Finding the balance between urgent business needs and mental health in the team is not a trivial task. It takes a while before the new manager calibrates. And during this process you might make multiple typical mistakes. In this episode you will learn how to avoid mistakes and find the balance fast.
To talk about these topics I’ve invited Kreslav Babanin, Software Development Manager at Amazon. Kreslav comes from a mixed educational background, combining technical and managerial formal education, holding a Masters Science degree in Computer Science and an MBA in Managerial Communications. My guest has over than 10 years of experience working in software engineering as an agile leader, full stack web developer and recently became people manager. At this podcast, Kreslav will join me to share insights into his journey as a new manager, the mistakes he made and lessons he learned.
– Hello, Kreslav! Thanks for joining me!
– Thank you for having me, Alex. So excited to be here!
– Kreslav, would you mind telling our listeners a few words about your career path so we’ll better understand the context in which we will continue this discussion?
– I started my career about 10 years ago, I worked as a sales manager in the gaming industry, then I finished my computer science degree and became a software developer. I worked at a university as a software developer in a DevOps team and then switched to a full-stack web developer. Then I became a scrum master and finally people manager. Amazon is my first time management experience.
– Sounds great! I’d like to go back in time to when you just became a team manager. Have you ever experienced challenging situations when there was a high pressure from customers and your team was under the permanent pressure? How did you manage the team in this environment?
-So I’ve been here in my current role for two years and witnessed the transformation of Amazon Ring in Poland from 20 people to over 300 and such growth and fast pace is definitely bringing situations where high pressure occurs. If you boil down the role of a manager to its very essence, it’s basically achieving two things at the same time, results and retention. But they are at conflict by design. You can’t just deliver great results and have your team burn out and you can’t create a happy work environment where nobody works.
– Can you provide the most interesting examples of your career where you failed to deliver results because you were protecting your team too much?
– I think a lot of young managers come from a child or scrum master background and they approach team management as servant leaders. So they trust developers’ estimates and they back them up to the management above them. But sometimes it doesn’t work out. I had a situation in my career where there was a high pressure project to deliver a data engineering dashboard for firmware releases and engineers in my team estimated the backlog and work needed. And then this estimation was challenged by my leadership. So naturally as a people manager, as a scrum master, I backed up developers’ estimates because the person who is supposed to do the work said it would take that amount of time. But I couldn’t actually provide an explanation why. And I think this is very important for new managers. Not just be servant leaders but also to remember that you need to lead by example and understand the details of the work. Because you are a shield for your people and you are an interface for the stakeholders. You are the person responsible for this area for them and for your people, you are somebody who needs to defend their interests when you are representing the team.
– Okay, so basically what you are saying is if you want to be a better protector for your team you need to be able to understand what is happening under the hood of your project and be able to explain this to your manager, to leadership, etc. Am I right?
– Exactly. You need to actually understand what is there to be done, how it will be done, what alternatives were considered and why this is the best proposed path. My tip that I usually use is if there are alternatives then when talking to stakeholders why this will take X time and not less, I tell about what alternatives were considered. For example, there are three options, benefits and disadvantages of each. And there has to be disadvantages. Because if there are no disadvantages to an option then it is not an option, it is straightforward. So benefits and disadvantages and why did you choose the one you chose or do you recommend the one you recommend? Because when you present your leader three options with a recommendation he can either agree to your recommendation, choose one of the unchosen options or propose a fourth one.
– Okay, I see. And what about opposite cases? Where are there any cases where you put too much pressure on your team and some engineer decided to quit? Or maybe you was such an engineer who was thinking about quitting due to excessive pressure.
– I think I have been on the receiving end of such a situation where I was working under pressure and I can share what it feels like to engineer so it should help others, especially new managers to lead with empathy. So when you are pushed to deliver under pressure you might feel demotivated. Why? Because when your leader or stakeholder sets up expectations and you’re doing your best to meet those expectations and you still receive critical feedback that it’s not enough. So when you have to overcome these expectations or provide something extra then it demotivates you. When you’re trying to deliver your best the worst thing you can hear is that this best is not good enough.
What I found that works for people is to encourage them positively. When you see that somebody is actually trying to deliver and doing his best to frame this feedback positively. That’s great progress, you did a good job. Here is what’s next to be done. So frame the gaps in his delivery as the next steps because the person deep down will understand that okay I did my best, I get good feedback about that but I can do even more and get even better feedback about that and that’s what drives people. Positive encouragement, not telling them that was not good enough. You need to try more.
– So basically your lesson from this case was that you need to lead with empathy, right?
– Yes, as leaders we need to lead with empathy. And what helps me to lead with empathy is, it doesn’t matter how strange it sounds, is to try to put emotions aside when delivering feedback. Feedback is about future behavior, not about reasons why something happened before. So for example, if you need to give positive feedback, you say “you did X, here is what happens, keep up the good job or do the same next time.” For example, the person delivered something in time, you say “because you delivered this project in time it had a great impact on our customers and we received a positive feedback from our leadership. I would like you to deliver the next project in the same manner.” So you clearly state the outcome, the action, then outcome and then encouragement to take the same action in the future. If you need to deliver negative feedback, you don’t focus on the reason why something happens because you can’t question the motivation of what’s in the person’s head. There is no need to do this. For example, if the person is late to a daily meeting for many times in a row, he’s always late and you want to deliver negative feedback. So you say, “when you are late at our daily stand up, the whole team has to wait for you. And since this meeting is 15 minutes for a five person team, others don’t have time to provide their feedback. Can next time you try to be on time?” So it’s about next time to be on time. It’s not about asking him why he was late. It’s about setting a clear expectation how behavior should change when delivering negative feedback. What I found works well for me is to change this feedback model to the seniority of a person. If the person is more senior, you can just put an expectation or a question. “Can you do different next time? Can you change that? You should change that.” But when you’re delivering feedback to a junior engineer or other specialist, you can provide him with examples of behavior or tips that will change the outcome. For example, “next time to not be late to a daily meeting, set a calendar invitation for yourself minutes earlier. This will put a mental deadline earlier than it has to be. And it will be easy for you to come in time even if you are 5 minutes late.”
– Okay, thank you. And what are the typical mistakes your manager makes when they are seeking for the balance between being demanding and protecting the team too much?
– So the most common mistake is that they don’t actually seek the balance. They choose either one of the options. When you’re a young manager, you just started managing your team. Maybe you transition to a manager from a senior engineer role. And finally, a demanding project comes to your team and you have a tremendous push from your customers, from your stakeholders and from your own management chain. Some managers tend to translate this push and become a proxy for it to their team. Means that all the pressure, all the expectations, all the challenging, they just repeat to their team in the same way they receive it. They create an unhealthy atmosphere of running in the wheel and delivering. And this becomes a unique situation where team feels like a high pressure months or sprint or quarter or whatever. And it burns people out to participate in this rat race. On the other hand, some managers can overindex on the team aspect of this equation, meaning that leadership of customer come with an important project for business. Manager says, “No, we can’t do that. We can’t stretch ourselves. This is what we can do. And that’s it.” And not being flexible. In such way, the manager signals that he’s not able to deliver results. Those situations is not being an effective manager.
– I see. And why do we make these mistakes? What motivates managers to make such decisions?
– I think especially in the IT world, in engineering, it is a common problem between young managers because let’s think about how people become managers. It is very often that a senior engineer or lead engineer becomes manager just because he’s working long enough or the company he was in did not have a principal track. Or it was a natural evolution of his team leader role to a person with more responsibility. Great engineers are not necessarily good managers. So a lot of time when a person becomes a manager, he has to figure out the same stuff that has already been figured out on his own. There is a formal management education, managerial courses, MBA degrees, but they are often far from reality in this new person’s team, company or industry. It is very helpful to find a mentor who can teach a new manager by example from his past experiences, how to manage stakeholders, how to mentor, coach and grow his own team, how to manage expectations, how to deliver feedback, how to delegate. But more often than not, people figure the stuff out by themselves and they learn from their own mistakes, not used from knowledge gathered by others.
– Particularly you are saying that this is a result of lack of education, some formal education?
– I wouldn’t say necessarily formal learning, but learning itself. We can differentiate learning into two types, mentorship and coaching. Coaching is when you have an opportunity to figure stuff on your own and the coach asks the right questions and directs you to figure out your own solution. Mentorship is when somebody shares his experiences and provides examples of past situations and you can draw some learnings out of it. I think it is a very good thing that what you are doing here, Alex, to have in this management podcast, which will help new managers to listen to such stories and translate it to their own reality.
– Oh, thank you very much for these words. And how can a manager understand that their management style is unbalanced?
– I think a good rule of thumb for a new manager is to look for indicators of unhealthy results or behaviors in both aspects, in delivery and in team work-life balance. For example, a good indicator for delivery that there is an issue with it, which is indirect indicator, is when there are no new topics coming to you as a manager.
– What do you mean?
– It means that for an extended amount of time, from your own leadership, you don’t receive stretch goals, new topics, new challenging topics or projects.
– And what does this mean? How can you translate these results?
– It means that if you don’t receive stretch goals, your leadership is not fully confident that you are able to deliver more than you already deliver.
– Okay, so basically this means that you are protecting your team too much or you are failing to deliver, right?
– It is an indicator. It’s a starting point when you can understand that something is wrong. I think the best way to go from there is to directly ask your own manager, what are his expectations? How are you meeting them? Does he see any gaps and work backwards from the expectations to your role in this organization.
What helps me as a new manager when I join a team is to actually, during some of the introductory one-on-ones with my manager or my entire actor, is to ask, “What does it mean to be a successful manager to you, specifically to you?” And listening to this response will make you understand what is important to your importance stakeholder.
– I see that this will help you to calibrate on expectations. But when you are in the process of implementing some project, how will you validate that you are balanced, that you are not on any extreme edge of this balance?
– In order to validate anything, you need to have a diverse perspective and you need to often reach out for feedback. When it comes to feedback for delivery, the best source is your manager. When it comes to feedback about the team work-life balance, it’s your team. For example, how can you understand that the team is happy and even under high pressure that their work-life balance is in a healthy state?
You can ask a simple question to every team member separately, rate your own job satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 10. And in 70% cases, somebody will tell you 8 or 7. So he will give some numbers. It doesn’t matter what this number is. It’s not what score he gives because what matters is the next question.
You ask “What would it take to raise your satisfaction by one point?” And then you ask “What would it take to lose to reduce your compensation by one point?” And this delta is what matters because this plus one point, it means this answer will give you what this person needs most to be more happy than he is. And the minus one point answer will give you what is the most valuable thing for him in his work right now. So if the answer is “I would like to have more free time or less late-time meetings” to any of these questions, this can be an indicator that the person isn’t happy. Doesn’t matter what the initial score is. And having such frequent conversations once a month may help you monitor your team members job satisfaction.
– Oh, I see this as a great tool. I think that we need to use it as much as possible. Basically what you are saying is that we need to get feedback from your employees directly and understand how they are satisfied with the work-life balance. And what is on opposite side? How do you get similar data from your customers and stakeholders? Do you want to perform similar survey or is there any better way to get feedback there?
– In order to understand if you are successful in delivering results or not, you need to first clearly understand what it means to deliver results. You can frame it differently as meeting expectations because it doesn’t matter if you delivered something in three days but you promised to do it tomorrow. Then you failed expectations, you didn’t deliver results. But if you agreed that you will deliver something by the end of the week and you delivered it in three days, then you delivered great results and you met the expectations and even overcame it. So it is important to first clearly define expectations about time of delivery, quality of delivery, budget and of course scope and deliverables themselves. Then when you agree on the expectations with your customers, with your stakeholders, with your leadership, you have a clear cut definition of whether you meet them or not, meaning are you good in delivering results or not.
– Okay, as a manager you need to track that you are delivering on time, within budget and with expected result. Correct?
– That’s right.
– Let’s imagine that you just realized that you have some problems with balance. Who can you ask for help to find the balance?
– The two most important people who can help you in your role as a manager are your manager and your mentor. It’s best to have this be different people because your manager sets his expectations and he can be a mentor to you but it would be best if he’d be a coach.
– And what is the difference between mentor, coach and manager?
– Manager can be both. Right? Coaching is the process of guiding others by helping them figure out the best way themselves and if needed, learn from their own mistakes. For example, a good coaching question is “How would you do that and you have an answer?” And then you ask what alternatives have you considered and you have an answer. Why did you choose this one and you have an answer? Now you have a plan and now what is your goal? Because this really will put you to your goal and then the person states his goal and by giving his answer you already have this point of conversation both the past to achieve a goal and the goal itself. Then you can ask, okay, so what’s the first step? What can you do today or tomorrow? And what’s the step after that? And during the answer to each of these questions, you can listen to an answer and it’s up to you as a coach to either correct, to do a course correct or to not say anything and let the person go this path and figure out the consequences himself. Depending on the situation, you can give more room for safe to fail or less.
While mentorship and being a mentor is specifically guiding and advising by example. It’s a lead by example type of conversation. For example, when you need to mentor another manager and the manager comes with a problem “I can’t organize daily work in my team or I have issues.” Then a mentor would propose alternatives. For example, you can organize your work this way or that way, implement Scrum, implement Kanban, or any other technique. This is what worked for me in a team similar to you. That’s how you would do that. Does it make sense to you? Yes, it does. When you will implement it, I will help you along the way.
– So what you are saying is that a coach will help you to find answers inside your head while a mentor will bring answers from his experience, right?
– Exactly. When you are a manager who has issues with fighting balance in your work, in your team, in your delivery, you need to have both sources of help. You need to understand when you need mentorship and reach out for advice and listen to solutions to your problem and when to reach out to figure out a solution on your own.
– Okay. In this case, who is your manager? Is he a coach, a mentor or just a person who sets the goals and validates the results?
– It depends on your seniority level and position in the organization. For example, when you are a new manager, your direct manager is a mentor to you and should be a mentor to you, especially when you are a first-time manager. He is the first person to whom you should ask questions about how stuff works. What does it mean to be successful? He should teach you, share details with you and even take a hit if necessary, if you misstep during your first months or even a year in the team. I see a trend when the higher the management levels go, for example, from line manager to middle manager to senior manager, there is a shift in how relationships are organized between a manager report and a senior manager who is his superior. The shift is from being a mentor and active growth management for a reportee towards being a stakeholder, setting requirements, expectations, deliverables and growth becomes an own person’s responsibility.
– It makes sense. And let’s return to our topic about seeking balance. Let’s imagine that your manager or your mentor helped you and what are the very first steps you should take once you decide to improve the balance?
– Okay, so first you need to understand where you are. If you want to go somewhere, you need to understand the goal, where you are and the path to move to. The goal is to have a balance and we already know that you don’t have it, you need to improve it. The next step is to figure out where you are. Start with the expectations and the results. Is your team or you meeting them? Ask your manager, did I fail to meet expectations during my recent work? And gather the data. Gather the situations when you failed to meet expectations. On the other hand, from a team work-life balance perspective, ask your team members. Ask them what’s their job satisfaction, what would it take to raise it by one point, to fail it by one point. You will get an idea of what’s important to keep and what’s missing in their daily work. And then you can go from there. You can analyze the situations that fail to meet expectations, you can understand either it was misdelivery or was the expectations too high and you failed to manage expectations, not the delivery itself. So you go from there and dive deeper.
– Okay, makes perfect sense. Let’s now dive deep into these two edge cases, being too demanding and being too protective. What are the risks from being too demanding?
– A few things that come to mind are burnouts. The person overworked and overstressed will not be able to deliver and will just want to quit. Burnout doesn’t necessarily result in quitting, but it’s definitely long-term loss of motivation, loss in quality of work, and it’s very hard to fix. Another reason maybe not as dramatically as burnout or not a reason, but a risk is stress. People working under constant stress are unhealthy. There are two different kinds of stress. There is d-stress and u-stress. So d-stress is a negative stress, u-stress you can say is positive stress. As managers, we can try to make d-stressful situations into u-stressful situations. Try for example, providing positive reinforcement and not say gaps, but say next steps. And motivate people to deliver more faster while acknowledging their delivery and performance. So change problem solving into ambition. So if you see that person is ambitious and wants to deliver, you as a manager can find the right tools to motivate.
– Can you provide some examples? This is quite interesting topic.
– In order to convert stress into motivation, you need as a manager to give feedback the right way. For example, if your direct report delivered what you told him to, but you expected him to take initiative and do something more, you don’t say that was not good enough. You should have shown more proactiveness, ownership or stuff like that, but you rather say “That was great. Here is the next step. You need to demonstrate this and this.” What is your goal? Your goal is to deliver positive feedback and make the person think that next time he can deliver better result and get even better feedback to that.
– Okay, thanks. And what are the risks from being too protective?
– To think about the risk of being too protective, first you need to understand who you are to your manager. You are the person responsible for a large area, for a team, for a product. You are the go-to person. You are his right hand in this matter. So if you don’t deliver, you lose his trust. You lose trust as a person who can deliver what’s best for the business. You can get misaligned with your leadership, with your stakeholders, because you either don’t value the same things as they value or you are not able to communicate expectations and deliver what’s right for the business. It can escalate into lost opportunities, revenue, missing customer trust and hurt the company.
– Okay, let’s imagine that you just conveyed the survey, received the feedback and analyzed it. I imagine that you can receive mixed feedback. Some people will want one thing, and others will want the opposite. And how can you make the right decision if your feedback is mixed?
– Decision making for a new manager is hard. And the most common mistake I see and I’ve seen in my own approach to such situations is just making a judgment call without any extra work. This creates a high risk of making a wrong decision because you are an inexperienced manager. You can’t rely yet on your own judgment because it will be just intuition. What you can do is to help yourself make this decision by combining a lot of other data, perspectives, feedback, anything else that can help you. For example, you can try to narrow down the problem to raw data, to situations, to some management problems, for example team organizations, daily stand-ups, reporting techniques, whatever the problem of mixed feedback boils down to. And then do your own research. Try to look in the literature, look on the internet, listen to podcasts, ask your manager, ask your mentor, ask your coach, what would he do, why would he do it. And the problem as it is not as it was perceived by those who gave you feedback to it. By gathering diverse perspectives, diverse opinions, it will help you to be right a lot of times and make some decisions.
– Okay, I see. And can we learn something from other teams? Can we just copy-paste decisions from the very best other teams and expect that they will work for you?
– I don’t think you can copy-paste decisions because a lot of unique factors go into the decision, such as scope, team specifics, expectations. But what you can do is to apply the learnings, processes, and outcomes of these learnings from another team to your team. I think it is very important to build an organization and a culture where cross-team learning is encouraged. Because you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but rather use experience and unique circumstances encountered within other parts of organization in your own team.
– Wow, that’s a great answer. And let’s imagine that you identified all gaps and applied all corrective actions. What would you do next? What would be your next steps?
– I would refer to the three pillars of Scrum, which are transparency, inspection, and adaptation. So you need to inspect and adapt. Maintaining the balance is a continuous process. It’s not like you’re done this once and you are good to go for the upcoming years. You need to constantly ask questions whether the balance is right. Ask your manager for feedback. Ask your stakeholders for feedback. Ask your team members for their feedback. Listen to them. You need to be a good listener. And apply corrective actions. Up to that change, the only constant thing is change.
– Okay, so basically balancing is an iterative process, right?
– That’s correct.
– And before we will wrap up this episode, I’d like to touch on one more topic, which is education. I know that you hold an MBA degree. Can you tell how it helps you in your career?
– There are two aspects to that. One is the topics that are covered as part of the MBA. Usually MBA programs are suited for either new managers, experienced managers, or executives. So based on your step in a management career, you can check out what topics are covered and understand whether it is right for you or not. For example, for me, I did an MBA just before becoming a manager. And such topics as organization building, risk management, project management, differences in waterfall to agile approach helped me a lot to understand larger context and understanding my part in an organization as a complex whole. But a completely different aspect is networking. MBA is all about networking. Usually very career-driven people go to an MBA who know what they want from their career and you’re spending two years of life working back to back with people who have similar motivation, ambitions, and goals with whom you share a lot. You build a relationship with other managers, from other companies, with people who want to become managers, with people who want to become directors and executives, and you can maintain this relationship for years going forward. This helps you to build a diverse perspective, be right a lot, and grow your career.
– Wow, that was a great insight. Thank you very much for joining me for this discussion!
– Thanks for inviting me to your podcast, Alex!