I worked 20-30 hours a week during college, and, even though my work had its low points (but which jobs don’t), I had a supportive team and a good manager. My work life was one that wasn’t impeded by pettiness, gossip, or lack of recognition. I left that job after I graduated, and I’ve had at least one new job a year since then. My experiences with each have varied in a variety of ways, but the central message is: management matters.
This might seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me, especially because I had a good manager all throughout college. I became blind to the stress and frustration that bad management can cause. A lot of the professional advice I received and read pre-bachelor’s degree was focused on “how to get a job, and find the job that’s right for you.” This is good advice, but I never heard, “Find the job that’s right for you, but make sure the management team is good. Otherwise even the best job will be terrible.”
Anyone who’s had a bad manager or been part of a bad team will know why this is the case. If you have a bad manager, they prevent you from doing your job. And if that’s a job you actively want to do and be good at, frustration quickly boils over. If you can’t do the job you came to do, then what is the point?
The revised professional advice that I wish I would have gotten is something like: “Explore and find the job and field that are right for you—but individual companies and managers matter. Do your best to assess those things as well. Don’t just take a job and think you’ll be able to tough it out, or, worse, ignore the management aspect.”
Well, fine, yes, this is better advice, but how do you do that?
The short version: I’m still figuring that one out myself.
I know that it’s often not possible to get detailed intel about individual managers in companies, especially larger ones that you have no inside or industry-adjacent connection to. As far as I know, the best way to get around that is digging into sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn to check on company reputation and to see how they and their employees interact online.
Another thing that’s been immensely helpful is reading good books about management and company culture. I think there’s a ton of junk in this genre, unfortunately, but there’s also some real gold. Reading about good management techniques and comparing them with my own experiences has helped me zero in on what exactly I am looking for in a company, besides the particulars of a job.
For example: Reading the book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord (former chief talent officer at Netflix and the co-creator of the Netflix culture deck) clarified many of my feelings and thoughts about annual performance reviews, a common managerial tool.
I hate annual performance reviews (and I’m generally suspect of even quarterly ones). I always have, and ever since the first time I’ve had to do one I harshly questioned their utility. For those who have been spared these reviews: you get an email to an online portal and you have to answer a whole bunch of questions about what you think you did well, what you don’t think you did well, how you want to improve, &c. These are often supplemented by manager reviews of you, and you can sometimes submit things like emails from coworkers telling you that you did a good job.
If you’re only doing this kind of evaluation and getting this kind of feedback once a year, the game has already been lost. Conversations about what needs to be improved and what’s going well should be pretty much ongoing, which will look different depending on an organization’s context.
What if you get lots of negative comments on your annual review about things you’ve been doing badly for a while, or things you did badly months ago? Someone should have told you long before the appointed review time. Everything since has just been needlessly subpar.
Patty gave a lot of great examples of good feedback in her book, which I use to inform thoughts about my own workplace. As she highlighted the pitfalls of annual performance reviews, she also revealed good feedback practices powered by radical honesty and real-time correction. Even if I don’t know much about a company, I can still use the knowledge gained in a book like Patty’s to determine whether a given company is worth staying with. And, more importantly, I can use that information in interviews to ask the right questions about management practices and culture.
Now I know to put a lot of effort into analyzing management practices and thinking critically about business ends in the context of those practices. My outlook on my own job and the job market has changed radically, including a greater feeling of empowerment. I know much more accurately what it is I’m looking for in a job, because I’m not just looking for a job—I’m looking for great management too.
This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.