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Lara Hogan is coaching the next generation of leaders. These aren’t babysitters or overlords. These are the people who will support humans to get the work done.
What is a manager?
Lara has some great ideas on how to reshape the idea of a manager. “If you’re responsible for supporting other humans, you’re probably a manager, even if you don’t have the title of manager.”
Being a manager is not about forcing other people to get their work done, but about making sure they are in a healthy place to thrive.
Yet, most managers don’t get any training on how to do this. Lara said, “It’s just like you’re thrown in the deep end of this set of skills that no one’s prepared you for, and there’s very little training typically within companies around becoming a manager.”
Vital skills for digital managers
Lara said there are three core functions that managers in the digital age should be able to perform: mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring.
Mentoring is helping individuals get their work done and giving suggestions when someone is feeling stuck.
Coaching is more hands-off and facilitates more introspection in the individual.
Sponsoring is about taking some amount of responsibility for the overall success of that person.
You need a different blend of all three of those functions depending on who it is you are working with, where the team is in their projects, and the individual needs of people on the team.
Meetings and communication
Another core skill for leaders in the digital age is learning how to handle digital meetings.
Lara sees a big difference between leading a meeting and facilitating a meeting. The person leading the meeting is responsible for the outcomes and has a lot of vested interest. However, a facilitator can be more detached and focus on how the actual meeting is going and make sure people have the right space and access to speak up.
Leaders also need to be able to discern what medium is best to communicate in. Video, audio, and text all have advantages and disadvantages and are useful at different times. Great managers are able to pick the right one for the right situation.
Hi, I am so excited to chat about all the things we have in store today. I’m great, thank you Neil.
Not nearly as excited as me. No, it’s going to be fun. I’ve been following your work for a long time. You’re a great thinker and one of the leading voices for sure on what management is going to look like in the future, and looks like right now, too. So, I’m excited to get into that. But I’ve always wondered if you’re a real human or a machine. So, I gotta ask you a captcha question to test this out. So, your question is, what is an assumption that most people make about you?
That’s a great question. I love this idea of captcha questions because they often talk about being human. Remember managers you’re working with a bunch of humans. I think it is good to remember that we’re all humans. I think that my closest answer to this is, so actually I play a lot of video games. I play a lot of Destiny too, specifically. So, I feel like people in that world have an assumption that I just do that and I’m just like the nerdiest nerd and just do that all day. It’s true, I do that a lot of the time. But powerlifting is the thing that they would not often guess that I also do. And so, vice versa, in the powerlifting world, they don’t often guess that I am also a huge nerd and play lots of video games. So, those are two assumptions, not one.
That’s great. I love that. Actually, the podcast guests won’t know this, but I grew my hair out in COVID, and I realized that’s actually good for me. I’m a little bit offbeat in some of the things I think, but not that much. So, if you see me just with my regular haircut, then people just assume, ‘Oh, I know what you think.’ But now I’m like, ‘No, I’m weird to start with’, and then I come in and say, ‘I’m actually not that weird.’
It’s a trap. Totally.
Yeah, it is a trap. Cool. All right, you’re certified. You’re human. That’s good. Oh, okay. Well, good. Well, we’ll start off. Just give us a little bit of introduction about yourself, who you are and what you’ve been up to.
Yeah. So, these days, I coach leaders and managers of all kinds, mostly at tech companies, but lots, you know, not at tech companies, too. And I train managers to help give them the foundation that they’ve usually not been offered by their companies, whether that’s helping them give better feedback, or know how to set expectations or just have a space to process their workplace challenges. Before I was doing this, I was the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter. And before that, I was an Engineering Director at Etsy. And before that various and sundry startup, engineering, entry management jobs. But yeah, this is easily the best job I’ve ever had, being able to talk with managers of all kinds at all these different kinds of companies around the globe. It’s been a real honor to support folks through this very tumultuous time especially.
Yeah, absolutely. At what point in your career did you realize that you were actually good at this part of management, and more than your peers. You are looking around and are like, ‘Oh, everyone’s struggling with this.’ You’re not perfect, but you’re like, I think I have something to say in this. Was there a lightbulb moment for you that went off then?
Yeah, it’s funny. You know I talked to a lot of managers who were either deputized with management responsibilities and didn’t ask for them, or were really out of their depth, like they want to be really good at it, but they don’t have that internal feeling of like, hey, I know how to do a good job at this. I mean, there’s so little out there in terms of like goalposts to look for, like, I’m doing an effective job. For me, it wasn’t the effective job part that clicked. It was the ‘I want to do this part’ that clicked. I’m one of the weirdos that went into management because I thought, ‘this could be my work’, and really enjoyed it, almost from the start.
I had my first direct report, and I really did not work well together. That was an important first experience of realizing like, ‘Oh, no, this person does not operate like I do.’ I’m managing this person like I would want to be managed, and really quickly realized, ‘Oh, that’s not it.’ We’re all different it turns out and need different things. And very early on, there was one thing that happened where he gave me the silent treatment, and I could not wrap my head around it. I was just like, ‘What child is this’, but then I realized, ‘Oh, wait, everybody has different responses to friction, responses to frustration. What I’m giving him is not what he needs, and what he needs is something very different.’ So, for me, even though it was really hard, there was still something in there that opened my eyes to what management could be and where I needed to grow, and even though it was tough, it was still really fulfilling, I would say.
Yeah, well, that’s great. Because we’re in a time when it seems like the skill of actually leading other humans, we’re suddenly realizing, oh, we don’t know how to do that very well. We need to learn that. And so, it’s great to have your voice in there. I’m going to jump straight into what you just talked about, this tumultuous time that we’re in. Obviously the last two years we have faced a ton of changes, unexpected changes, but now it’s like two years, and can we really say it’s unexpected anymore? Because we’re in the middle of it, we kind of know what’s going on. So, I want to hear from your viewpoint, what would have been some of the things you feel people, specifically managers, have struggled with the most as they sink deeper into this world of digital work?
There are so many things I think we could talk about here. The ones that are really top of mind for me are, it was interesting to hear you say, the past couple of years, and like totally, the pandemic has thrown our processes for operating really on the side. But even before then, at least, in 2016, between Brexit and the Trump election, it threw a lot of managers into a fix. They were all of a sudden having one-on-ones that were filled with grief and filled with fear of change and filled with uncertainty. Like almost very quickly after the election, after Trump became president, immigration was completely turned on its head, and managers were all of a sudden needing to wrestle with things like, ‘I don’t know how to support my teammates who are here on visas, I don’t know how to help them understand what the company is doing on their behalf, and what I can do on their behalf, and how to hold space for them in this awful time, but also this time full of grief.’
And I think it’s really extended, at least in my work, it’s extended since then. The past two years are a very specific aspect of it. I first wrote this blog post ‘Managering in Terrible Times’, in those early days, like five, six years ago. And a lot of those things still hold true today. Our teammates are like, ‘We are dealing with uncertainty, frustration, lack of control, lack of a sense of belonging. You know, all of these things are coming up for our reports, and also for us.’ So, probably the number one thing I’m seeing is mentors who just don’t have the tools and the frameworks to help their teammates feel more safe and secure, and help themselves get what they need, like the managers get what they need to feel safe and secure during this tumultuous time.
And do you feel people are responding to that by saying, ‘Hey, this is not what I signed up for. I just want to get my work done and leave it there.’ Or they’re saying, ‘I want to get better at this, but I don’t know how to.’ How do people respond in different ways?
Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I’m not seeing as much as ‘I didn’t sign up for this’. I think it’s because of selection bias, right? The people that I work with, the people are like, ‘I want to do this’. I’m sure they’re out there. I just don’t have insight into that. So, people that I tend to end up working with are people who are like, I want to do what’s right, and I want to support my team, but also, I need help. Like, it’s not just my teammates that are going through this. You know, for example, maybe in a one-on-one, someone shares the recent loss of a relative with me, and I want to hold space for them, I want to help, support. I don’t know what the right thing is to do or say. But also, my kids are running around in the background, and I am at the end of my rope too, and I want to be a good manager, but also, I feel like I’m unable to be right now. So, it’s that angle. It’s like, I’m struggling both to support my team and to support myself. And they’re looking not to necessarily get better at it, but they’re looking for anything to help this feel more manageable right now.
Yeah. We use that word manager a lot. I want to unpack that word, because I feel when I think about the manager that my father grew up with, in the 80s, 90s, or so, versus what you’re advocating for and talking about today, those seem like two different species of things that are out there. So, tell us how you feel that word has changed, how that expectation has changed, and how you’d like to see it change even more?
Yeah. So, what’s really bananas about this time is a lot of tech roles have really ambiguous names, titles. Like I look around at CTOs and CTO means different things to everybody too and the manager certainly does. But also lead, team lead, engineering lead, it could mean so many different things in so many different companies. And so, one thing I’m noticing is where a manager, I think historically has meant an HR role where you’re responsible for the people on your team, these days it means that but also lots of other things, really depending upon the organization. So, the way that I usually like to talk about it is in terms of your responsibility, not your title.
So, if you’re responsible for supporting other humans, you’re probably a manager, even if you don’t have the title of manager. I see tech leads be responsible for other humans. I see people who have no explicit management responsibilities be responsible for other humans, just in terms of giving career advice or feedback or making sure we have enough staffing through the holidays, like all that stuff. It’s like being responsible for other humans. Management is a good catch-all term, definitely good for SEO. Right? But I think it’s going to continue to be meaningless for a long time.
The word that I would really like to see evolve is around promotions. So, I am really against the idea of you getting a promotion to become a manager. Usually, and what I see is, you get different responsibilities. It’s not necessarily a lateral move. You definitely can get access to more power and more insight and more context. But promotion might not be it. It’s typically a different set of skills and a different set of attributes that you need to work on. So, management is going to continue to mean lots of different things, but I wish that we would talk about the transition into management differently than just promotion.
What would you say is a better way to say if you see somebody who was like, ‘I think you can lead other humans, you can be responsible for other humans as well?’ Is that just an additional responsibility or how would you phrase that?
So, I would want to make sure that whatever change in responsibility happens, we actually do say things like, ‘This is a transition, or this is an experiment, or this is a role change’, or still be explicit about the fact that something is changing here, and preferably explicit about what. Is the pay changing? Maybe. Like, let’s talk about that. But how are you being graded? How are you being assessed? What does success look like in this new version of the role that you’re in? Again, promotion can mean all those things, but also, people can become managers, and all those things can happen. And it’s probably not a promotion. It’s just like you’re thrown in the deep end of this set of skills that no one’s prepared you for, and there’s very little training typically within companies around becoming a manager. And so really, promotion is not, I don’t think it’s a good fit.
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the idea of training. I want to ask you this question. Again, thinking that the type of manager that you are trying to create with people you coach and work through, if you could put somebody through a training course, like just start them fresh, but you had to have them ready for what I’m going to call ‘a high-level team of individual performers who are just really talented and know their job well’, we need somebody to be responsible for those humans. But we’re going to put it into the future, say 2030. So, far enough into the future that you can’t really predict all the specifics, but whatever principles are there now, are still there. So, what would you want to train them on now to make sure that they’re ready for that job?
Oh, this is such a good question. So, one of the surprising things that I come across in my work training managers is that most people, like not just managers, most people, are familiar with a distinction between mentoring and coaching. So, the classical definition of mentorship is like you’re sharing advice, you’re sharing your perspective, you’re sharing things that you’ve seen work and not work. So, when I’m mentoring someone, I’m bequeathing to them my knowledge, helping them avoid pitfalls that they could have otherwise avoided.
Coaching, and again, this term gets really messed up because you think about coaches in sports and it’s kind of messy. But the traditional definition of coaching, especially when you go through coach training, you are not there to provide advice. You’re not there to provide your perspective. In fact, it’s not about you at all. It’s about this other person. And so, as a coach your job is to ask them lots of open questions and help this other person introspect, connect their own dots, find their own answers. And that distinction is really important when we’re leading very senior teams and very high performing teams because what the team needs from you is rarely your advice. What they need is time, to introspect, to connect their own dots, to problem solve on their own.
Studies have shown that mentorship doesn’t help people grow. It helps people get unblocked, for sure. And it helps people get on boarded to a team, and maybe on boarded to a role. Like mentorship is a part of their work because you do need to train people and teach people things, right. But that’s not where growth happens. Growth happens in the coaching and then sponsoring space. So, sponsoring is feeling on the hook, to help get someone to the next level by giving them visible, really impactful stretch assignments, delegating to them leadership work, and stuff like that.
And so, that skill and coaching as a skill are the two things I, at least in my work, I really try to help people level up and at least understand the distinction, but then really try to understand when to apply those two different skills and then how to do that effectively.
Do you find it difficult to wear all those hats at the same time? Or like if I have a 30-minute one-on-one meeting with somebody, should that be only coaching time, or if I squeeze in some mentoring there or I squeeze in some sponsorship, is that helping that or hurting that? How does that work?
This is such a good question. So, in one of my workshops, my mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring workshop, we actually go through pie charts. The idea is that you should have a balance between these three skills in any one-on-one. And each person you work with is going to need a different balance at different stages. So, that balance is going to evolve over time. When I think balance, I think pie chart. Like, you’re right. When someone’s on-boarded to the team, they’re going to need at least 50% of your time in mentoring mode, and a little bit in coaching mode and a little bit in sponsoring mode.
When you’ve just delegated them this big project, you’ve just sponsored them. You want to coach them. You want to give them those opportunities to actually develop their own brain wrinkles here, right? Because again, that’s where the growth happens. So, you’re going to do much more coaching. You’ve just done sponsorship that’s going to shrink down to a little pie slice. You still might do some mentorship to kind of nudge them along, or help them know who to talk to, or know when the deadline is or give them a sample presentation that they might want to copy and paste from. But yeah, that blend should continue to evolve over time. It’s going to depend on this person in front of you and your relationship with them.
Good. All right. I’m going to jump into a topic about meetings, because this is actually where I first came across some of your work, it was some of the advice you gave about meetings. What needs to be in a synchronous meeting where we’re talking at the same time? What should be there in asynchronous meetings? And I really loved the framework that you had, and I shared it with a lot of people that I know. But I want to get your take, just currently here as we’re at the start of 2022, what’s your take on digital meetings? Where are we? How could we be doing it better?
My beef right now with digital meetings is that people often conflate leading a meeting with facilitating a meeting. And a lot of meetings are happening where everybody is just kind of participating and no one’s thinking about, ‘What are we trying to get done here?’ or if someone’s thinking about that, no one’s taking up the mantle saying, ‘I’m going to help us make sure that we are accomplishing the goal of this meeting.’ When I think about the distinction between leading and facilitating, a leader of a meeting, you know, they actually have shared context. They’re invested in what the outcome of this meeting is going to be. A facilitator isn’t invested in that particular context. And kind of like mentorship and coaching, actually.
So, where mentorship is really trying to participate and give them advice, a coach, their whole job is to just help this other person succeed by letting them take the reins. A facilitator of a meeting, they’re there to make sure that everybody knows what they’re there to do, things are kept on time, we’re using the tools at our disposal to make sure that this meeting is successful, we are hitting the goals. They’re not there to toss in a few opinions. They’re not there to contribute. Because if they’re doing that, their brain can’t be spent on making sure everybody has an equitable opportunity to participate and voices are being heard, and we’re moving the group forward and calling timeouts.
So, I think it’d be really useful going forward for people to start thinking about who the good facilitators of meetings are, whether our organization can start bringing them into my spiciest, or most arduous or just like most boring meetings to help make sure that they’re successful. That way, I can use my brain as a manager or a leader in the context of the meeting and actually participate in it. Because it’s very rare to be able to do both, facilitation and leading a meeting.
I feel that tension myself a lot because a lot of the meetings I’m in, I’m leading it, I’m very invested into the outcome, I’m responsible for the outcome in a lot of ways, but I’m also trying to facilitate and step back and let everything else happen. So, when you tell me this, I think, o
‘Okay, it’s a great idea’ but how am I going to ask somebody else to give me half hour, 45 minutes of their time to come and help me with my team. How’s that going to work?
Totally. So, I would look for the people who want to grow this skill within your organization. There are people that are hungry for more opportunities to demonstrate their leadership. And I would argue that strong facilitation skills are extremely well connected to leadership skills, you know, understanding the balance and the voices in the room, setting ground rules, being directive with how we’re going to be participating here, and then switching it up when you need to be empowering to help people understand like, ‘Hey, everybody, I’m noticing things just got weird in here. Like, let’s take a timeout, like revisit, like ‘are we here’, you know, those kinds of skills are so crucial as leaders. So, I recommend finding people within your organization that are hungry, to both practice leadership skills and want an opportunity to demonstrate those leadership skills.
What do you feel is the best reason to get together in a live digital meeting? There are so many opportunities we have with asynchronous communication. It makes us realize that this time we have together when we’re both on the same call at the same time is very valuable, and you want to take care of that. So, what do you feel are the core reasons? Like, you had texts, channels, don’t put it here, just have a meeting about this. What are those situations for you?
So typically, text-based communication mediums, you’ll lose a lot of data, right? When we’re face-to-face, meaning we’re on a call but where we can also see each other, there’s so much more data about people’s body language, people’s tone, how they’re participating. When left to our own devices, our brains will fill in those gaps for us, which is why we often see text-based communication mediums turn into a tire-fire. Our brains need to have that context, so they fill it in. It’s not something we can really control. So, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, so and so is mad at me’, or like, ‘Oh, this person is like really throwing up all these roadblocks for me’, when actually, that’s your brain guessing, and it might be right, but we don’t know. So, having face-to-face calls can be really useful for getting additional data.
That said, voice also gives us some of that data. So, when we are ‘cameras off’, we can still get some information. I actually like to do some of my coaching calls voice only, because it allows people to be able to walk around and move their body in ways or like lie down on the floor. And this does not feel watched, not to feel perceived. And I think that’s also an important option that’s available to us, right? Sometimes face-to-face makes things harder for people and like being able to be present and being able to feel like they’re able to equally participate. So those are two situations, voice, and video, where it can be a lot better to get more signal, to get more data to make sure that people are able to move forward together.
Yeah. I love that distinction sometimes between the video and voice. Like we’re on a video call right now and I’m able to see your facial expressions, and you’re moving. But it’s also true that I’m trying to figure out, ‘Okay, what’s the eye contact here? Am I looking at the camera or am I looking at you?’ And so, I’m distracted by that, and thinking of other things too. And there is something powerful in that, just a telephone call or just an audio only call, that we should really respect and be able to use really well.
Totally. Now, the one additional thing I think that’s important here is I do a lot of workshops on influence and like how to get people to change their behavior, or you’re trying to enact a big change, you don’t have full power or authority to enact the change yourself, you need to get buy in, you know, use these influence skills. In that workshop, which I partnered with Paloma Medina, who’s an incredible trainer coach, all of her stuff is based on the neuroscience of how humans are at work. She taught me about three things you can do when you’re face-to-face with someone, and this totally works on video, to make sure people know that you are present, you’re listening, and you’re invested in what they’re saying. And again, it’s so critical when we’re trying to do influence work.
The first one is making sure that you are square to the camera, open body language and you’re not crossing your arms, and you’re not tipping away from the camera. One thing that people often do when they’re thinking is they move away, like move their head away, and that actually sends a bad signal to other people’s brains. Their limbic systems are like, ‘Oh, this is a threat. Something is wrong.’ So, making sure we’re intentionally staying square to the camera with an open body language is important.
Another thing to do is to make sure that you’re keeping soft eye contact. So, not hard eye contact, like we’re intensely staring at the other person, which is very weird and creepy, but soft eye contact, what Tyra Banks would call smizing, right? It’s okay to break eye contact and regain it. There’s a bunch of studies about this. You don’t have to be intensive, but there are times when people do need to keep eye contact. We’re all used to looking just under our video cameras at this stage. Like, no one’s weirded out if you’re looking slightly off center or slightly low or slightly high. Our brains are figuring it out. It’s okay. It’s obviously not as good as in person, but our brains are okay with it.
And the last one is nodding at the pace that someone is speaking. So, not intensely nodding, but just nodding very slowly at their pace or slightly slower. It helps someone understand that you are actively listening to them. You’re making sure that you’re present with them. And one little bonus one that I like to do when I’m on video calls is to make sure I’m leaning one inch towards the camera. So, if I have my body weight equally placed on all four chair legs, just making sure I’m leaning in one inch towards the camera actually feels a lot more connected for the other person. Don’t scoot all the way up to the camera. That’s intense. That’s a little creepy. But just like one inch is just enough. If you try it, you can see how different it is for the person receiving you to understand that you’re present and you’re listening.
Yeah, I love all those steps. One thing I’ve also found, just in myself, is that it’s good to show my hands sometimes, just even to prove to myself I am focused right now. Like, I’m not trying to do some other tasks on the keyboard right now. And that’s been big for me.
Yeah, absolutely. And I’m sure for you it took practice, right. That’s not a natural thing that people do. People forget. And for anybody who’s listening, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a lot of lists. There are a lot of rules that all of a sudden I have to follow.’ I recommend simply practicing it. Pick one of these things and practice it for the next week’s video calls that you have. I promise it becomes easier and more natural as you practice it. You, all of a sudden, stop remembering to do it, because you’re just doing it naturally now.
Yeah. Just that skill of being engaged on a call, I think is something we all need to put more work into. I struggle so much. If I’m in a call and I’m slightly distracted and then I know it that minute, and I’m like, ‘I’m just going to go check over here what’s going on’. It’s a tough skill to build.
And people can see it. So, I wear glasses. People can absolutely see right through even with those, right. But even just our brains notice when the light on someone’s face changes, meaning they switch over to a different window with a different color temperature. So, people even subtly pick up on the signals that you’re not engaged. So, if it’s a really important call, or you’re just trying to build rapport and build connection with the other person, keep these things in mind. Because even if they won’t necessarily say it to someone later, ‘Hey, I noticed that Lara was really engaged in the call’, their brain is noticing it and you’re building a connection that way.
Yes. Well, Lara, this has been fantastic. This is only a sliver of what you’re talking about. So, I want people to go in and see a lot of your resources. We didn’t even talk about ‘BICEPS’, which I know is one of your favorite things to talk about. So, where should people go if they want to learn more about all that?
Yeah, go to larahogan.me. I’ve got a blog there. There’s a ton of stuff on there. There’s a search bar. Hopefully you can find what you need.
And definitely sign up for the newsletter. I get a lot of value out of that. I think you posted that as well. And speaking of it, you talked about the ‘Manager Voltron’ idea, which I really liked as well and you’re part of that for me. So, I appreciate you participating in that and sharing what you’ve learned with the rest of us.
Thank you so much.
Great. Well, thanks for being on the show. We look forward to connecting with you again and continuing this journey along rebuilding work for digital work.
Thank you for having me, Neil.
Lara is an author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry. As a founder of Wherewithall, Lara and her team run workshops, roundtables, and trainings on core management skills like delivering great feedback and setting clear expectations. Before Wherewithall, Lara spent a decade growing emerging leaders as the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and an Engineering Director at Etsy. She champions management as a practice, building fast websites, and celebrating your achievements with donuts (and sometimes sushi). Her latest book, Resilient Management, is here to help those who find themselves responsible for supporting a team of people.