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That Special Word they Don't Teach you in Management School
The sound is coming through ever so slightly
Its clearer now, I’m becoming aware of it
The sun isn’t up yet, it is still dark outside, it could also be 1 AM, but my suspicion is that it is pretty close to morning.
There is a strange creature standing next to me, a smile all over its face, curly hair in all directions, and my eyes are beginning to focus on this being. Yep, it is still dark outside, I can see the early rays of the sun though, morning is here. I can also hear crying from downstairs. I can also hear the slight grunting and squeaking across the room. I can finally muster a sentence as the list of items ahead of me for the next few hours begins to come into focus.
“Yes dear, how can I help you?”
“I’m hungry, I want breakfast”, says my almost four year old.
“Ok, what would you like for breakfast?”
“Chocolate chips, I want chocolate chips and mango juice”
That sounds like a great breakfast to me, full of all the nutrients for a day of energy, courtesy of being almost 4.
“That’s not real food dear, would you like some eggies, or oatmeal maybe?”
“Eggies, I’d like some eggies, with chocolate chips, make them fluffy, and chocolate chips on top”
She really won’t give up the chocolate chips.
I’m home with the three younger kids while my wife is away for a few days at a wedding taking our oldest in tow with her. This arrangement seems to have won me some points with the local moms and lost quite many more with the local dads. This isn’t the first time though that I’ve taken on the burden that is more often carried by my wife, and likely not the last. I’d like to say that me volunteering to be Mr. Mom for a few days comes from a place of altruism and pure love for my wife, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t be the whole truth. In taking on this role I actually have a somewhat different plan, one that my wife very much might not approve of once she reads this. I do it in order to get a better appreciation of what goes into running the house, because as any Engineer, my gut instinct is that I could do it better. By seeing the ins and outs of the operation I’m certain with every fiber of my being that I’ll come away with some magical operational optimizations that my wife, the English major, couldn’t possible have come up with.
Its pretty arrogant, I know. The emergent reality is quite different from my mythical vision of harmonious and flawless execution. Most of the time, midway through the morning routine I’m frantically dialing my wife, hoping that she is still awake half a world away, and with an ever so calm a voice I ask
“Hi, quick question, where are the diapers?”
“Where are the wipes?”
“Where are the jackets?”
“She doesn’t want to wear leggings and she hates all her shoes, what do I do?”
“She says she wants just bread for lunch, nothing on it, without the crust, cut in half, is that right?”
“There’s a Dr. Appointment? Today? Wait, there are two Dr. Appointments today? For two kids? Can’t be late to the second one.”
“Just one more thing, where are the sandwich bags?”
As you can guess, usually midway through the first day while I’m holding the baby as she has peed through yet another set of clothes and won’t go down for a nap with my backlog of emails piling up, I’m regretting this act of self sacrifice. It is Thursday. Is it really that many more days until Tuesday afternoon? Did I really agree to this?
A few days ago I was interviewing a candidate. My interviews are fairly straight forward, I give a 30 - 60 second introduction to myself, who I am, what I work on, we then spend the majority of the time discussing some technical problems, and I leave about 5 - 10 minutes at the end for questions. I mentioned in my brief introduction that I’m an Engineering Manager to which the candidate at the end of the interview decided to ask “I’m surprised an Engineering Manager is interviewing me, I would have expected only Software Engineers to do interviews.”
There was an implicit assumption in the candidate’s question. The two worlds don’t intersect. Engineers who do real work are on one side of the fence while their task masters are on the other. The two shall never meet. There is some cordial, poorly understood relationship between the two, but they have very little to do with each other. Unfortunately that is the reality too often of the time and it creates animosity and misunderstanding.
As a manager I take on myself some engineering load. I carry a pager like everyone else on the team and participate in on-call rotations. I’m a manager though, why in the world am I not walking around with a cup of coffee and going to golf games, isn’t that what managers do?
Some managers, maybe, but not me.
When I sit in my weekly one-on-ones with my team members, I need to have an appreciation for their challenges. If I’m locked away in an ivory tower unable to relate to what they have to go through on a day to day basis, I can’t effectively coach, mentor, or provide guidance. My need to stay involved on the low level details, to have concrete understanding of the workings of what takes place is very much driven by my desire to do good management. There are many times when I’ve sat in a weekly one-on-one, took notes, smiled politely, and provided no feedback or guidance. I knew exactly the challenges that my team member was going through, I had walked in their shoes, I felt their pain and struggles, and the best thing I could do in that instant was listen.
There is a very specific way to describe this, empathy. In order to have real, honest empathy, you need to have walked in the other person's shoes. Felt their pain. Experienced their triumphs and their failures. As a manager the only way to have real empathy is by doing the work that can so easily be offloaded from you and onto the other people on your team. Yet it is empathy that is so often lacking from good managers and is so desperately needed. By having real genuine empathy for your employees and their struggles you can better advise them how to tackle those challenges, you can coach them better and provide them with the necessary tools to grow and develop. At the same time, your team knows in a very real sense that you are not coming from high-on-up but can relate to them and their experience; they respect you more for it. In the end of the day, by having real empathy for your team members you become a better leader, you achieve better results, and that as a consequence that makes you a very good manager.
By me taking on some of my wife’s responsibilities for a few days, it gives me an opportunity to develop empathy at home too. As much as sometimes I’d like to come home and provide my ever cynical view of how things could be better, having walked a few days in my wife’s shoes, I know that the right answer sometimes, is to just listen. Knowing full well that as hard as you may try to have the best outcome you can, the day will be what it will be, best efforts were truly exerted, and the often pain of exhaustion and sense of failure as a parent will be there no matter. I hope that having empathy in this situation makes me a better father and a better husband, but to answer that question, only time will tell.
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