Melissa and Johnathan are both best-selling authors, leadership professionals and co-founders of Raw Signal Group. Presently, Melissa and Johnathan are focusing on making work better by helping leaders understand their roles and teaching them how to build the skills they need to do their best work.
Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn more about how Melissa and Johnathan help people build purposeful careers by unlocking what’s important to them and adding resources to their tool belts.
1 How did you both get interested in management?
Melissa: Johnathan and I came from 20-year careers in technology, and we were both promoted at similar times. We worked at Mozilla in the early days of Firefox and we both started as individual contributors. As our organization grew, our teams grew, and we were thrown in the deep end and told to figure it out which is common in technology organizations. At the time we thought it was because of how fast Mozilla and the web were growing but it may have just been situational.
Johnathan: Almost every organization that is growing quickly is promoting from the field and giving people management titles based on their competence. If you’re a good engineer, and you don’t seem to be a sociopath you will end up managing a team of engineers, but you may not necessarily be given the skills to do a great job. I think for both of us we had the perception that we would figure it out and it then got to the point where we were running executive roles in fast-growing startups and we realized that everything was entirely learnable.
2 What do you tell people who don’t see the value in learning as you go?
Melissa: The most valuable thing we can do is teach you something on a Tuesday and have you apply it on a Wednesday. If you realize that it works, you’ll come back hungry and eager to do more. That way we’re demonstrating our credibility in a practical way.
Johnathan: There’s a culture around just being able to go learn something and dropping it if it doesn’t work out and trying something new. There’s an openness to learning new ideas so they just have to figure out that we’re credible and were bringing useful tools to the conversation. It’s all about having conversations and problem solving.
3 What were some mistakes that each one of you made early on in your career?
Melissa: I found it really uncomfortable to be a boss early in my management career. The first time I managed somebody who was more senior than me in career experience and age, I immediately told them that nothing was going to change. So, in terms of things I got wrong early on, I would say pretending that the power dynamic didn’t exist was a big mistake.
Johnathan: I didn’t have any really horrendous management experiences. I had five or six managers before I got my first management gig and they were all really apathetic, they didn’t really take management seriously. I remember telling myself that I was going to be a much better manager because I was really going to care and show up for my people in a way that my managers didn’t do for me and I did, I provided great feedback and had long one on ones, and provided lots of opportunity for growth. I was so focused on the relationship and them having the experience of a caring and involved boss, that I’d lost the plot on effectiveness for my team. It was hard for me to learn how to step back into holding those people accountable, and not worrying that I was going to jeopardize the relationships that I had been building. It was easy for me to spot that as a mistake.
4 How did you both turn those experiences around?
Johnathan: I started to really internalize it and realized that I was being paid to do a job. It probably wasn’t until I was a director that I realized that I had a bunch of people on payroll that I was responsible for and we were all there to do a job. I started to be involved in directors’ meetings and determine what my team was committed to and how we could deliver it. I realized that I had an obligation to the organization, and I was being paid to get stuff done. I then started writing goals that advanced the organization’s goals instead of just writing down what my team was doing and calling those my goals, it didn’t hurt my relationships with people because it gave them a north star
Melissa: I think the mistakes that you make are being made because you’re trying something new for the first time, so you have the opportunity to screw up and adjust accordingly the next time around. The challenge of going from being in a peer-to-peer relationship to being in a boss dynamic is challenging for a lot of leaders. When I walked into roles where I was hiring, or where I had peers who were coming into a management relationship with me, I worked on being really clear by laying out all the expectations and explaining how the dynamic had shifted.
5 Why do you think people have a distaste for management in technical organizations?
Johnathan: Many people remember experiences that involve bad management even if they’ve had a great boss because the bad experience stands out. Nobody goes to school for management, they go to school for whatever their individual discipline was, and we don’t equip them with the proper tools when we elevate them into management and then we act surprised when they’re incompetent.
Melissa: I think in terms of why specifically tech doesn’t value management or historically has had a hard time valuing management is because of how we write our stories around how tech organizations come up or how startups are built. There isn’t a lot of priority on collaboration or management. If you think about how tech organizations grow early on, a lot happens with four people around a table and there isn’t a lot of management. As the organization scales and the wheels start coming off, we don’t attribute that to management failures but instead talk about it as if it’s a byproduct of success, but I think it’s because management is missing from a lot of how we tell our startup stories.
6 How do you define servant leadership? Do you believe in it?
Johnathan:: If you want to dive into it, it comes from an essay from the 70s by Robert Greenleaf where the leader is a servant and it’s fine, and a good thing. I think Melissa and I would both agree that the leaders should understand their role to be at least partly about helping their people thrive. It’s not about lording power over them, it’s about creating a space where they can be excellent. A lot of the people who use servant leader as a self-describing phrase, or as a way to give away power have not done the work. Servants don’t fire people and they don’t say you’re not getting a raise. A lot of people who take that phrase on for themselves are using it as a way to get out of the awkward parts of management.
Melissa: I think for a lot of leaders the idea of servant leadership comes from a really beautiful place and they are trying to react to a set of things. But when you look at it in practice there is often a massive gap in terms of whether folks are actually managing or if they are just standing on the sidelines.
7 How do you make sure the lines aren’t blurred between management to peer vs peer-to peer relationships?
Melissa: It matters a lot in tech because we have such blurry lines between when we’re in a work context and when we’re socializing like when you leave the office and everybody’s grabbing a drink. Are you my boss at that moment or are you my peer? Is it ok if I have a third drink and I say something foolish? Where I would prefer that if you’re in a management role, just recognize that the boss hat does not come off.
8 It’s important to first understand how you have to communicate as a manager or CEO, correct?
Johnathan: I think any manager at any level of seniority would be better at their job if they started by asking how they were doing. What is it when I come into a room? What is it when I ask a question, and what is it when I send an email? From there you can determine how to adjust the conversation.
Melissa: We also talk to leaders about this idea that there’s a trifecta of needs that we’re always trying to balance which is who am I, what does my team need for me as a leader, who am I as a leader, and what does the organization need from me as a leader? Sometimes, those elements are perfectly aligned and sometimes they are way out of step and for a lot of leaders figuring out how to manage that triangle of needs can be really helpful.
9 Do you have any resources, tips, or words of wisdom for leaders who are looking to get better at their craft?
Melissa: For a lot of leaders there is a muscle that’s underworked and that’s determining if you as a manager are physically seeing the people that are across the management muscle. For most organizations it’s essential for success and oftentimes leaders aren’t seeing people that are far from them, they aren’t meeting with them and they are only focused on connecting with their own team which impacts the connection between you as a leader with other leaders within the organization. Now is a great time to go reinvest in building those muscles.
Johnathan: It’s not just because it’s nice to know what other people are working on but because it’s very hard to prioritize your own teams’ goals if you don’t know how it connects to other pieces. We know how hard it is to do right now but it’s something that only you can control, and your team can’t do it for you. You can’t delegate it to someone else because you’re in different meetings and you need to nurture those connections.