“Why did you decide to become a manager?”
It’s a question that gets asked a lot, in job interviews, 1x1s, and plain old casual conversation. I ask this question a lot, and I am often frustrated (or bored) by the answers I hear back.
Most of them can be bucketed in one of three ways:
- The pious. “I just really, really love helping other people achieve their goals.”
- The pleasers. the ones who answer, then pause uncertainly: “Is that what you’re looking for?”
- The sheepish. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but..” (followed by something very close to real honesty)
People are rarely inclined to divulge the range and depth of their reasons for going into management. And why should they? We are constantly being lectured about what the RIGHT reasons for going into management are, with aspersions cast upon anyone who dares enter the profession for any reasons that are not completely selfless.
“I LOVE mentoring.” “I wanted to protect my team.” “I’m motivated by people problems.” “I just really love helping people grow.”
I’m not saying that everybody who says these words is lying, but I would be surprised if it was the entire story. People make career moves for a complex mix of altruism and self-interest.
It’s socially acceptable to cop to the selfless reasons. But what about the rest? Like “I wanted more money”? “I wanted career progression and couldn’t get any as an IC”? What about “I couldn’t get a seat at the table as an engineer”, “I was tired of being left out of important decisions”, or “My reporting chain was opaque and kept fucking up, and I figured I couldn’t do any worse than those bozos”?
Now we’re talking.
Most people become managers to compensate for org fuckery.
In my experience, most engineers become managers primarily due to organizational dysfunction. When you become a manager you acquire certain institutional powers, and you can use those powers to change the thing that makes you miserable.
It’s a hack. A gnarly one. And like most hacks, it kinda works.
For example, say it pisses you off to be left out of decisions. So you become a manager, and then you can either a) use your power and access to push for including engineers in the decision-making process, or at very least b) you personally will no longer left out.
In a healthy org, I would argue that most of these reasons should not exist. You should not have to become a manager to have career progression, pay equity, access to information, to be included in the decision-making process, even to set company strategy (to an extent congruent with your level, impact, role, tenure, etc)..
Everybody can’t weigh in on everything, obviously, but technical leaders are the best people to make technical decisions, not managers. In healthy orgs, managers work to push those powers outwards to the people closest to the work rather than hoarding it for themselves.
Legitimate reasons for being interested in management.
If you claw away all the org fuckery that forces so many people who care deeply about their work and coworkers into management, there is only one honest reason left for why anyone should try management.
✨Because you feel like it.✨
Because you’re curious. Because there’s an opportunity, maybe, or it seems interesting. Because why not? It’s as good a reason as any. Why do you learn a new framework, a new language, why do you write about your work, why do you pick up any new skill or new role? Why do any of it?
We are not rational beings. First comes emotional urge (“I want that”), then comes rationalization (“because, uh, I love people?”). That’s just how our brains work. You don’t really have to defend or justify it any further.
In reality …
I have observed that many people (especially early-career) are semi-obsessed with getting in to management.
There are many reasons for this. In most places, it is still regarded as a promotion, not a support role / change of career. With high achievers, all you have to do is plunk a ladder next to them to make them want to climb it. Many people feel a lack of agency and lack of autonomy in their role, and they think becoming a manager will solve all their problems.
The swiftest cure for this delusion is … actually becoming a manager.
Management is a role where you are granted certain institutional powers, at the expense of other powers, freedoms and benefits. Many people who try management figure out pretty quickly that it’s not for them. Formal powers are, in many ways, the weakest powers of them all.
Which is why I think anybody who is interested in management should get a shot at it. Let’s demystify the role, strip it of its mystique and glamour, and make it what it should be: a role of service to others not dominance over others; staffed by people who genuinely take joy in that people side of sociotechnical problem solving.