Chapter 4. Skill Equals Perspective
One of the most significant things you can do for your staff as a manager is to know their work—to understand what they do, how they do it, and what it means to them to be tasked with those particular demands on a daily and yearly basis.
First, and perhaps most obviously, this helps you to build rapport with your staff, but this isn’t because it means you can now chat about it over drinks at the company happy hour. Rather, it’s because understanding their work helps you respect their work. The difficulties, the constraints, the sophistication, the basic knowledge it takes to do the job.
Meet my friend Christina Wodtke.
Christina has been the GM of Social at MySpace, Principal Product Manager at LinkedIn, GM at Zynga, and publisher of revered web magazine Boxes and Arrows. She has also been involved with countless startups as a Silicon Valley veteran. She points to a lack of respect as one of the biggest mistakes a team member can make.
“I would say the one thing that I really badly want,” she says, “and I hate to say it’s rare, but it is, and it kills me that it’s rare, is genuine respect for other disciplines.”
Big companies, especially, tend to have multiple people in the same roles, and when that happens, they tend to stick together and forget to consider all the other aspects of the projects they’re working on. She says she meets a lot of people who simply don’t understand or care what that other people on their team do, or what their managers do, or what the general manager does, or what Marketing does. And Christina notes that these people who spend their time ignoring everyone else’s contributions are, ironically, the same people who most often say, “How do I get people to respect me?”
She says the key is to not only to be respectable, then, but also to respect others.
Very often, she points out, people who have similar jobs tend to stick together. “They all go to lunch together, and they all sit together, they all leave at the same time.”
This keeps them from gaining solidarity with the rest of the people on their projects—the ones doing all the other jobs necessary for successful execution.
I’ve seen this myself. A lot.
Understanding the work others do helps build chemistry, rapport, respect. As a manager, these things will change your life.
Second, understanding your team’s skills is essential when it comes to planning, work allocation, and strategic improvement. This much is obvious: if you don’t know what the people on your team do all day, you can’t possibly plan a project around them. Instead, you’ll end up making assumptions about ability levels, time considerations, and all sorts of other aspects of a project that will only lead it to a point of failure. At the very least, you should be able to identify which people can pick up where others leave off—where you have overlap.
Finally, to make yourself even more useful as a manager, you can actually gain some of those same skills. There are major benefits to overlap.
Upside of Overlap
That small teams are more effective than individuals is common knowledge. No individual can think of everything, do everything, know everything. Teams make people better. When the people on those teams share skills, they collectively have the benefit of shared interest. They read different articles, different books, go to different conferences and local events. You bring those insights back to the group and share them. You learn from each other. You change each other’s minds. You get the benefit of multiple perspectives. You get the benefit of debate.
This is great for a company. It’s great for the products you’re working on. And it’s fantastic for users because it’s not a single-minded effort that brings a product into their lives, but a collaborative, considered, deliberate effort managed by a group of people who come up with more ideas, poke holes in more arguments, anticipate more problems, and solve more issues before they get out into the world.
As a manager, your own ability to overlap skills with the people on your team means that you can get something you’re going to need a lot: extra help. Individuals—especially the stronger performers on a team—invariably become maxed-out at one time or another. Bringing your own skill to the table, you can contribute to a project directly when the team needs some extra hands. This gives you more credibility, too—it means the team can trust that you understand everyone’s work.
Likewise, anything you can do to encourage overlap among your team members will only help you in the long run. Does your company offer ongoing education benefits? Are there workshops and conferences around that would be useful for helping your team build new skills? Odds are, at least some of the people on your team already want to delve into new subjects and further their skillsets. You won’t need to convince them. Wherever you find this drive, nurture it. Figure out how to get your company to pay for these mind-expanding opportunities and make them happen for your team.
When one person needs help, others will be there.
Before we move on, let’s talk about something that probably popped into your head while reading the last section: namely, the fear that redundancy on a team makes it sound like you’re replaceable.
You are. You should be. To elaborate on this, here’s a quick snippet from Experience Required:
No matter how good you are or how well you fill a niche, or how useful you are in whatever situation comes up in a day, you are replaceable.
This should comfort you. You need to be replaceable.
If you’re absolutely perfect for one thing, you’re less perfect for a bunch of other things. It’ll be harder for you to find the perfect job. It’ll be hard to find any job. If you’re replaceable, you’re hirable. Besides that, you want to be able to move on at some point. Test out your other skills. Develop new ones. Work on a different product you care about more than this one. If you’re replaceable, a company won’t trap you into staying by throwing more and more money at you until it’s impossible for you to leave. Every job eventually turns into the wrong situation, whether because the job changes or because you do. The web industry isn’t built for lifers. It’s built for people with an endless sense of adventure. An incessant will to take on the next project. The next challenge. When that feeling strikes, you need to be able to leave. Don’t get trapped by money. Make too much cash in one place for that perfect thing you do, and your desire to get out will drive you mad.
There’s also the reality of emergencies. You’re a human being, and you’re going to experience a few of them. A health emergency. A car accident on a day full of deadlines. A death in the family. Sick kid. You name it. You need to be able to take a day off, a week, three weeks, and not spend that time worrying about what you’re not getting done. Let them get done by someone else. No UX project will ever be more important than your life.
All that said, there’s a problem with generalists, and because of it, I hope you’ll consider attempting to go beyond a basic level of skill. Here’s my case:
The hard work of professions far and wide has been distilled and reduced and simplified into how-to articles and videos and workshops that are now absurdly easy to find online. If you follow anyone in your professional circles on social media, it’s hard to even look at your phone without tripping over another “5 Ways to Do This, That, or Something Else” article.
Great. This is something the Internet is supposed to be good at—enabling people to empower themselves to learn more. And it’s doing a bang-up job.
That information, though—those insights, all that “thought leadership”—has to come from somewhere. It has to be dug up, made meaningful, turned into teachable, lasting content the rest of us can use to get moving more quickly. Your profession probably became accessible by way of the people who spent years and decades shaping it. The experts. It seems easy now because it’s been simplified, communicated, learned, and then interpreted and repeated.
Again: great. Our ability to stand on the shoulders of giants means we can more readily change careers, enhance our current skillsets, and do all kinds of other things a lot more easily than we used to.
It also means that if you were to become one of the experts, you could help move your profession forward. There’s still opportunity to improve on what you know, what you’ve learned, what’s been taught and perpetuated by the old experts. There’s always time to challenge the norms and help make your profession better.
Expertise is like bird food. Someone needs to go get it and bring it back to the others. When everyone’s a generalist, there’ s no expertise.
Because of this, I highly recommend deep-diving into some aspect of your work to find out how it can be improved—to find out how the current standards were established and see if there’s a better way. If there is a better way, try it out. If it works, talk about it. If people listen, maybe write some articles or even a book. Help the people who will come after you.
There are a couple of key reasons to do this.
First, most work is short-lived. The effects of what any one of us does in a day rarely outlast the year. But improving the profession as a whole? That leaves a mark. Few things are more rewarding than knowing you were able to contribute to potentially decades worth of effects by digging into your profession and helping to raise its proverbial bar.
Second, and arguably more important, mastering a skill means finally understanding how deep everyone else’s professions might go, as well. You can gain sympathy for what everyone else faces in their roles. Everyone thinks they know something well enough until they go headlong into it with all their might and discover just how little they knew before.
As a result of all this digging, you gain a perspective not a lot of people these days have: what it’s like to have both a breadth and a depth of knowledge.
When you can stack expertise in one area on top of a whole bunch of general knowledge in others, you become a T-shaped person. This is just what it sounds like. The horizontal top line of the “T” is a set of skills in which you have reasonable understanding and knowledge, and the vertical center line is a single skill in which you have significant depth.
This is intrinsically rewarding; although a great many people can do a great many things, few of them are great at anything until they specialize in something. It’s also extrinsically valuable; specialization in at least one subject makes you incredibly useful to your team, and later on, it makes you incredibly employable. When companies need deep knowledge, they need to have some specialists around to bring it. If you can demonstrate that you know your stuff, you can become the go-to for your subject.
Besides all that, being well-rounded means never getting to a point of greatness, never seeing what you can do at your best.
But even without all these benefits, expertise makes you useful to your team, and a manager who is as useful as another team member is a lot easier to respect than one who just manages.