Code is easier than people

Jul 11 2019 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Being an effective leader is hard work. Being a leader on a remote team is more complicated (not necessarily harder, just trickier.) This is especially true for many people (my hand is up) who never expected to be managers. Going from being a superb individual contributor to a leadership role is not easy and can feel very uncomfortable. One of my students years ago helped me understand why.

I was working with a company in Silicon Valley who had trouble getting their researchers to accept management positions, or stick with them (nearly a third of people who took leadership roles were back on the bench in six months.) I asked one of them why that was.

Because, he said, completely out of patience, Code does what you tell it to do the first time, and you dont have to ask how the kids are.

This actually sums up the challenge for subject matter experts and top performers who find themselves in leadership roles.

Companies often say, so and so is the best coder we have, so lets make them the boss of the coders. On one level, it makes a kind of sense. But because someone understands a task or role better than others doesnt mean they are capable of getting that same level of excellence from other people.

Here are some reasons, particularly in a technical or knowledge-worker role, why it can be so difficult to make that transition from doer to manager.

1. Experts are seldom aware of everything they do to achieve their level of excellence. One of the components of skill or subject mastery is unconscious competence. We literally dont think about what we do, its just part of our muscle memory as if its always been there. This is wonderful when theyre doing the work, but can make it very difficult to teach or coach others. Often we just assume that everyone knows everything we dont. Its why great athletes seldom make great coaches.

2. One of the traits of top performers is the ability to concentrate on the task at hand and tune out distractions, particularly from other people. The problem, of course, is that dealing with other people is the primary role of a manager. We love being in the zone. Its completely the opposite of the leaders role, however. The proportion of solo work to interacting with others is completely flipped.

3. One reason we became experts, is we love the work. As a leader, its not your job to do a task; its to make sure its done, usually by someone else. It is awfully tempting to jump in and do something yourself, if only for the fact that it reinforces our belief that we were once actually good at something. Delegation can be very difficult, especially when we see others struggling with what should be obvious or not that @#%#$%#$ing difficult.

4. The number one skill required of a leader is to take what is in our head, and communicate it to others in a variety of ways. Very often, people who are excellent at a task are not great communicators. Its not that they cant be, they just havent worked on those skills. Now is the time. Learning to write effectively, speak clearly and listen actively are essential leadership skills.

5. Technology can enable communication, or give you a good excuse to avoid it. If you are a leader who is uncomfortable with confrontation, for example, you may find it easier to send an email than to schedule a webcam or phone conversation with a member of your team. Just because its easier (and fits our personal communication style) doesnt mean its the right way to interact with that person at that time. Learning what communication tools to use for which purpose and when is seldom explicitly taught. It should be.

None of this means that a high performing individual subject matter expert cant become an effective leader. It does mean, though, that selecting the right people and giving them the tools to succeed is a process that needs to be supported by the entire organization.

Yes, code is easier than people. That doesnt mean that learning the people skills to succeed isnt worth a little work.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments for more than 20 years. In 2016, he merged with The Kevin Eikenberry Group, to create The Remote Leadership Institute, and now serves as Master Trainer and Coach to the Kevin Eikenberry Group. Wayne is also is the author of more than 15 books, including The Long-Distance Teammate and The Long-Distance Team.