people, but also of their work as a whole, or as we said, the individual contributor is only responsible for their personal tasks or projects. Also, managers get invited to, and attend meetings on strategy, budgeting, employee relations that an individual contributor doesn't. Finally, depending on resources and the transition, managers might also be doing part of their previous role, although this is the time when the shift happens to gradually or not, if it is not possible, delegate responsibilities to your direct reports and we will talk more about delegating in a bit.

Fantastic. We've defined the roles. Let's look at what could happen when you first become a manager. You've gotten the promotion - congratulations. You've been wanting this, you're excited, you have had a good start, you're now a manager. However, as with any change, really, there can be challenges that appear when you make the shift between the two roles. Now, everyone experienced this differently, but what I will go through are some examples of things that I noticed about myself, and hopefully they will be useful to you in a practical way if you have had the same experiences, or just from a way of thinking aspect - you know, how to approach challenges and different challenges when they present themselves to you.

The first challenge: imposter syndrome. You may have heard of this term before, as we often do talk about it in tech. It's a feeling or a continued sense of self-doubt. So in our context, it can be fear you were not being an inspirational leader, or questioning your own authority. Let's say one of your direct reports has an idea for a new project. Do you feel you have the authority to give them the go-ahead and the know-how to guide them? And practically would you need to check in with your manager first? So, right before I started in the manager role, I was quite confident in my ability to tackle the responsibilities and I thought that my past experience had prepared me for this. I was also already working with and mentoring the person I would be managing first, which made it easier. I was lucky in that sense. However, there were definite parts in, for example, our weekly managers' meeting where I didn't 100% feel sure of myself on what I could bring to the table, or which parts of our work I could have input on. A fix for this can be to make it clear with your manager which areas you're responsible for, what type of decisions you can make. This will help you understand the range of your authorities, not doubt yourself as much, and be able to grow and build on your responsibilities.

Another challenge that I partly experience, and actually continue to experience, is that if you have a different way of thinking than your reports, that might affect the communication with you. Let's start with something that is related to thinking per se. Fast processing and slow pressing: with fast processing, you might be able to process information and share your thoughts on the spot. Others might need to sit with it, and share what you need from them later. There are many different ways of thinking, and something related here is the concept of an abstract thinker, versus a concrete or visual thinker. Abstract thinkers can think about concepts and relate them with their experiences, just by hearing some information of it, or with a minimum amount of it. A visual thinker might be able to grasp a concept better by seeing a visual representation of it. If you have a good understanding of a report's thinking style, you can shift your communication style to match them.

For example, someone might be really good at chatting to you one on one, and receiving verbal feedback, but someone would rather receive this in an email, read through it, and then have a conversation with you. How you give and receive feedback actually can be quite crucial. And a way to ensure you've been adaptive, and flexible, as much as you can and making it work for everyone is to provide safe spaces to ask questions, whether this is your one-on-one, or private DM they can send you, and ensure that you set the culture, and the type of relationship you want to have with your reports from the start. Being comfortable and vulnerable can help them feel the same with you in return.And just to add a bit of a different dimension as well, that is definitely related to this, when you're working with a global team, and, in my case, my small team is based in the UK and Singapore, you will almost certainly have different intracultural styles within the group. Taking time to understand and getting to know each other casually, like on an outside-of-work, and responsibilities basis will give you support insight.

Still doing the previous role. This is something that can be seen with folks from individual contributor to manager. You're still doing your previous role with the same intensity; however, you have the ambition of all your manager duties of what you were doing before. This might be due to lack of resources, and hopefully might only be for a transition period. In my situation, and due to my team size, I'm actually still doing individual contributor role for a major programme that we do, so I do both the strategy and day-to-day tasks. For other initiatives, I've been able to take on a more strategic and consulting role, helping the team deliver. The danger of this is the increasing responsibilities that can lead to running out of time to get stuff done which can then lead to under-performing, or even burn-out. Is this a permanent situation? Are you hiring someone to replace you in your previous role, or giving more responsibilities to junior team members? Try and work this out. The next challenge conform rates with this one, and, if addressed, it can help mitigate this.

Not delegating: this can be a tricky one. It may be the case that you've done the role your direct reports are now doing for a while. Maybe as you could end up managing people whose role you've never done before, and that is a whole different place to tackle. Let's say you know the ins and outs and the scope of their work, and you can get the slide deck done in an hour - no problem - they might need more time and more input here, you need - here, you need to think about your previous responsibilities and what you can delegate to your reports. They might not do it 100% like you at first, but if it is 90%, 80%, or seen 70%, just leave it. It will not only save you time, but they will also learn something new.

A way to decide on what to delegate is considered the importance, urgency, and accuracy needed to complete a task. If it is something super important, but you have like a month to complete it, have one of your reports take a stab at it, and check in with them in a week. If it has gone wrong, there is time to fix it. If something is altogether important, urgent, needs to be done spot on, it's best that you tackle it, and, when you have the time, maybe explain your process to them, so there is still a learning element involved even if you're working independently to them. Another concept worth mentioning here is trust. Trust your reports to try and deliver as well as you would, and don't be so reluctant to delegate. Reluctance to delegate should fit in with trust. - should fade in with trust.

Final challenge we will look at, that of being too hands-on, that you end up micromanaging. This is connected to challenges we've already looked at, and, like to be honest, a few of them can seem interconnected. Imposter syndrome, or lack of trust, not being able to delegate, can lead to micromanagement. A balance I found, and some colleagues I've found have worked, is try to stay involved but not have tasks or projects depend on you if you, let's say, have to disappear off to meetings. Bring value to your team's work, but not be dependent for success across every single touch point. You can't be there all the time, and you cannot have complete control over everything. The sooner you start letting go of that control, the better things will become. And there is also actually the opposite end of the spectrum to consider here: being too hands-off. This can happen out of fear of not wanting to be perceived as overbearing, can also lead to a communication gap. Chances are, if you're a new manager, some or all of your direct reports might be in junior roles, and will need support and guidance from you. So try to find that balance.

So far, we looked at challenges and how to overcome them, and just express again, this was by no way an exhaustive list, but just personal observations. So is there a way even to anticipate challenges? How can you prepare by leveraging all of the experience you have had in your professional and personal life to make this shift to the new role a bit easier and get into the manager mindset? First, I would like us to do a short exercise, and, to be honest, when the manager thing came to the table, I definitely thought about my past experience, and what I could bring in from it. But, this exercise is actually something new, it came up recently when I was talking to my colleague Lauren about the context of this talk.

Okay, so I want you to try and think a bit selfishly now so you can get the most out of this exercise as you can. So grab a pen and paper, or type in on your phone or laptop, whatever you have available, and write in what you're good at. What are you good at from the things that you're doing now, at work, or again maybe in your personal life, in your personal life, you could be really good at talking to people, and talking about the problems, and figuring out solutions for them. In a work context, it could be that you're a programme language expert, or have good flexibility, or like me, work more on the community-building side of things. Your strong point could be event management for planning. This could help you change some of the challenges we went through today into opportunities depending on your expertise.

Also, actually, if you look at what you're good at, and you document the steps you need to become an expert in that field, you can break it down for someone else, and help them achieve what you have. If you want to share some of the things on your list in professional development again on Discord, go ahead. I love seeing people recognising what they're good at, and we don't often give ourselves a pat on the back, so we should be doing more of that. You don't have to do this. This exercise is for you. I will give you some quick examples from my own experience and look at which skills that you could already have in your arsenal are also very handy, or could be very handy when you become a manager. Of course, depending on your discipline, whether it is engineering, product, marketing, different skills might be needed with you there are definitely some universal themes.

I've spent a lot of time working on projects in the past. When I did the exercise for me in retrospect recently, project management was the first thing that came to mind. In my case, this experience stems from managing events and communications projects. I love organising and planning in general, which comes in handy in my personal life as well, for example, when I had to move house, or planning my wedding, hopefully this doesn't sound too sad, but, anyway, there are many skills a manager needs that you can get from project management, like, the ability to foresee and plan stuff, understand workload, delegate tasks, and so much more. Seeing what is on your CV contemplated on what you're good at, and spinning that into what a manager in your field needs is what you would be looking to achieve when doing this exercise.

We briefly mentioned cross-functional management. It entails managing people on a project-by-project basis that are not your direct reports. These are great skills that your manager needs such as listening and problem-solving as well and so many more, actually. To give you an example, when I organised events in the past, I had to work with folks who had a line manager, so I definitely did not have complete control over their time. It needed to be worked out with everyone involved and many dependencies. I was working with someone in my company in a specific role at the time who built a website for the event for me, someone who did the branding, and folks who did operations and logistics for it, none of whom I managed. This can actually be even harder than having a direct report. In cross-functional management, folks might be working on other projects, or their managers have different priorities for them, so you need to maintain a relationship with their supervisor as well. This is great practice for when you become more senior or progress into that manager role. So, if you're one of the folks that answer the question on Discord, before that you're interested in becoming the manager, but you're not there yet, and you're at an earlier mid-stage in your career, if you get the opportunity to lead a project, any project, go for it, even if you don't feel 100% ready yet.

Mentorship and volunteering: this might not be, or will probably not be directly linked to your work experience. Have you mentored colleagues, friends, who have volunteered for an organisation that you're passionate about? I find that bringing my experiences in from even chats I had with friends about career paths and choices, it helped me a lot with active listening. Something I feel is a key skill for a manager if you want to be the type of manager who is also a mentor. Another one to pick out is how to give feedback which is a crucial skill of maintaining a good relationship with your reports, and very important for good communication as we mentioned before.

Empathy: like imposter syndrome is another concept you will hear a lot about in tech, and I feel it's useful to define it here. There are different types of empathy, but a definition I like, and I feel is quite straightforward, is actually from Cambridge Dictionary. It is the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what is it would be like to be in that person's situation. So just to put it in simple terms: put yourself in someone else's place. I try to practise this in everyday life. My experience and other colleagues I spoke with came from personal relationships with family and friends, and has been adapted to a business environment. In a management setting, there is a need to bring business value, keep people on track, but also you're there to support your team and keep them happy. Understand what others are going through, can also help you navigate relationships with stakeholders in the company, other than just your team and your direct reports. And understanding people's motivations is more intrinsic. And the higher up you climb, you could find the more transactional the relationships become.

Okay. So we're about to wrap up. First, I wanted, as a culmination of what we looked at, to show you how some of the challenge and opportunity examples we saw can be matched to give you more balance in your role. Here are some of the things we went through. Empathy: it can help you understand others, and respect you have different ways of thinking, and communicating. Cross-functional management can help you avoid micromanaging. If you've managed folks you have had little control over in that cross-functional management setting and where project bases where we talked about but the job still got done, you can trust your direct reports to deliver, over which you can also work on the process with on them developing like their skills on how to manage a project.

Finally, project management can help with breaking down large projects and ensuring you're delegating. Let's have a final look at what we learned. There is almost certainly going to be an overlap of your previous role with a new managerial role. Challenges will appear. Recognising this, having an open and clear communication with your manager, on your responsibilities, and not overstretching yourself can be a real help. We looked at how to leverage past experiences and turn them into opportunities. Figuring out what you're good at, and using it to your advantage, and I hope that you followed with the exercise, or, if you didn't, you could do it at another time. I hope that the examples and challenges, and opportunities we went through, although might not exactly match what you're going through, or what you might go through when you shift between an individual contributor to a manager role, they have provided a light-touch formula together with discovering what you're good at, exercise that will help you best prepare for the change. So thank you very much, and I'm happy to answer any of your questions, if you have them.

About the talk

Becoming a people manager poses new and exciting challenges for those who have spent most of their careers in individual contributor roles. In this talk, we’ll explore themes around mentoring, delegating, leadership and more for new managers. We'll also go through practical tips for making the mental and tangible shift between the two roles as smooth as possible. This talk will be useful both for new managers and for those thinking of making the move.

About Myrsini Koukiasa

Myrsini Koukiasa is a Senior Community Programs Manager at Vonage. She helps the Developer Relations team support, engage and connect with developer communities where they are. Her background is in events management and integrated campaigns, including roles at PayPal and Major League Hacking. She's a self-proclaimed quiz nerd with a specialty in film and TV - if you run into her, challenge her.

Photo of Myrsini Koukiasa

Myrsini Koukiasa


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