Managing Coach

I chose the title Managing Coach to point out the difference between this type of management and Managing First Class.  You might argue that it’s a horrible analogy, but let’s see where it goes.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with and for some wonderful managers, and conversely the pain and misery of working for bad ones.  A First Class manager sits separately from the rest of the crew (they’re all in cattle class, packed into cubicles, after all).  They hobnob with upper management and periodically make announcements during staff meetings about the status of the flight (or product release).  Then they go back to First Class, have another drink, and work on a presentation or other high-level document.  They have little knowledge of the daily activities of the developers and sometimes have little knowledge of the technology either.

The First Class manager, on the other hand, knows a lot about what’s going on in the rest of the company – the role their project plays, deadlines that others are facing, and their relationships to the ones his group is facing.  He’s able to stay on the radar of other company managers and his superiors.  Because of this, he’s able to hear about projects that his group might participate in, or that may affect the future of his group.

A Coach manager (there’s a double meaning to ‘Coach’) has more interaction with the passengers (developers).  He (or she) takes an active role in the day to day activities, providing guidance and inspiration.  He knows what people are working on, what’s moving and what’s not moving, and why.  If a developer is stuck, he knows enough to ask some pertinent questions and make a suggestion or two that might get the developer unstuck or walk away himself with a task to remove an obstacle.

Regardless of where a manager sits, it’s his activities that matter.  Some managers concentrate only on one aspect or another.  The best managers do both.  Just because a manager doesn’t have extensive knowledge of technology doesn’t make him useless in being a Coach.  There have been times in my career where my manager could have steered me in the right direction with a very non-technical conversation, if he had taken the time.  I can also remember numerous times when I was a manager, when developers would knock on my door, describe a problem in detail until my mind and eyes glazed over, then have an inspiration, thank me for listening, and leave with a solution in hand.  What role did I play?  Just a sympathetic ear.

You might gather from my last example that availability is a good trait to have.  If your manager is in meetings all the time, they’re probably a First Class manager (this is not a rule, by any means).  To be an effective development manager, being available to your developers and seeking them out for informal updates can make for a less intimidating and more informative and productive relationship.

If you’re a manager, think about what you can do to enhance both aspects of your management skills.  If you’re a developer, show this article to your manager to give him some food for thought.  Even managers need a coach.