Following Your Manager

I was interviewing someone for a director role reporting to me. The exact parameters of the position were unremarkable, and I’ve forgotten everything about this individual, except for how they pitched me near the end of the interview. To paraphrase, they wanted me to hire them because, “[They will] have a bunch of managers and tech leads who’ll join as well and we’ll scale out the team super quickly.”

This tweet reminded me of that encounter:

If you click through the responses, you’ll see that many of the responses wasn’t quite what the author was angling for. Instead of praising a manager for cultivating loyalty, a lot of folks pointed out that following managers to new teams and companies is also a sign of empire building, of someone who cares more about counting the size of their team and leveraging their newfound position to advance their own resume.

Related is the fact that a senior manager bringing in a bunch of people that have worked for them in the past immediately creates cliques in that organization. On one hand, you can argue that past relationships breeds familiarity and cohesion, allowing this group to accelerate past the storming stages of team development and go into the more fun norming and performing bits. Then again, everyone else who doesn’t share that background will be implicitly penalized for missing the in-jokes, unfamiliar technologies and processes, and may even take hits in career progression as the standards of performance shift to whatever this clique is used to1.

But even if the social dynamics aren’t so in-group ↔︎ out-group, I find the idea of managers poaching away their former team distasteful, because it violates one of my tenets for good management: that a successful manager looks to make their team self-sufficient, even in their absence. The book One Minute Manager is a pithy encapsulation of this philosophy; the goal is to set up the right structures and frameworks for the team, develop individuals to step up to their next levels of potential, and avoid being a single point of failure. Ideally, managers leave the team in a great place when they move onto a new role—it feels wrong to then blow up that construction for personal convenience.

Instead, I like the pattern inscribed by Superbosses. In that book, the author describes a set of leaders who were able to bring out the best in their people—and in doing so, still inspired plenty of loyalty and admiration—but their goals aren’t to keep their superstars working for them from job to job. Rather, the best people grow beyond what the team can offer, and go onto their own career journeys with their boss’s blessings. In professional sports, for instance, analysts sometimes identify these “coaching trees” where assistants and apprentices learn from the senior coaching staff and eventually find coaching roles for themselves. Even if siblings or descendants of the tree end up competing against each other, people recognize and honor these relationships and the influence on the entirety of the sport.

It’s a hell of a bar to aspire to.

  1. E.g., hire a couple of Googlers when the team is small and suddenly the tech stack looks a lot like Google’s, and the engineers who get promoted are ex-Googlers comfortable with that tech stack. I speak from experience.

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