No **sh*l*s

February 26, 2007

Speaking of silly internet quizzes, I ran across this one recently (via Chris Clarke at Pandagon).

As the manager of a group of technical people, one of the questions struck me as particularly important:

You take credit for the accomplishments of your team – why not? They would be nowhere without you.

Quite early on in my career, I learned, quite vividly, the value of sharing credit. My very first manager, who was in all other respects absolutely insane, told me his secret: at every opportunity, when meeting and discussing status with his managers, he sang the praises of each individual contributor. Likewise, whenever there was a problem, he took the blame, and never mentioned anybody else.

His viewpoint was that even though he had been a technical person, he was now a manager, and the skills that he should be taking credit for involved building a strong and productive team. Admittedly, he actually did that really well, finding good people and finding tasks and responsibilities that each person could excel at. By promoting each of his individual contributors as superstars, he both built a lot of goodwill in his employees, and was able to look really good to his managers. Sure, he could have taken all the credit for the group’s many successes to himself, but instead, the CTO and the CEO of this reasonably large company knew each of our names, and called us “Ilya’s Brain Trust”. We looked really good technically, and he became the go-to guy for the CTO. (Incidentally giving us even more chances to shine.)

Fast forward to a couple of years and one acquisition later, and he’d left the company. His replacement was the opposite: hoarding credit, and actively working to keep himself in between us and senior management. Being young and naive, I didn’t actually recognize the strategems and tricks he was using to get the credit, but I can look back now and say, “What an asshole!” The team dissolved itself inside of a year.

When it came my turn to start managing staff, I always took Ilya’s approach: touting and evangelizing the skills of my employees. If I did have a problematic employee, I worked at trying to find their niche, e.g. I struggled for quite some time with an engineer who wrote slow, buggy code, until I found that he had excellent organizational skills. He became my internal program manager, and impressed a lot of people. I didn’t take credit for his spreadsheets: instead I took credit for having turned a liability into an asset.

Which is the more important skill for a manager: preparing spreadsheets, or preparing people?

(p.s. I thought about calling this post: ** ********, but opted for just the random placement of the stars, instead.)

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