Review time is almost over. Maybe you got promoted. Maybe your head is filled with thoughts of making it to the big time—calling the shots, getting paid, and having everyone hang on your every word. For entry and independent ICs, that means being a senior or principal engineer (manager or architect). For senior ICs and leads, that means being a principal or partner engineer. For principal and partner ICs and managers, it means being a vice president (VP) or technical fellow (TF).
From the time we are young, western society drowns us with images and icons of successful, powerful, and connected executives controlling their enterprises and living the good life. You grow up wanting that life for yourself—the life you see in movies and media. Your families groom you for that life—telling you to study, sending you to good schools, and encouraging you to be ambitious. Get a grip. Life isn’t a movie.
There are great things about being in charge and crappy things about being in charge. Before you go chasing some fantasy, you should know the pitfalls as well as the perks. You should be ready and willing to deal with the crud in order to taste the cream.
It’s a question of time
As you increase your scope of influence as an organizational or technical leader, there are many changes. However, there’s one dynamic that trumps all the others—the time it takes for your decisions to make an impact grows longer. This is a subtle, yet critical point.
§ When you are a college hire, your manager tells you to do something and you do it. The time between articulating what needs to happen and having that happen is usually measured in hours or days.
§ When you are a lead telling your reports to complete a project, the time between articulating what needs to happen and having that happen is measured in days or weeks.
§ When you are a discipline manager delegating work to leads, the time expected for results increases to weeks or months.
§ By the time you are a VP or TF, the time between making any substantial change in direction and seeing the result is six months to three years.
There is nothing you can do about this slowing of sway. Even flattening an organization doesn’t help because communication is so imperfect. The more people you influence, the more people who must understand your intent and the longer it takes for everyone to comprehend it and execute it.
The best you can do is state your direction, and then state it again and again—in new ways and through feedback on progress. Remember, most people hold tight to the status quo—you have to continuously nudge folks and sometimes shove and drag them.
The future’s so bright
Lengthening the time between decision and effect impacts almost every aspect of leadership. The broader your scope gets, the further out you need to look.
This means discipline managers and architects need to focus on issues coming next month, not next week. Then they need to direct their teams and remind them several times in advance of the change. Discipline managers who focus on controlling day-to-day issues are called “micromanagers,” also known as ineffective, limited, and despised future failures.
For a VP or TF, telling people about what’s coming next week is useless. Executives need to be focused on next year at a minimum, while providing feedback and small adjustments to this year.
By moving up, you trade fast results for broad impact. You can still get small things done quickly, but you aren’t paid to do small things—you are paid for big impact, and that takes time.
This brings us to accountability. If an engineering lead makes a bad decision, the fallout will typically hit within a few weeks. The feedback and correction are quick. If an executive makes a bad decision, it may not have repercussions for years. Those intervening years slow feedback and weaken accountability.
Personally, I like the sweet spot of a discipline manager or architect. Your decisions show results within a few months—fast enough to adjust and learn, yet you still can accomplish great things. In contrast, executives can get away with horrible mistakes for years before being held responsible, assuming they are still in the same division.
Of course, you need to find your own sweet spot. If you want instant gratification, you should probably not venture higher than the senior IC or lead role. If you want to help dictate corporate strategy and influence thousands—and you don’t mind playing politics and waiting years for results—being a VP or TF might suit you well.
Insects don’t have politics
Why do VPs and TFs, as well as GMs and directors, get caught up in politics? Because when decisions are widely separated from results, the right decisions become a matter of opinion. When decisions are a matter of opinion, politics play a significant role. This dynamic is reduced at an engineering company, like Microsoft®, since many executives are former engineers and insist upon the support of fact, data, and logic. However, the further you get from actual engineering, the more the door opens to personalities, gamesmanship, and alliances.
“But what about history—you know, case studies and best practices?” The applicability of the past to the unique situation in the present is subjective. There are always exceptions and counterexamples. If you are going to be a successful executive, you need to learn to play politics. You must know who trusts whom, who influences whom, who has what agenda, who owes whom favors, who is likely to support or oppose you and why, and what are the hot button issues for the key stakeholders.
It’s politics, plain and simple. It appears in every company and government once you get to a certain level of abstraction, where nothing is definitive.
Even worse than politics, delayed accountability can create opportunities for corporate psychopaths—pathological liars with little empathy or conscience. In chapter 8 of their book “Snakes In Suits,” Drs. Babiak and Hare claim in working with almost 200 high-potential executives they found about 3.5% of fit the profile of a psychopath (around 1 in 30). That’s significantly higher than the 1% incidence of psychopathy they found in the general public.
Make it so
Of course, making the big time has plenty of advantages. In addition to the pay, prestige, and perks, you gain enormous influence. Your vision becomes the entire organization’s vision—all the more reason to create, articulate, and drive a clear direction. However, even the powerful advantage of influence has its drawbacks.
As a leader, anything you say—no matter how slight—will be taken as direction. Discipline managers soon realize this when they step into their roles. The most minor opinion becomes gospel. It’s like a macro version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—you can’t observe a discussion without impacting its dynamic.
Unintended influence becomes a bigger problem as your influence grows. An executive’s casual comment often results in person-months of effort. You must be very careful about what you say, when you say it, and to whom you say it. Ideally, you should say the minimum needed in order to guide those around you in the right direction.
Prefacing your words with “This is just my offhand opinion” or “As an ordinary customer, I think …” doesn’t help. People still take everything you say seriously. There is no cure—people take things out of context and like to please leaders. All you can do is say what you mean and mean what you say. Otherwise, close your mouth.
If they are supposed to focus on a year out and not talk about much else, how do executives spend their time?
- The bulk of time is spent providing feedback, resolving issues, and directing the work in progress associated with reaching their vision. They conceive a vision and then drive it, and drive it, and drive it. Remember, people hold tight to the past.
- The next large chunk of time is spent building and sustaining relationships with partners, peers, superiors, and the staff. Relationships make everything else possible.
- Of course, any plan a year out will need to adjust to changing conditions. Re-planning is a regular activity, as is preparing for the next big push.
- Finally, there’s the minutia associated with any large role—budgets, resources, busy work, random requests from superiors, events, and personal projects.
It’s alright for you
Now you should have a balanced view of making the big time. Everyone has his or her own limits and views of success. The key is to know yourself and understand what makes you feel happy and fulfilled.
As I talked about in “Level up,” being ambitious means doing whatever it takes to achieve your goals. The higher you want to go, the more of your personal life you will likely sacrifice to get there. It’s a choice you should make before you the choice is made for you.
I know many executives, and I’m quite thankful they’ve made the choice to devote themselves to the leadership of our company. I know many senior ICs and leads, who love the jobs they do so well and feel no need to advance further. Now you know both sides. Strive to make the right choice for you.