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Career

DRI Your Support System

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As the DRI of your career, you need to build your support system – this is so you get the support you need even as things change around you (or don’t go the way you want).

Build your support system. I firmly believe that we should get different things from different people – from our managers, from our peers, from our friends, from a coach. Part of managing up is knowing what your manager is good at and what they are not, and making sure that regardless of that, our own needs are met. Often who is our manager is out of our control and that makes people feel powerless (especially when they expect too much from their job rather than their career). But, we have power over all our other sources of support and this can buffer us against re-orgs and our manager’s fallibilities. As a manager I’ve become increasingly clear with my directs what I can meaningfully help them with, and what they could better find elsewhere (and then I help them find that).

There are many things that hold newer managers back. One is, expecting to give their directs everything they need.

I remember the – male – manager who was offended that I felt the need for a network of other women at work, thinking that he should be my main port of call for navigating a sexist workplace. This was, of course, just one of the many ways in which that guy was a terrible manager.

It’s understandable that managers want to feel useful, but it’s not a failure if the people you manage get some of their needs met elsewhere. Especially, you know, if those are needs that it isn’t realistic for the manager to meet. This mindset limits the responsibility of the manager to what they can know enough about – managing more junior people on a less challenging thing – and supports a small monoculture that doesn’t encourage people to step outside the bubble and fulfill their potential.

Whether you have a great manager or a terrible one, they are your manager for just a moment in your career. Looking outside that relationship is key for your growth and for weathering change, whether that is a reorg, their departure, promotion or you moving on.

Ideally, you have a broad support network. So let’s talk about key people, why they are important, and the impact they have.

Manager

Why this relationship is important

Your manager is usually the person with the most impact on your day to day work. They are the person who will advocate for you (or not) during performance review season, and often best placed to give you feedback and help you grow.

Determining your approach

Your manager is a human being. With good days, bad days, other responsibilities, other things on their mind. Many individuals are resistant to “managing up” like that is a completely unreasonable thing to do. This is bullshit. Managing up is your part of making that relationship successful and productive. Is it all on you? Obviously not, your manager has more power. Can you meaningfully contribute? Yes. Can this help you be happier and more effective? Absolutely.

When thinking about how to manage up, consider:

  • How does your manager like to communicate?
  • How do they tend to give feedback?
  • What are their strengths?
  • What do they avoid?
Pitfalls

The most obvious pitfall is having a bad manager, which is… not uncommon. The key thing to look for is when your manager makes you feel less capable – whether it’s through the way they allocate or review work, communicate with you, or operate more generally. That’s a strong sign that it’s time to find a way for them not to be your manager anymore.

The less obvious pitfall is that your attempts at managing up seem insincere or self-serving. If you’re manager is adequate and reasonable, being considerate and consistent will go a long way.

Top tip: Find out their communication preferences and see what you can easily accommodate.

Key question: “How can I help you?”

Skip Level Manager

Why this relationship is important

Your skip level manager will have more influence across the org, and is often a more helpful person for growth opportunities than your manager.

Determining your approach

If skip 1:1s are a normal occurrence, make sure you take advantage of them. If not, consider how you can ask for them, or take advantage of things like office hours. Make sure you prepare and use the time well.

Pitfalls

Your skip level is your manager’s manager, and as such does not have granular information and will (hopefully) avoid undermining your manager in their interactions with that manager’s directs. Avoid questions best asked to your manager, because they will most likely defer those questions to your manager. Focus on what they can best help you with (given their remit, skills, and experience).

Top tip: Focus on the bigger picture. Ask them how the team fits in with organizational or company goals, what challenges or changes they see coming.

Key question: “Do you have any advice for me?” – you’ll likely get more insight than asking for feedback.

Peers

Why these relationships are important

Your peers are the people closest to doing the kind of work you’re doing – whether you’re an IC, manager, or Director – and it’s likely you face similar challenges. If you’re lucky, your manager forms a team and you get that peer support for free. As you get more senior, you may have to make more effort to seek it out, and work for it more.

Determining your approach

This is hugely contextual, but first figure out who your peers are. If you’re the only staff engineer on a team, for example, you might need to look to another team to find someone else in a similar role. Ideally start with some kind of commonality / shared work or goal and work from that.

Pitfalls

A common theme in toxic organizations is that people – especially at higher levels – are pitted against each other. No-one wins in a zero sum competition.

Top tip: Demonstrate you are a supportive peer by sending them genuine compliments about their achievements or passing on great things you hear about them at work.

Key question: “How can we help each other?”

Mentors

Why these relationships are important

I am generally pretty skeptical about mentorship, largely viewing formal mentorship programs as a Ponzi scheme designed to distract under-indexed folk from genuine advancement. But a healthier attitude is to see mentorship as anyone you can learn from, who will take the time to help you.

We all need help sometimes, whether it’s an overview of a complicated debugging tool, a thorough code review, or talking through a problem together.

Determining your approach

Ask questions, ask for help. There are so many people out there who truly love to help, once you give them the opportunity.

Pitfalls

The two main pitfalls I see people falling into are:

  1. They ask for the wrong help.
  2. They are not respectful of someone’s time.

You will get your best mentoring from someone when you make it the best experience for them – ask them for help in a way and on a topic that they enjoy, and show that you’re a good use of their time (see: coachability).

So if someone hates pair programming but loves code review, ask them for a thorough and incremental code review. If someone hates writing that’s probably not the best way to get their feedback on something, so ask them if you can schedule a call instead.

People often look for the most experienced / senior person they can find to mentor them, but those people are often too far removed to be too helpful. A tenured VPE used to managing Directors is not the best person to mentor someone on management 101, and is unlikely to see it as a good use of their time. Someone 1-2 years ahead likely remembers more of the things you’re running into, and has more patience with them.

Top tip: When thinking about finding someone to mentor you on a topic, take the time to think about who, what, and why. See if you can match someone’s super-powers to your needs.

Key question: “Do you have any suggestions for resources that I could use to learn/improve?”

Sponsors

Why these relationships are important

A sponsor helps connect you to opportunity, and advocates for you when you’re not there. Sponsorship can be a huge accelerator for your career.

Determining your approach

Sponsorship can be hard to come by, but if you’re lucky it’s something encouraged by your org in some way. As covered in How to DRI Your Professional Development, it doesn’t always look the way you expect it to, and often it involves some extra work to prove you deserve it.

Pitfalls

A sponsor doesn’t have to do that much to meaningfully contribute to your development. They don’t have to be a good manager, or mentor, or really support you in any way beyond helping you get that opportunity. The biggest pitfall is that people miss the opportunities available to them because it doesn’t look as tidy or straightforward as they would like it to be.

Top tip: Remember that when someone sponsors you they lend you their reputation. Take that seriously.

Key question: “Why do you think this would be a good opportunity for me?”

Coach

Why this relationship is important

Coaching is one of the very few relationships any of us can have where it’s just about helping us be our best selves / live our best lives. No matter how supportive a manager, friends etc, they have a vested interest in our actions and decisions. A coach exists separately from everything else, and focuses on supporting the coachee’s agenda.

Determining your approach

A recommendation is a great way to start, and it’s worth connecting with a few people to see who you feel the best fit with. Be intentional about what you want to get out of it, and how to get the best out of the time.

Pitfalls

Most of the work of coaching happens outside of coaching. You have to be willing to really show up for it – there’s very little a coach can do if you don’t open yourself up, and don’t follow up. This is why finding someone you really connect with is key.

Top tip: Think about how you can best set yourself up for success. For instance, if you put your coaching call in the middle of a bunch of stressful / tactical meetings, you’ll probably have a harder time switching to the bigger picture. If you need more structure and accountability, you need to make sure that you and your coach create it together.

Key question: “What do I want to get out of this?”

Professional Network

Why these relationships are important

Professional networks are a huge source of opportunity, learning, and checking the filter bubble of our current work environments.

Determining your approach

Many people hate the concept of “networking”, and really, I feel you. It’s possible that I became an international speaker in large part to avoid having to initiate conversation at events. But seriously, there’s a quote about exercise – “the best exercise is the exercise you enjoy”, and I think the same applies here. If you don’t enjoy attending random events, don’t do it. If you don’t enjoy writing blog posts, why bother. What do you enjoy that helps you connect with people? Invest in that.

Pitfalls

“Networking” only when you need something. Personally, I really, really hate the people who I only hear from when they want something. Finding ways to continuously invest a small amount, and have balanced interactions is so helpful.

Top tip: Notice people’s achievements and congratulate them, or reach out whenever you find something particularly helpful. Even better, share your key takeaway. “I loved your blog post” is great. “I loved your blog post, the point about X was so helpful, as a result I made Y change with Z impact” is even better – and will make you more memorable.

Key question: “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Work BFFs

Why these relationships are important

I wrote about that in Qz. They make work more fun whilst looking out for you. What could be better?

Determining your approach

Finding and building your work BFF relationship takes time, just like any friendship. See who you really connect with, and try and spend more time with them. See what happens!

Pitfalls

Being cliquey.

Top tip: Work BFFs often emerge from good peer relationships.

Key question: “Do you want to get coffee?”

Friends

Why these relationships are important

We are so much more than our careers, and we need the people who love and ground us regardless of what we do during the work day. It’s easy to feel like we have a lot in common with the people with whom we share professional context – but that can make it hard to switch off and have fun.

Determining your approach

Entire books have been written about this topic, here are three (all links Amazon):

Pitfalls

Not making time for people. Getting discouraged and not following up.

Top tip: From MWF Seeking BFF: Ask someone to hang out 3 times before you give up on them.

Key question: “What do you like to do for fun?”

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