It’s a common misconception that authority makes you powerful. Many folks aspiring towards more senior roles assume they’ll finally get to do things their way. They believe that the title inherently creates flexibility and autonomy. They believe that the friction holding them back will burst into a whirl of butterflies that scatter into the wind.
The reality is a bit more nuanced.
Titles come with the sort of power called organizational authority, and that variety of authority is loaned to you by a greater organizational authority. What’s bestowed can also be retracted, and retaining organizational authority depends on remaining deeply aligned with the bestowing sponsor, generally your direct manager. To remain effective within a staff-plus role, you have to learn the art of staying aligned with organizational authority.
Beyond the safety net
When asked for advice on entering a Staff-plus role, Duretti Hirpa shared, “Staff engineering is a completely different job. It’s no longer about your technical expertise. The job isn’t “computer” anymore, as I’m fond of saying. You’re now an agent of the organization.”
The golden rule of being an agent of the organization is that you must stay aligned with your organizational authority. Retire any remaining expectations that the company is designed to set you up for success. Now you are one of the people responsible for setting the company, your team and your manager up for success.
Most mature technology companies succeed in creating a predictable promotion pipeline from folks joining early in their careers up through attaining the Senior Engineer title. The process of getting a Staff Title is generally more complex than preceding titles, but usually navigated with the support of your engineering manager. Throughout this pipeline, you may become comfortable with your manager guiding your development and providing a safety net for your continued success. After reaching a Staff role, your safety net will cease to exist, or at best the safety net will be short enough that you’re quite capable of jumping past it and into the awaiting chasm. This will be increasingly true as you go further into Senior Staff and Distinguished Engineer roles.
Staff-plus roles are leadership roles, and in leadership roles the support system that got you here will fade away. Often abruptly, you’re now expected to align the pieces around you for own success.
Serving at the pleasure of the President
When Rick Boone described his role as Strategic Advisor to the Vice-President of Infrastructure at Uber, he compared his role to Hand of the King in Game of Thrones, and Leo McGarry from The West Wing who frequently remarked, “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” In both those examples, authority flows from the tight association with a greater authority, and it’s a great mental model for operating in a Staff-plus role. This can be a difficult transition from previous roles where your authority primarily accumulated through your personal actions and impact over time.
If you and your manager have worked together for years, then often you’ve already performed a subtle, subterranean sort of alignment over time. In other cases, a new executive will join who is familiar with supporting these roles, and will bring a deliberate map to how they want to work together. However, both of those circumstances are largely out of your control, so it’s valuable to develop your own approach to aligning upward with your manager.
To align with your manager, some areas to focus on are:
Never surprise your manager. Nothing destroys trust faster than surprising your manager. Steering a large organization often involves juggling a number of people, projects and problems in your head at once, and surprises threaten the juggler’s rhythm. Large or frequent surprises also call into question whether a leader is truly taking responsibility for their organization. In general, treat each time you surprise your manager as an incident to be learned from and endeavor to prevent repeats.
Don’t let your sponsor surprise you. Most folks have extremely high expectations of their managers, assuming for example that they will always remember to relay information relevant to your current work. Managers try to do this, some of them are excellent at it, and others are not particularly good. If your manager isn’t great at this, you should certainly give them feedback, but you should also take proactive action to facilitate information flow. This might be weekly email updates or a Slack thread within your team’s channel sharing your focuses for the week. During 1:1s, dig for feedback! Ask if there are other areas you should be focused on, and how your current priorities align with your manager’s. If you continue to surprise each other, then identify the controls you’ll use to partner together.
Feed your manager context. If the first step is avoiding personally surprising your manager, the next step is to help your manager not get surprised by the wide organization. If teams are frustrated by a new policy or your internal tools aren’t scaling with needs, proactively feed that to your manager. Be clear that you’re not bringing them a problem to solve, rather conveying information you believe will be useful. Opinions are helpful, but even more helpful is data when you can find it.
Sometimes you’ll hear someone disparage a colleague saying that they’re excellent at “managing up.” There are certainly destructive ways to manage up where someone controls information to hide problems or misrepresent circumstances, but at its core managing up is about increasing bandwidth and reducing friction between you and your manager. Cultivating a deliberate partnership with your manager will go far further than practicing disappointment when they don’t meet your expectations.
Influencing without too much friction
Part of growing as a leader is developing your own perspective on how the world should work, and you can’t reach the Staff-plus level without that perspective. Having a clear sense of how things ought to work sharpens your judgement and enables you to act proactively, As you reach this next step of leadership, you increasingly have to merge your vision with those held by more senior organizational leaders.
Your first approach to solving this problem might be replacing your vision with another leader’s vision, and that approach works for some, but for many it means stepping away from the perspective that facilitated their success as a proactive leader with strong judgement. Instead, I recommend sharpening your awareness of the value distinctions between those that you hold and those that the organization operates under, and find a way to advocate for them without getting kicked out of the room.
People can only change so quickly, and organizations are made of people. If you’re deliberate in your approach, you’ll be able to influence your organization leaders immensely over time, but you’ll only get that time if you learn to remain in tight alignment at each step along the way.