Manager Math

This is a reprint of my article Manager Math on LinkedIn.

I delight in the privilege of leading teams of some of the top software engineers in the world. As an old school geek, I starting coding in 1984 at the age of twelve. I’m a tech enthusiast and have been writing software ever since. What lead me away from the terminal was the opportunity to multiply the contribution of software engineers that are more talented at the terminal than I ever was.

Yay for Software Engineering mangers! But math is still hard, perhaps in some ways harder, when you’re a manager. At a previous company, as an EM, I received a budget to determine equity, performance, and promotion increases. Hint: the number of the budget wasn’t .

No matter if the fiscal year was a boon or bust for the company, the budget number I got was always finite and decisions about equity increases, raises, and promotions are always dynamic and relative.

In other words, Manager Math deals with the scarcity of positions, talent, and finances. It guarantees that decisions you make are going to disappoint team members you care about, team members you are committed to seeing succeed. It’s part of the gig.

For example, a good performer didn’t get a hoped-for promotion or you had to tell a team member that out of 4 capable candidates for a single opening, they were not the one that you chose to move into the new role. Manager Math is difficult and can feel impossible sometimes.

My advice: Own your decisions, be direct and transparent with your team members. They deserve nothing less than absolute and total respect. They should hear disappointing news from you face to face, not via Slack, email, or a broad announcement. Look them in the eye and be their leader.

Leading people through change is both difficult and one of the primary roles of an organizational leader. While, coaching through team member disappointment is certainly a textbook coaching opportunity for organizational leaders, it can become more difficult if and when disappointed team members chose to not respond as well as they might and thus potentially get in way of their own success after a moment of disappointment. 

We’ve all had talented colleagues receive promotions when we did not or visa versa. It can take a minute to get to a place where we realize and believe that “yes” to someone else is not necessarily “no” to us. A team member’s disappointment with our decision is a moment of empathy, if not sympathy, for leaders.

Perhaps, this HBR article that precipitated this reflection on Manager Math will be helpful to your team members.