I could never be a manager because…

I’ve written about this subject before, but it’s a common topic that never really goes away. As someone who started technical and moved into management, who keeps close to friends and colleagues who stayed technical, I often hear the line: “I could never be a manager, because…”.

About a year go, our group went through some difficult changes and we had to let some people go — a substantial percentage of our project team lost their jobs. I traveled to a remote office and laid off several highly qualified engineers in one of the toughest days of my career, and then returned to corporate headquarters and watched all my peers do the same thing.

Commiserating with colleagues (and ex-colleagues) after the fact, I heard someone tell a story of a friend who had abandoned his role as a manager rather than have to tell someone they had lost their job.  At the time I just nodded, but the story has come back to me over and over in the year since. And while I would not begrudge anyone a personal choice like that, I know I would never make it.

We all know corporate life has its struggles. There are difficult times, there are ugly situations. As a front-line manager, you are the face of the corporation to your team. Sometimes that means telling someone something they don’t want to hear. And nobody likes that, nobody thinks, “Oh, good, I get to pull Bob into a room today and ruin his day (or week, or month).”  It sucks.

But here’s the thing, you know what else sucks? Watching another manager bungle that serious responsibility. Or, most relevant to my point, watching it all go down and wondering if things might have been different if you had been involved.

I’m not saying it’s always preferable to watch the sausage be made. Sometimes you have to swallow some pretty bitter pills.  Sometimes you’re the face of decisions you would never make, and it’s challenging and stressful in ways that not much else in our professional lives is.

But I take seriously the connections I build with my teammates.  If someone’s going to defend their place in the organization in the face of budget constraints, I want it to be me. If someone’s going to be debating the merits and drawbacks of various organizational layouts that impact my team, I want to be there. If someone’s going to have an unpleasant conversation with them, I want it to be me. I want to hear their raw first reaction; I want to be the trusted face they turn to as they try to understand it. I don’t want to pawn that responsibility off on someone else.

I’m a manager because when it comes down to it, I think I do an important job for my team, and I think my team does better when I do that job as well as I can. Sometimes that means telling someone their hard work has paid off and they’re getting a promotion.  Sometimes, it’s nowhere near as fun. But in both cases, doing it well is important.