The biggest reason technical managers fail

One of my clients told me today, “Managers have to do a lot of routine and boring work. I feel overwhelmed!" I asked to clarify, “Can you give me an example?" They replied, ”Sure! For example, maintaining this spreadsheet of [insert boring technical stuff]..."

Their main complaint was that as a individual contributor they were able to focus on a single projects for some time. But as a manager they have to switch between a million tasks every day. And a lot of those tasks are, well, boring. It's easy to see how it would lead to being overworked and unmotivated.

Have you spotted the problem yet?

"Overworked managers are doing things they shouldn't be doing." --- Tom DeMarco, Slack

That's right! This manager, just like many others who feel overworked, is suffering from cantletgoitis. It's a common ailment that plagues many first-time managers who cannot let go of contributing technical work.

Unfortunately it's difficult to self-diagnose and even harder to treat. So a lot of managers go untreated for years and eventually succumb to burnout.

But what can you do?!

Over the years I've seen overworked managers try a few home remedies like:

  1. Multitasking—they would just get overworked faster.
  2. A "better" productivity system—somehow, no matter what system they choose, it just adds more stuff to their already endless todo list.
  3. Work harder—um...

Does this all sound familiar? I bet it does. Most of us struggled with overwork at one point or another. And tried all the obvious ways to deal with it with no success. If you are an overworked manager too, I have good news for you. There's a cure! It has been clinically tested and found to be very effective. Best of all, it is available without a prescription and is absolutely free!

But be warned, this medicine is bitter and the side-effects might include severe ego pains. Are you ready to commit to getting healthy? Ok. Here it goes, then.

Let. It. Go.

Yes, that's right! You must let go of contributing technical work if you want to become a confident manager. Clinging to it not only makes you tired, but also a terrible manager.

"Alpha geeks make absolutely terrible managers, unless they can learn to let go of their identity as the smartest person in the room and most technical person on the team." --- Camille Fournier, The Manager's Path

Think what it must be like to be your direct report!? You might think you're protecting your people by taking some technical work off their plate. But it's the opposite—the boundaries are not clear and the trust goes down. The culture you're creating has more to do with what you do than what you say—if you're overwhelmed and overworked, your team will feel overwhelmed and overworked too.

What you can do instead is focus on setting healthy boundaries for your team, learn to advocate for your team and yourself, asking for (and getting) more resources, setting up systems for prioritizing work before it hits your pipeline, and developing other strategies for getting rid of busy work.

Letting go won't be easy. But to grow, you must let go. It will trigger fear and ego at times. You'll think "I can do it better and faster" or "I'll become irrelevant if I stop doing technical work". But I promise you, if you show courage and stay the course, you'll transition from a technical expert to expert manager faster than you actually believed possible.

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