Irrational Exuberance!

Consider the team you have for senior positions.

May 19, 2018. Filed under managementhiring

I've been hiring engineering manager of managers roles over the past six months. These roles are scarcer than line management roles, and vary more across companies. This process has taught me a bunch of new things.

Manager of manager searches are interesting in at least four ways.

  • There are many folks who can't find upward mobility within their current company. They have not managed managers before, and are looking for the opportunity.
  • Most folks with experience managing managers are happy in their current roles.
  • The folks interested in these roles outpace supply. This makes it more important to put in place processes like the Rooney Rule.
  • You need a fair way to consider candidates within your company. It must be both respectful to them and to uphold your responsibilities to the company.

The last aspect is where I've learned the most, and what I want to focus on. Ensuring internal candidates take part is essential to an inclusive culture. Fair consideration doesn't mean we prefer internal candidates. Rather that we have a structured way for them to apply, and to consider them.

Letting folks apply is the easy part. You must announce each position and ask for internal candidates. You should persuade eligible candidates to apply, especially if they are uncertain. You should give them a week or two to consider if they want to apply.

Then comes the trickier part: evaluation. We've focused on testing these categories:

  1. Partnership. Have they been effective partners to their peers, and to the team that they've managed?
  2. Execution. Can they support the team in operational excellence?
  3. Vision. Can they present a compelling, energizing vision of the future state for their team and its scope?
  4. Strategy. Can they identify the necessary steps to transform the present into their vision?
  5. Spoken and written communication. Can they convey complicated topics in both written and verbal communication? While being engaging and tuning the level of detail to their audience?
  6. Stakeholder management. Can they make folks, especially executives, feel heard? Make them confident they'll address their concerns?

This evaluation doesn't cover every aspect of being an effective senior leader. But it does cover the raw skills that form the foundation of one's success. You already know if an internal candidate has hired managers. You know if they've done organization design. No need to ask all that.

To test these categories, we're using these tools:

  • Peer & team feedback. Written feedback from four or five folks. Include peers on other teams. Include folks they've managed. Include folks they would managed. My biggest advice? Lean into controversial feedback, not away from it. Listen to would-be dissenters, and hear their concerns.
  • 90 day plan. The applicant writes a 90 day plan of how they'd transition into the role, and what they would focus on. They emphasize specific tactics, time management, and where they'd put their attention. It's also a great opportunity to understand their diagnosis of the current situation. Provide written feedback to them on their plan. Have them incorporate that feedback into their plan. This is an opportunity to trial working together in the new role.
  • Vision & strategy document. The applicant writes a combined vision/strategy document. It outlines where the new team will be in 2-3 years, and how they'll steer the team to get there. Provide written feedback on the document. Have them incorporate that feedback.
  • Vision/strategy presentation. Have the applicant present their vision and strategy document to a group of three to four peers. Have the peers ask questions, and see how the applicant responds to their feedback.
  • Executive presentation. Have the applicant present their strategy document, one on one, with an executive. In particular, test for ability to adapt communication to different stakeholders.

Running the process takes a lot of time, but it's rewarding time. It's generated more useful feedback than anything else I've done over the past year. It brings an element of intentional practice that's uncommon in engineering management. Folks get to take risks in their plans. You get to give direct feedback without risk of micromanagement. It's been useful enough that I'm now figuring out whether we can use a similar format for training managers.

Know that internal processes are awkward. You'll have many internal candidates. They will talk to each other. They will interview external candidates for a role they are applying for themselves. One candidate may end up managing the others. Don't decide to avoid this morass of awkwardness. You can't. You're deferring it until later. It'll still be awkward, now awkwardly in the realm of gossip.

Running this process, and the awkwardness in doing so, is the most rewarding thing I've done this year. I recommend it.