Your Next Leadership Job Interview Just Happened

Being a manager and a leader in a large company has many great things to offer. The ability to have a large scope and make a big impact is much easier than at a small company, simply because of the resources available to you. At a large technology company we can make a decision that moves hundreds of people nearly overnight to focus on something, and new projects can spin up and attract lots of people to them in a way that small companies can only dream of. There is a flip side to this though too that many managers overlook. A large company with many projects happening concurrently also provides people great flexibility to move around, so they often have a lot of choice when it comes to which leaders they want to follow. This means that leaders have to be thoughtful about every interaction and the impressions that they leave behind – not just with their current teams, but with peer and partner teams as well. Any one of those people may find themselves with a choice at some point: Do they want to work on your team?

Small Company Mobility

Before Microsoft I was a manager at two small companies. One was a family owned hobby shop, and the other was a branch of Egghead Software (both are gone today!) In both cases, employees had little option for mobility if they didn’t like the leadership they were getting. At the hobby shop, the only real option was to quit and find a new job. At Egghead at least an employee could transfer to another branch, but in both cases the disruption for the employee if they wanted a change was huge. Potential loss of income or benefits, risk in finding a new job, or changing work locations are all big considerations. That meant many people chose to stay even if they lost confidence in their manager. Managers in these small companies who make missteps or don’t learn skills for good leadership aren’t necessarily immediately less successful over time as a result. It may take some time for their  reputations or team performance to become a problem that their manager needs to solve, with good people choosing to leave in the interim.
This results in what I think of as “supply side” management. The power in the relationship between employee & manager is largely tilted towards the manager, and the employee has to make some pretty big life altering decisions if they decide that their manager is a dud and they need to go work for someone else.

Big Company Mobility

Contrast that to large companies, especially those that are vibrant and growing so there are many new opportunities for employees . Changing jobs within such a company doesn’t risk employment status, pay, or benefits. In most cases it doesn’t change commute time or have pretty much any impact at all on your day to day life. In some ways, the biggest downside is having to pack your office and move. Even the friends you made in your old job are still just down the hall or across campus. This means that the relationship between manager and employee is very different than in the small company.

In this case it’s “demand side” management. Employees have lots of choices and can move without disrupting their life if their current manager is a dud. This means that leaders have to create demand in order to keep current employees and attract new ones.

Ooh! Ooh! Pick me! Pick me!

“Creating demand” as a manager happens by being the kind of manager for whom people want to work. Not just once, but again and again. Not just one type of employee, but many diverse types. Not just under one kind of situation, but many kinds. This starts of course by being a thoughtful, diligent, empathetic, inspiring manager for your current team. Whenever I’m considering hiring a manager onto my team one of the first things I try to do is find someone who works for them who I know personally (without breaking any confidences of course) and asking questions to see whether that person would work for that manager again. It’s great to hear someone say “absolutely, and it doesn’t even matter what I’d be working on” but even positive answers with caveats are encouraging. Sometimes of course I also hear “never, nuh uh, no way” and that is always a red flag worth digging into more.

It isn’t exactly thought provoking though to say “gee, you should be a good manager for your current team.” But what I’m suggesting is that alone isn’t sufficient. If you are only focused on your interactions with your current team, you won’t be able to grow your team when needed, or build a new team from scratch if needed. Since it’s unlikely (and usually undesirable) that you’ll just hire your entire old team, you also need to have a great reputation and attract talent from other teams as well.

Fortunately, as a manager at a large company one typically has many opportunities to interact with other teams and talk to people. Cross group projects, working with dependent or partner teams, and engaging with people in your discipline in training or other activities affords lots of opportunities to interact with people. As a Lead or Group Manager one typically has close sister teams in the same organization, which means opportunities for getting to know people on those teams.

Always be Interviewing

So here’s the suggestion that will hopefully make reading this worth your while: 

Treat EVERY interaction with people like you’re interviewing for the job as their leader.

Because, guess what; you are. Probably not now, but likely in the future. When you form a new team and they hear about it, they’re going to use what they know about you to decide whether or not to come knock on your door. If they get moved to your team in a reorg, they’re going to decide whether to stay, or not, based on past experiences with you. So every time you go into a meeting with another team full of talented individuals – bring your A game and show them what kind of leader you are. When you have a conflict with another team on something – resolve it in a way that is respectful to the individuals involved. When you have to say “no” to someone on something – explain why it’s a “no”. You don’t have to convince them, you just have to show you heard them and how you reached the decision you did. When someone needs your help, and you can afford to give it, offer. When someone seeks advice, share it. Remember that if you are a manager or manager-of-mangers, you’re in a role which others aspire to be in. Be gracious about that and help people understand what you did to get there, and how they can learn from what you did. Be humble. Be a good partner. Be the kind of person that YOU would want to work for. And do it at EVERY opportunity.

The result if you don’t is easy to see at any big company. This is especially true in large reorgs, when there are often many opportunities which open simultaneously. That team that has 10 openings while there are dozens of people that haven’t decided on a role yet? That’s a good indication that the reputation of that manager isn’t drawing people in. That team that was fully staffed before the reorg and doesn’t change their charter, but loses 20% of their team…hmmm…not hard to figure out what’s going on there.
The flip side is equally easy to see. That team that is full mere hours after the reorg starts? Probably some amazing leaders there, capitalizing on the demand they’ve created and reputation they’ve built ahead of time. 

The advice here is simple to give but hard to follow. During the day to day pressures of work, conflicts, and time commitments it is easy to only focus on the team you have today. After all, those people are your highest priority right? But if you’re not giving your best in all of your other interactions, and therefore not showing up as the kind of leader you would want to follow – who will?

A footnote on “Burning Bridges”

One way that (bad) managers at big companies try to flip the demand vs. supply management economics is to create a culture which penalizes people in some way for choosing not to stay on the manager’s team. Typically this is done by insinuating some negative long-term career impact by leaving their team and “burning the bridge.” While there are genuinely ways that will hurt your career by leaving a team in the wrong way (maybe I’ll do a post on that later) in most cases this is just bluster. The only bridge being burnt is the one that takes you to the island that the bad manager is on. Burning a bridge to a place you never intend to visit again isn’t much of a threat if you ask me.

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