Like many startups, Mark43 has the privilege of retaining a committed, intelligent workforce with a deep understanding of our product and mission. When Mark43 was much smaller, this workforce was able to function as a collective unit making completely collaborative decisions with an effectively flat communications hierarchy. As we’ve grown into a larger organization, it’s often not feasible to have everyone (physically and metaphorically) in the same room.
Countless startups have tried to retain this horizontal hierarchy model and failed, ignoring the obvious truth: as they grow and their workforce matures, so too must roles adapt. Mark43 realized early on that open communication was something our employees treasured, and that we wanted to maintain that startup-level communication even as we scaled. In order to do this while facilitating faster decision-making cycles and employee growth, we needed managers in place to assume these tasks and keep our teams running smoothly.
This is a really important task as organizations grow. It’s easy to think of people management as important for employees, but too often organizations forget to tie people management back to the customer. Put simply, better managers lead to better, stronger teams that get work done faster. As your team’s inter and intra-communication and morale improve, their ability to do work increases logarithmically. In the startup stage, developing and sustaining teams that can grow as the work multiplies is life or death.
For example, when we think about how to release code on a consistent, fast cycle, or develop standards and processes for deploying our product with an agency, we rely on managers to communicate from leadership to their teams about expectations, metrics, and deliverables. Likewise, we rely on managers to communicate from their teams to leadership about the “on-ground” situation so that leadership can take that information and steer the organization towards delivering a superior product while better meeting the needs of clients. In this way, successful people managers act as a vital clearinghouse for the organization.
Delivering Customer Value Through Better People Management
It’s one thing to tell someone that they’re now a manager, it’s another thing entirely to prepare them for the role and make it clear what they need to do. When employees are promoted into roles that they’re not ready for, they often partly default to the activities of roles lower on the ladder to fill their capacity, doing both roles partway and neither role fully (or well).
This is particularly true when employees with little preparation shift from individual contributor (IC) to manager roles. Because the concept of being a manager can seem foreign and includes a bevy of new responsibilities that differ dramatically in scope, context, and clarity, new managers are often lost. When this happens, not only are teams missing a manager, but they’re also missing out on that employee’s capacity as a full-time IC.
Put another way, when you push managers into roles before they’re ready and without clear expectations, you run the risk of virtually doubling the capacity loss than if you had simply not filled the manager role at all.
One of the more successful key changes we’ve made at Mark43 is to outline extremely clear and detailed expectations of our managers as those skills apply generically across all our roles. We did this via an extremely detailed “People Manager Rubric” which is now in effect for every people manager across our organization, including our executive team.
The purpose of this rubric was twofold. First, to show our managers that we expect the same baseline leadership skills (albeit, at different levels) of all of them, regardless of department or level. If you’re a first-time engineering manager, we want you to be able to resolve conflicts on your team using exactly the same standards in which we would expect a director on our Growth team to do so, even if your experience with doing so may be less.
Second, we know that short, open-ended and quote-unquote inspirational language leads to confusion, unequal standards, and ineffective implementation. For example, instead of saying that we “want managers to coach their teams to be the best they can be,” our rubric explicitly breaks down “coaching and feedback” into three separate categories with detailed language on our expectations for each.
We were also able to ensure the rubric applies to all our managers by keeping the language generic but targeted. We refrain from using language and metrics that would only apply to specific departments, and we also refrain from listing any numbered metrics. For example, instead of saying managers “need to identify 90% of team issues before they become full-blown conflicts” to reach above expectations on the rubric, we say they need to “be able to identify most team issues before they become full-blown conflicts.” We’re clear that as a part of conflict resolution we expect managers to proactively identify team issues, but we’re not so prescriptive that managers and leadership focus on calculating meaninglessly specific metrics of success at the expense of success itself.
As we completed the document, we thought carefully about how we wanted to define the range of our expectations. We decided to encapsulate the entire range of management performance. We started with what would qualify as a truly exceptional leader and established metrics all the way down to what would amount to a catastrophic management failure, so that our managers could determine their performance accurately and with the right amount of context. It also leaves a wide range between where we need managers to be and where we want them to be in each category, so that even our most exceptional and experienced managers will always have something to work toward. And conversely, so that there’s a clear distinction between a performance that has room for growth versus a performance that requires immediate intervention.
Once we had the rubric, we had to decide on how we wanted to release it. The trick is to frame the rubric as a starting point, not an end. This document is the basis by which we expect 1:1 conversations to be framed, manager performance reviews administered, and leadership training developed. Perhaps the worst thing to do would be to throw this rubric into your organization without additional support and communication.
First, we released the rubric to managers and had them review and assess themselves over the span of a few weeks, and then discuss with their manager. This gave them the space to digest the document fully and determine what, if any, changes they might want to make to their behavior. It also gave them the opportunity to provide feedback on sections they felt were confusing or unfair before it became fully public.
After a few months of letting managers get comfortable with the document, we released it publicly to the organization as an optional part of our typical performance review process. For this initial cycle, only the recipient of the feedback would be able to view their performance and not the recipient’s manager.
Framing the initial performance review this way allowed for managers to get an honest sense of how their teams viewed their performance and the time to recalibrate and make adjustments to their managerial style without the fear that an as yet untested rubric would be held over their head as a reason for a denial of a raise, bonus, or promotion. We also made it clear that, barring any hiccups, the rubric will be an official part of the performance review for managers in future cycles. In the future, we’ll also use official feedback on our managers to get a sense of where our managers collectively are strong overall and where we as an organization need to focus our training efforts.
Inevitably, some of our managers were intimidated by the size and complexity of the rubric. But there’s immense value in laying out the exact expectations of our managers. Because we were confident that the rubric is an accurate representation of our expectations, we knew that when managers said they were intimidated by the document, the truth is that they were intimidated by the role of being a manager.
Plenty of excellent managers are often intimidated by parts of their job. With the rubric, managers being able to put a name to a face means that they’re able to hone in on specific parts of their work they need to improve on instead of the nebulous concept of “people management.” Stronger management means efficient teams, a better product, and happier customers.