The manager hat never comes off

Managers love talking about the different hats we wear. In a podcast interview, Jean-Michel Lemieux (CTO at Shopify) said he follows the 25,50,25 rule:

  • 25% of the time, he’s the manager. He’s giving direction, setting vision, leading, etc.
  • 50% of the time, he’s the teammate. He’s collaborating with his team around the work.
  • 25% of the time, he’s the servant. He’s supporting, unblocking, and whatever else his team tells him to do.

In terms of splitting up our time, sure, that makes sense.

But if you’re a manager, then you’re a manager 100% of the time. The manager hat never comes off. That question you ask with your “servant” hat on will be received by your team as “my manager is trying to make a point.” The opinion you give while in “teammate” mode sounds like “my manager said I need to do this.”

You are not their teammate. You are not their servant. You are their manager. Even when you don’t see it like that, your team does:

When we give managers an organizational chart showing the managers and their directs and we say, “Draw your team,” the managers generally circle themselves and the team as a whole. But when we give that same instruction to the directs on that team, the directs circle themselves and their peers—and leave the manager out.

Mark Horstman, The Effective Manager

I recently heard of a team spending 3 months re-architecting a service after the tech lead’s manager asked a bunch of questions about it. The tech lead took that to mean that the manager wanted to change it all, but it turned out the manager was just trying to learn. He thought he was wearing his teammate hat, but the manager hat never comes off.

In their book on management, Melissa and Johnathan Nightingale talk a lot about being “super fucking clear.” If you’re asking a question, be clear that it’s just a question with no deeper meaning. If you have an opinion, preface it by saying it’s just one person’s opinion and they can ignore it. This is one of those rare times where hedging what you say is crucial.

Be careful with that manager hat. Your team thinks you’re wearing it even when you don’t.

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