First time parents of a newborn often lament that their child did not come with instructions. Is he crying because he’s hungry or in pain? She seems listless, is she sick? A simple how-to guide written in the baby’s own gooey words would be so helpful in those early days. Without such a guide, parents fumble through the first few months, guessing at the deeper meaning of every twitch and quirk, trying to discern the best way to foster their infant’s growth and development.
Starting work with a new manager can be every bit as confusing. Your new boss has their own habits and beliefs, opinions and biases, strengths and blindspots. It can take months or years to learn how to navigate this potential minefield, and just as the two of you hit your stride, he or she is replaced.
Recently, engineering managers across silicon valley have begun to address this problem by writing their own readme files — short guides to working effectively with the manager, modeled after the readme files that accompany software. As with software readme files, the manager readme shows their colleagues how to configure and operate the manager. It explicitly addresses questions that most direct reports are afraid to ask: How will I know I’m doing a good job? How can I convince them? How do they handle feedback? This adds a degree of transparency to what has long been an opaque and nerve wracking process.
While the current readme file trend is mostly limited to engineering managers, I believe it signals the early stages of a revolution in leadership development across all industries. A great manager readme goes beyond describing the manager’s approach and expectations. It alerts the reader to psychological “bugs” in the manager’s personality, their origin, and how they can be fixed or at least worked with. Such flaws were long considered weaknesses that should be hidden or denied. But the last few years have ushered in a shift toward empathy and self-awareness as key leadership traits, with companies like Slack and Hubspot weaving these values into the foundation of their cultures.
Readme files naturally build empathy in the reader by helping them see the world through another person’s eyes, just as writing the readme builds self-awareness in the manager by forcing them to unpack how they work with their team, for better and for worse. At Torch, a leadership development company that I co-founded, we’re big fans of the manager readme. Every manager is strongly encouraged to write one, and to revisit their readme at least every six months as their leadership style evolves.
Here’s mine (lightly edited for accessibility to non-Torch people):
What is this?
This is a readme file that will help you better understand me. As a co-founder of Torch, my personality and values will inevitably shape our culture, and rather than let that happen in an unconscious, insidious way, I want to be intentional about it.
- I’m a psychologist by training and by nature, so I will veer toward the personal and away from do’s and don’ts, at least to start. The most important thing to know is this: If I work closely enough with you, I will eventually try to get to know more about you and what makes you tick. I can’t not do this; I don’t know another way. You may experience this as any point along the continuum beginning with curiosity and interest, and ending with probing and invasive. I think I’m pretty good at staying on the left half of that spectrum, but if I move too far to the right, let me know — I won’t be offended. My intention is to understand and appreciate, not to analyze or dissect.
- My co-founder and I value growth and we work hard on our relationship with each other. In addition to having our own therapists, we go to co-founder therapy so we can work through the challenges that arise when two people with different backgrounds and ways of seeing the world try to build a company together. Cameron grew up with two brothers and won’t shy away from an argument. I was an only child raised by a single mother and it has taken a lot of practice to go toe-to-toe with him in a productive way.
- Life is short and even if things go well I’ll be dead soon. This may sound macabre, but I just mean this: I have a limited amount of time in which to make the most substantial contribution to the world that I can. Torch is a big part of that contribution. It’s the start of a new chapter, and also the culmination of 20 years of psychotherapy (giving and receiving), 8 years of grad school, 2 startups, 9 years in corporate America, and a turn in Y Combinator. I’m hungry and over prepared (at least on paper).
- I look like a freckled, bald white guy, but this is not the full picture. My father is African-American. I had an afro until my hair vanished in my early 20’s. So, for the first half of my life the world alternated between treating me as a white dude with an afro, and on a good day, as a biracial oddity it didn’t know what to make of. Since losing my hair and (honorably) shaving my head, the world treats me as entirely white. This has been my loss and theirs.
I love feedback and I hate feedback, so please give me as much as you can as often as you like, and be as detailed as possible. Your feedback is likely to be the most helpful if it is negative. I won’t enjoy hearing it, but I will assume that it is coming from a good place and I will not hold it against you for bringing it to my attention. I will also work hard to understand your perspective and to take responsibility for what I could have done better. Strangely, I may be more open to your negative feedback than to your positive feedback. I will enjoy hearing the good stuff, but my default position is to fixate on how good things might have been rather than to savor the actual success. I know this can be a buzzkill and I’m working on it.
I have a sixth sense for when a meeting is moving toward a logical conclusion with clearly defined next steps, and when it is going around in circles. Despite this intuition, I’m sometimes at a loss on how to refocus the meeting. I appreciate your help keeping things on track. If you notice me become frustrated when we are spinning, try to recap what has been agreed to so far and suggest a structure for the time remaining so everyone leaves knowing what to do next.
If I need a particular piece of information or project update, I’ll want it first. After that, these meetings are your time. I may have specific feedback or guidance, or I may not. Please come prepared with questions or at least a general idea of what you want to get out of it. Better yet, create a developmental plan for what you want to accomplish within the next year, and let’s use that as a framework. Remember that I’m a psychologist, so I will default to how-can-I-help-this-person-grow mode if left to my own devices. If this is not what you want, you need to let me know.
Data vs. Emotions
Most psychologists these days are also data scientists. Thus, some of my favorite questions are: “What is that hypothesis based on?” and “How do you know that’s true?” You’re much more likely to convince me that we should build X instead of Y if you have some data, however preliminary, that X absolutely has to be built next because it solves an urgent problem for our customers. When I say “data” I mean numbers if at all possible, ideally pulled from surveys, usage logs, or customer interviews. For example, my ears will perk up if you say, “11% of our clients reported confusion with the registration process and as a result never met with their leadership coach.” In contrast, if you say, “I feel like our registration process is confusing,” I will ask for evidence. This is not to say there is no room for intuition or hunches! Rather, gut level instincts are the beginning of a what may become a persuasive argument, not the argument itself.
I work many nights and weekends, but I don’t expect you to unless we are in a real crunch. If I Slack or email you over the weekend, I assume you won’t respond until Monday. If I call you, something terrible or amazing has happened and I need you to call me back ASAP.
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