You don't need to perfect to be a good manager

4 min read

The first year or two after transitioning into management can be incredibly difficult.  Most new managers get promoted after they excel in an individual contributor role.  But once you become a manager, it becomes clear that none of the skills and behaviors that helped you excel in your previous role will help you in your new one.

To ramp up the difficulty even more, the criteria for whether or not you’re succeeding suddenly change once you become a manager.  In your previous role, you could be successful even if your team wasn’t.  As a manager, you’re suddenly managed on the quality of work of your entire team.

If you were lucky, you had some time to apprentice under a successful manager, and picked up some lessons.  If you weren’t, you’re trying to cobble together lessons from books, blog posts, and other managers to make it work.

Either way, it quickly becomes obvious that there’s a steep learning curve ahead.  Once you get to this point, I think there are two paths you can take:

  • You can try to get everything right off the bat, and be “perfect”
  • You can accept that you aren’t going to be the best manager immediately, and focus on learning as fast as you can

I made the mistake of taking the first route when I first became a manager.  I had been an an engineer before I became a manager.  As engineers, we’re conditioned to understand that becoming an excellent engineer takes time - it’s hard to architect amazing systems when you’re just a couple of years in.

But it wasn’t clear to be at the time that the same thing is true of management.  Most books you read on management talk about what it means to be a good manager, but very few talk about how long of a road it will be to get there.

Thus, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to follow all of the advice you read and be “perfect” to succeed.  If you’ve read more than a couple of management books, you know that there are a seemingly endless list of things you need to do to be a “good” manager.  You have to do everything from set the vision to plan roadmaps to coach employees.

Thinking that you have to start doing all of these things at once can make the job of manager overwhelming.  When we’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to get into reactive mode, and jump from crisis to crisis.

I fell into this trap for a while.  I was doing the things that a manager should be doing (1:1s, performance reviews, roadmaps, etc), but I wasn’t getting the right results.  The output of the team was low, and we weren’t aligning on goals.  I was stuck, and didn’t know how to get better as a manager.  I thought I was doing all of the things I was supposed to.

Over time, I realized that this was because I was doing too much.  I realized that trying to be a perfect manager had led me to follow a todo list without actually considering the core of the role, and the impact I wanted to have.

I realized that by doing less, I could be intentional about what skills I wanted to build over time.  Instead of being perfect in every area, I could accept that I wasn’t going to be great in some areas for a while, and progressively build my abilities in them over time.

For example, 6 months ago, I wasn’t great at setting OKRs.  I set a 3-month goal to get better at setting OKRs, which led to me getting much better in that area.  In the past few months, I got feedback that I wasn’t doing well at facilitation, and have been able to focus on improving my skills there.

The only way to do this was to accept that there are things that I’m doing poorly as a manager, and seek out feedback on what those areas were.  It’s possible to improve as an individual contributor without feedback (although it’s very hard).  As a manager, your job is to get people working together effectively towards a goal.  Without feedback, it’s impossible to know your impact on those people.  

Feedback is the best tool you have to improve as a manager.  It’s only through accepting that you’re not doing everything perfectly that you can set the stage to receive this feedback and grow.

I think the most important thing any manager can do is recognize that getting good at management will be a long road.  Continuously getting feedback, learning to identify areas of growth, and improving a couple of areas every few months will work much better than trying to get everything correct right off the bat.

Vikas Paruchuri

I’m Vikas, a developer based in Oakland. I'm a lifelong learner currently diving deep into AI. I've started an education company, won ML competitions, and served as a US diplomat.