We’ve started a book club at work and the first book on the list was Resilient Management by Lara Hogan, published by A Book Apart.
The book covers a range of topics related to being a manager in the tech industry, broken down into five chapters which lead you from understanding the human side of the people you’re managing through to the human aspects of being a manager as well as how a team builds in confidence over time.
At the end of each chapter there’s a set of coaching questions that help you to reflect on your own application of the techniques discussed in the chapter which I found really useful as it’s often easy to read books like this, take a set of notes and never really think too much about everything you just read.
The book starts with a glossary for the terms used in the book which helps shape the tone of the book as it refers to those you manage as reports (as management books often do) but as teammates, and defines them as being someone you’re responsible for, making it clear that the relationship isn’t a typical top-down one.
Understanding your teammates
The first chapter in the book explains some of the structures that those you’re responsible for may be working within and how this can shape their relationship with management if there’s no shared context between the two parties.
I found this point to resonate with most of my management experience at a large consultancy where such a structure meant I was always on the backfoot understanding the needs of those I was responsible for and the environment they were operating within. The workaround I found for this lack of context was to ask a lot of questions during the one-to-one sessions, but while some where happy explaining things to me, some were clearly annoyed that I didn’t have an immediate response to their issue.
This chapter introduces the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing life cycle of group development which is a useful framing device to understand some of the struggles that teammates might be having, with the storming stage being prone to conflicting opinions as people figure out a way forward.
This is complimented by an explanation of a human’s core needs and how certain situations that might seem innocent enough can have a big impact on the happiness of teammates, these are:
- A feeling of belonging
- Continual improvement/progression
- Having a sense of autonomy in their work
- Equality and fairness in the workplace
- The predictability of the work
- How significant they feel
There’s an acronym for these needs used throughout the book — BICEPS (Belonging, Improvement, Choice, Equality, Predictability, Significance) which makes it a lot easier to remember when thinking about the root cause of issues that pop-up.
The book gives an example of something which seems non-impactful but can make a lot of people unhappy; desk moves, where people may feel a group is being broken up so losing that feeling of belonging or they are moved away from people they want to be visible to so they feel like they are less significant. As someone who’s spent the last 7 years hot-desking I can certainly say that’s had a big impact on my ‘predictability’ need which is why I like working from home.
The latter part of the chapter deals with helping both manager and teammate understand each other better, starting with some excellent questions for a new teammate which sets a good grounding for the relationship.
- What makes the teammate grumpy and how will you know they are grumpy and how you can cheer them up
- How they like to receive feedback and how often
- What do they want to get out of one-to-ones, their goals and the support network they’ll need within the company
- How they like to treat themselves for a job well done
This is followed by some tips on how to help your teammates understand you better, explaining that different managers have different ways of ‘showing up’ when building a team and the importance of sharing your approach to management so your teammates know what to expect of you.
There’s an excellent ‘madlib’ style exercise that helps you to understand what your style is if you’ve not figured it out for yourself. It takes what you value, how you support the team and the type of environment you thrive in to give a sort of affirmative statement of who you are as a manager.
The madlib exercise also reveals what you’re optimising your time for, which is something I never really thought about but looking back at the differences between myself and another team lead in my old role makes perfect sense.
I would optimise for building a shared understanding across the team as this allowed us to work better in an uncertain environment, allowing everyone to challenge and refine work they didn’t agree with. My colleague would instead optimise for technical flexibility which is also catering for the uncertainty of the work but in a different way, preferring to make it easier to rework any implementation that wasn’t properly defined.
Changing your approach to managing
While the first chapter focused on understanding your teammates and how best to help them understand you, the second chapter looks at how you as a manager help them grow and why you might need to rebalance your management approach.
This chapter introduces the concepts of four hats a manager can wear when helping a teammate grow:
- A mentoring hat
- A coaching hat
- A sponsoring hat
- A hat for delivering feedback
The mentoring hat is probably the most comfortable for managers to wear as sharing experiences feels like a good way to help teammates learn from the mistakes you may have made. The book raises an important point though — your experiences may not be applicable to someone who’s facing problems you can’t fully understand due to differences in lived experience.
Instead of wearing the mentoring hat all the time a manager should take a step back and help the teammate connect the dots for themselves instead of providing a ‘ready made solution’ to the problem. This also helps the manager learn from the different approach the may have taken.
This moves the manager into more of a coaching role where they help the teammate explore the problem together via open questions and helps them reflect on how the problem and their solution to it align with their own goals or how far they’ve come since they last encountered something similar.
The book gives some good advice about how to phrase questions so that they aren’t focused on the cause (Why) or the implementation (How) of a problem, suggesting ‘What’ as a good way to phrase a question as it can be curious and not feel judgey or solution orientated.
The outcomes of those ‘what’ questions can then lead to sponsorship where a manager can help the teammate grow by giving them opportunities to grow their skillset or leadership skills or by opening doors for the teammate to contribute in areas they may not have access to in their current role.
Of course all of these skills won’t help the people a manager is responsible for if they don’t receive specific and actionable feedback that helps them see how their behaviour may have prevented them from making the most of a situation.
The book gives some useful tips for delivering feedback in a manner that doesn’t put the teammate in a defensive position:
- Give an observation of the facts of what happened, not how you felt about it or why you think it happened, just the facts
- Describe the impact of their behaviour and how it may have not aligned with their goals so they can understand the impact better
- Ask an open question to start a discussion and help them reflect and introspect on how they can look to avoid doing similar in the future
- You can also make a request of them to do something differently but this falls back into that mentoring model where the teammate isn’t really learning how to solve the problem themselves
The four management hats have different benefits and it’s important to use them all and not just rely on the one we’re most comfortable with as teammates will require different hats to be worn by their managers as they progress in their careers and as the relationship grows.
The third chapter in the book moves onto working with teams as they approach the Norming part of the group development lifecycle and collaborating with them to define and document roles, responsibilities, priorities and practices.
The book ties this in meeting the BICEPS needs of your teammates as it makes it easier to meet their predictability, equality and belonging needs when they’ve had a say in the responsibilities they all have, they’ve aligned their priorities with the vision of the company and there’s a clear set of practices to follow.
When defining roles and responsbilities there are two useful tools that the book suggests:
- A Responsible, Accountable, Consulted & Informed (RACI) matrix which helps make it clear who’s doing the work, who’s on the hook for quality and timeliness of the delivery and what input external people have
- A Responsibility Venn Diagram which is useful in cross-functional feature teams as it visualises what different team members own separately and where things overlap
When setting out the team’s priotities the book offers two tools that will help:
- A Vision, Mission, Strategy and Objectives (VMSO) statement which works to break down big visionary goals into more granular objectives that allow a team to measure if they’re working on the right thing
- A team charter which helps the team define a statement of what they aim to achieve and give themselves a gut check if things are going how they want
For defining practices there are a few areas that the book recommends documenting:
- Meetings for updating team members and stakeholders
- Email groups and slack channels to post updates and communicate within the team
- Knowledge bases that could be used to document team progress
- Company practices employed to level up skill sets and develop a peer network
The book stresses the need to work on defining these responsibilities, priorities and practices collaboratively as it can be easy to just define a process that’s worked in the past without input from the teammates but this will likely cause them to feel like their BICEPS aren’t being met. I can definitely relate to this based on some teams I’ve worked on in the past so I think this is really important.
Communicating with your teammates
The fourth chapter in the book moves more into the managerial space and revolves around communication, especially difficult conversations and how to do so strategically so the other person doesn’t feel like their BICEPS needs are being attacked.
The book explains how to create a communication plan for announcing big changes or entering difficult conversations and how to scale that plan should multiple parties need to make announcements.
As part of building that communication plan it’s important to think about the impact of the news for those receiving it and the book offers a few questions to ask yourself to get started:
- If you were in that person’s position which of your BICEPS needs were being threatened?
- What would my first 3 questions be after receiving the news?
- If you weren’t bought into the cause for a change, what would help you get there?
It’s also important to ensure that communications are as transparent and clear as they can be (sometimes you won’t have all the facts but need to get something out) and the book covers some ways you can strike a good balance, as well as how to assess the risks of sharing news before a larger announcement, which can help with communication planning if the person isn’t likely to spread the news.
My favourite part of this chapter was around the energies we might have when delivering information and how it’s important to practice delivering information in each energy instead of relying on your default energy all the time. The energies the book lists are:
- Red — anger, edge, urgency
- Orange — cautious, hesitant
- Yellow — Lighthearted, cracks jokes
- Green — In tune with other’s feelsings, loving
- Blue — calm, cool, collected, steady
- Purple — Creative, Flowy, storyteller
- Brown — Adds (and lives in) nuance, complexity and ambiguity
- Black — Direct, straightforward, rational/logical
However the book encourages building up your own scale so you can better understand your own communication styles.
Dealing with Change
The last chapter of the book deals with change and the impact it not only has on the team but also on you as a human and how you can build up practices and support networks to help you be resilient to large changes.
The framing of this chapter is around managing in times of crisis which is tied to the author’s own experiences of managing a team when the US underwent an immigration policy change in 2017, resulting in teammates either having to leave the country or jump through a number of loopholes to stay that added a lot of stress to everyone’s lives.
There’s a couple of ways the book suggests can help reduce the cognitive load of teammates who are having a hard time:
- Know what benefits the company can offer them so they don’t have yet another problem to solve
- Lead by example and show that it’s ok to take time off to focus on your mental health
- Have a two-way conversation about expectations so that you can come to understand if they’re going to meet the companies expectations and help them find a way of adapting the work around their needs by looking at alternate ways of meeting a goal
- When talking to the teammate ensure they don’t leave the conversation feeling like they’ve burdened you, refocus the conversation on their needs, not how the news made you feel
There’s also an impact on a manager’s mental health when a teammate or teammates have problems so it’s important to be attuned to how you feel and manage your energy levels. The book suggests reprioritisation, delegation and just saying no to things as ways to lessen the load when you’re not feeling 100% and need some room to breathe.
Another key tool for managers is to build a support network so they have a number of people with different management styles and experience that you can ask questions to in order to better understand angles to a problem you may not know about. Some examples of people you might want to have in your support network are:
- Someone who pushes you out of your comfort zone
- Someone who’s more experienced as a manager than you
- Someone who works in a different field or discipline
- Someone who navigates politics well
- Someone who is the kind of leader you aspire to be
I really enjoyed reading Resilient Management. It had some really great tips for understanding the impact of what you do as a manager and how to use that to strengthen the team. I think this was in contrast to what I originally thought about when first reading the book’s title.
I really enjoyed the end of chapter coaching questions. It was refreshing to think about myself as a managee at the end of these chapters as I tend to not dwell too much on my needs when reading, instead focusing on how I can bring what I’m reading into my daily practices.
Some of my favourite exercises were:
- Which BICEPS needs come up most often for you?
- What do you wish you could optimise for in the day-to-day of your management role?
- What manager hat do you want your manager to wear at the moment?
- What’s your default communication energy? What energy is hardest to embody or project?
I also appreciated the way that the book never tried to present a ‘concrete’ image of a team and instead acknowledged that everything within a team is in a constant state of change. I’ve found some books fall into this trap and it makes it harder to relate to the material because what’s being written about doesn’t reflect your team’s reality.
As the conclusion of the book says — ‘Embrace the goop’