March 24, 2022

What to do when a team member says, "I want to be a manager"

I was pretty new into my management career when a team member shared this with me in a 1:1. I was entirely unprepared ... I hope in this post to provide a helpful perspective to those that are seeking to be better prepared than I was.

A team member comes to you and says, "I want to be a manager".

I was pretty new into my management career when a team member shared this with me in a 1:1. I was entirely unprepared and while I can't recall exactly what I said, I think it was primarily in giving feedback about why they weren't ready yet. I've had team members express this desire to me many times since that first time, and on this side of experience, having promoted managers on my own team and worked with others that wanted to get there but weren't there yet, I feel I did a disservice to that first team member that came to me.

I hope in this post to provide a helpful perspective to those that are seeking to be better prepared than I was, either working through this situation currently or those that can see around corners and know it will come some day (it will).

Before We Start

Before we get into all of this, let me take a moment to congratulate you. Yes, congratulations.

If you moved into management, and you're looking at an article like this, then you like the job. And if you like the job, you like seeing people grow. And you're in a moment where someone on your team has entrusted in you their desire to grow. It's not an easy thing to do! For you to earn that trust and for them to come to you with that desire.

So take this moment, pat yourself on the back, and then, read the next section so you can learn how to now fuck it up!

What's the problem?

In general, I've found in my career that when someone comes to me with a solution, the best thing I can do is to understand the problem they are trying to solve. With engineering, this is especially important because that's what we do, we solve problems. We bias towards solutions.

It's important to understand that when a person on your team is coming to you with the desire to be a manager, they are expressing to you a solution to a problem they are having and it's imperative for you, and for them, that you work together to understand the problem fully. Only then can you assess whether or not them becoming a manager is a good solution.

In my experience, the best place to start is to start with the motivations.

What do you love?

What do you love about the idea of being a manager?

We're uncovering two things with this question; motivations and if they know what the job is.

Re: what the job is.

If you're a manager, you shouldn't be surprised that people don't really know what the job is. You might even feel like you still don't know what the job is. I didn't... I don't... I mean to say, my understanding of the role is always evolving.

As they answer, don't stop them, but take notes about the misconceptions. They will have them, and you probably had them too, so it should be easy when you're talking about next steps to provide your perspective on those misconceptions and/or to give them reference material that will do that for you.

Re: motivations.

We can't enumerate all of the motivations here but they generally fall into two buckets: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Intrinsic Motivations

Intrinsic motivations are motivations that come from within. These are things that are done because it is personally rewarding; it's fun, enjoyable, relaxing, challenging or satisfying.

What we want are alignment between the role of management and the intrinsic motivations.

I love to see people grow. I've been coaching people on the side, and I saw someone I coach give a talk at a meetup and I just loved it! I want to do more of that.

or

In my role as tech lead, I've gotten to experience helping position the team for growth and I've found that to be a challenging thing to do that I want more experience with.

These are the kinds of things we are looking for.

Now we can move on to making the assessment of whether they are ready for the role and if they are how to get them there within the company. Companies with a clear career path are really helpful here, not all are so lucky (I've dealt with both, it just means one will be more work for you).

Extrinsic Motivations

Extrinsic motivations are motivations that come from without. These are things that are done because they are rewarded externally; more money, more fame, more power, less consequences.

Extrinsic motivations are going to be there, they can't not be, so these are not red flags in and of themselves, especially with regard to money. The key is, they should not be the only thing, and these things themselves can and should be solved other ways.

What I've found is that people often don't have an internal scoreboard, and so they look externally for what they should be doing. This is exacerbated at tech companies because they are so high growth. Everyone is getting promoted, we all get the company-wide emails about a big role change for someone. For some, for me in the past, that can feel like the logical next step.

"I need to be doing that."

Why?

"Because I want to be successful and that's a market of success."

And it is, it is a marker of success as defined by society but not success as defined by you.

If you detect extrinsic motivations only, the next step is to help the person on your team develop their own internal rudder. It's for them in two ways; it may help them determine they don't want to be a manager because they would be unhappy in that role and if they do want to be a manager they need to know how to help people grow and that will be hard to do if they don't know themselves.

Modify your question to: "what do you love to do" and go from there. Explore that more.

A note on "more power".

This is an interesting extrinsic motivation in the context of a team. There is more there that needs to be uncovered. Does this person on your team want more power because of some conflict with another person on the team. Perhaps they have feedback for that team member that is going unexpressed or unheard. Maybe it's for you. Dig in here without judgement and see if you can't better understand where this desire is coming from. There is a problem there, and it's unlikely that this person on your team is just power hungry, few are.

Next Steps

At this point, your next steps depend on the answer, but a very general reference that requires more details on each point looks like this:

Going into each point is beyond the scope of this article, but if you start as this article does, with "what do you love about the idea of being a manager?", you're pretty setup to navigate this well.

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