Less status updates, more coaching

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Managing managers

This article is part of a series on managing managers.

How many of your one-to-ones with your team end up being status updates? How about your one-to-ones with your own manager? And just how boring are they? I know, right? Snore.

Although this article is focused on correcting a common pattern of behavior that you can fall into when managing managers, it’s really applicable to all managers at any level of an organization. However, when you manage managers it can sometimes be really hard to avoid filling your precious one-to-one time with your direct reports with yet another series of updates on how some project is going.

There’s a good reason after all: it’s likely that each of your managers are responsible for implementing a stream of work that you are fundamentally accountable for. For example, your managers could each be running engineering teams that are building part of the overall roadmap or even different products, and, assuming that you’ve given them a reasonable level of autonomy, you’re not going to know the exact details of what is going on hour to hour, day to day. 

Of course, being the diligent manager that you are, you are curious as to what’s going on. After all, you’re accountable. But more importantly, you want to be able to find areas that could be improved, suggest alternative approaches, understand the detail better, or even just offer some praise. That’s great. You definitely should be doing these things. But maybe you’re doing it in a way that’s having adverse side-effects.

Status snore-fests

Much like obsessively focusing on the destination rather than being present and enjoying the journey, the topics of conversation that status updates generate can become extremely unfulfilling and tedious for both of you.

Here’s some example snore-fests:

  • “Has the API now been built?”
  • “Does it look like we’re going to be on time for shipping next week?”
  • “How is Bob doing with finalizing the UX research?”
  • “Has Alice deployed the new storage architecture?”

These methods of questioning for status updates have real flaws:

  • All of the questions are closed, suggesting that you want short and concise answers and you don’t want to explore the subject further.
  • All of the questions surround timeliness, suggesting that you only really care about a task being completed, rather than the way in which that task is being done.
  • All of the questions are really boring, which isn’t fun for either of you. We only live once.
  • And, most importantly, all of the questions give you no opportunity for coaching

The last one is the kicker.

Getting precious time for coaching

When you’re managing managers, the best use of your time is coaching: that is, guiding your staff to work out the solutions to their own problems. There’s a whole article on coaching on this website about how to do coaching, but the rough gist is that in your synchronous meeting time each week you should be:

  • Following their interests in conversation in order to find the most impactful topics that they consciously or subconsciously need your help with. You gravitate around what they gravitate around.
  • Continually pushing the thought bubble back over their head by asking open-ended questions so that they are able to find the answers to their own problems (see: rubber ducking). “So why is that?” “Tell me more about why reads are slow.” “Is that the only way you could approach it?”

Coaching is really simple in theory, but hard to master. You only get better by practicing, so try to create the space within your one-to-ones to act as a coach, and you will start to see your managers improve in leaps and bounds.

Make time for conscious coaching. Move away from asking for status updates.

But aren’t the status updates important?

Yes, they’re important. But they don’t need to happen in your precious synchronous time together each week.

Instead, try to work out a way in which you can receive reliable and up-to-date information on what is going on within the work streams of each of your teams outside of your one-to-one meetings. 

There are a number of ways in which you can do this.

  • Have your direct report write a weekly digest that outlines the main status updates and highlights elements that they want to bring your attention to. I personally do this on Friday every week for my own manager, who is the CTO. This allows us to comment back and forth asynchronously before our next one-to-one, which in turn means we can focus on the really interesting stuff during that hour.
  • Have your direct report broadcast their progress more widely. This could be done through writing or recording regular broadcast updates for the department (and beyond) showing how their projects are progressing, where to find the link to the latest demo, and what’s coming next. This is a great way for them to improve their communication skills and for them to receive additional feedback.
  • Set up software to report on progress. This could be as simple as a view generated from their ticket tracking software, or a series of graphs and metrics if they are responsible for particular SLOs. This way you are able to occasionally dip into these views when you’re curious about what’s going on, or if you’d like to find some areas to ask deeper questions about in your next one-to-one.

I’m sure you can think of many more ways also.

However, the important thing is that the information that satiates your desire to know the progress of each of your direct reports’ teams does not need to fill up your one-to-one time. If it is, then there’s always another way to acquire that information, often in a more archivable, digestible and detailed way. 

Instead, fill up your one-to-ones with the good stuff. Coaching is one element. But you should also talk about career development, how they’re feeling, discuss an interesting or provocative article, dig deeper into what motivates them, uncover the biggest problems they’re stuck on, and also allow them to ask the same of you. 

The yield of this effort, compounded over time, is gigantic. Rather than being that dull manager who just asks what’s going on on all of the time, you can be that manager who has a magical way of getting their direct reports to continually level up themselves and their team without them even knowing that you’re doing it.

All it takes is the smallest shift in conversation.


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