Intercom’s Director of Engineering on Becoming a Manager of Managers
Talk with any engineering manager who regrets leaving coding and you’ll understand that management is not for everyone. In fact, Rich Archbold, Senior Director of Engineering at Intercom, believes that managing others is a life’s work.
“It’s managing on purpose,” Archbold says. “If you’re going to work, do something that you’re really passionate about — that you thoroughly enjoy doing — such that learning how to do it better is just fun. It’s a hobby. It isn’t actually ‘work.’”
This credo holds doubly true for becoming a manager of managers. This transition, Archbold believes, is one of the most difficult professional transitions there is.
“It’s as if I did ten years in training before I joined Intercom,” he says. “Effectively, I did an apprenticeship at Amazon and Facebook, and now I’m doing it for real. I’m at that stage of my career where now I’m saying that I’m doing my life’s work.”
So there’s some serious soul-searching that may accompany even considering becoming a manager of managers. It’s certainly not a career shift for the managerially timid. But for those genuinely interested in moving that extra step up the stack, Archbold offers some key insights into handling that deceptively difficult transition from being a manager into managing managers.
It’s a whole new ball game
When engineers make the transition to management, they’re generally aware that they’re about to require a drastic change in skillset. They’re physically doing very different things — they were writing code, and now they’re not.
“You get this heads-up when you decide to move into management from being an IC. There’s really obvious, visible feedback loops that say, ‘this job is different,’” Archbold explains.
So the transition from managing individual contributors to managing managers, on the surface, seems like it would be simple. It seems like it’s just another step up the management ladder, where the only thing that changes is who joins your meetings.
The truth is that this transition may be even harder than the transition from IC to management, precisely because it appears so similar. There’s not the same heads-up that new skills are required.
“You do these things by feel. By rhythm. But you’re probably not really sure how you actually do it.”
Archbold finds that most people fall into the same trap he repeatedly fell into. “You went from being an engineer to being a manager, and somehow, you learned enough from others to become a good manager,” he says. “Maybe a very good manager, and maybe you’ve been doing it for a while. So now, it’s very instinctive to you. You do these things by feel. By rhythm. But you’re probably not really sure how you actually do it.”
This lack of formalized knowledge is a common byproduct of the way engineering managers are often promoted—the most extroverted engineer gets christened as the new manager. You emulate the managers you’ve seen before you, and you find out through trial and error what works and what doesn’t.
“Now, as a manager of managers, one of the most important parts of your role is to teach others to be good managers and to hold them accountable for it,” he says. “But you actually don’t know how to teach it, because you do it instinctively. You can recognize it in others, and you can reward it when you see it in others, but you will probably struggle to teach or correct it.”
Try on a coaching style—and always shut the door
Archbold realizes that many managers end up with a mix of a direct management style and a coaching style that works for them — but it isn’t codified or even conscious. So as they try to coach other managers, they often struggle with what style to use. Often times, Archbold observes, they will lean on their direct style of managing, and typically tell their managers what to do.
“Most people I see who make this transition don’t realize that you can get away with a more directive style with engineers,” he says. “But you can’t get away with that type of style managing managers.”
The reason? Managers are used to autonomy. They’re not as directly responsible for concrete outcomes as are engineers; they’re leading people more than they are products. And how they manage their teams is largely up to them — not you.
“I’m helping people be happy and stay happy, because the happier you are, the more your brain goes into build-and-broaden mode. The less your brain goes into fight-or-flight mode.”
So Archbold recommends a coaching, questioning style of leadership for managing managers. “Use a Socratic method of teaching to maintain the boundaries of autonomy, accountability, and responsibility that managers need to have for their teams,” he says.
But even when upper-level managers successfully land on this coaching style, they often fail to ‘close the door’ at the end of each session. And that last step is critical to making a lasting impact.
“A manager of managers might go through the entire Socratic method and ask a bunch of questions, and then just leave it there,” Archbold says. “You need to follow that up with, ‘Okay, the reason I asked you those questions is because here’s the feedback I want to give you, and here are the observations I made. And here is the piece I want you to take away and think of and learn.’”
Once you’re utilizing this step, Archbold hesitates to even call you a manager. He says you’ve transitioned more into being a leadership partner, or a coaching partner, more so than a manager. The most successful relationships he’s experienced with his direct reports have felt like this sort of partnership.
“I’m their coach,” he says. “I’m their support. I’m the one who’s there to hold them accountable. To guide them to do great things with their team.”
He acknowledges that this is a humbling experience. He’s not wielding more power or more control as a manager of managers; instead, he’s more focused on the well-being of his reports. And that’s pretty abstract.
“There are days when I’m going, ‘what am I actually doing?’” he says. “I’m helping people be happy and stay happy, because the happier you are, the more your brain goes into build-and-broaden mode. The less your brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. The more successful we all are.”
How to build your own managerial roster
Those are all challenges and experiences of stepping into a managing-other-managers role. But once you’re in that role, you’ll be selecting and hiring other managers from the ranks of engineering contributors. So how do you decide who’s a good fit for taking that first step up the management stack?
“The first thing I look for is kindness,” Archbold says. “General helpfulness. Does this person have that servant leadership streak in them? You’re looking for somebody who enjoys helping other people.”
That character trait can show up in all kinds of ways—they could be spending a lot of time on PRs, making sure they give great feedback, or they could be super willing to pair with others. Perhaps they are generous with their time when it comes to interviewing new hires. Maybe they have built a reputation for recognizing the value of creating capacity in the team around them.
A lot of these traits are what we conflate as “extroverted.” But it’s important to dig deeper than who’s most gregarious at the donut box. You’re better off with a kind-hearted, genuinely helpful introvert at the helm than someone who knows how to be your best friend.
The second trait Archbold looks for in a new manager is strong self-awareness. “General awareness, situational awareness, curiosity for how things work, awareness of blind spots. All of those,” he says.
“Does this person have that servant leadership streak in them? You’re looking for somebody who enjoys helping other people.”
To delve much deeper, he says, you’ve got to look at the two categories of managers he sees: the positive, and the negative.
Archbold illustrates the difference by sharing an example from the CTO at Intercom, who used to train for the Irish Olympic cross-country ski team. The CTO used to have two different types of ski coaches. One would say, “Ciaran, that was good, but I think you could do better.” The other one would say, “Ciaran, that was dreadful. You need to do better.”
Some people respond better to each kind of coach. “Both of them can work,” Archbold says. “But not for me. Only the positive manager can work for me. I just find when you’re working so hard, and you’re genuinely committed and working under a lot of pressure, the negative coach is a net drain on everybody. I look for those positive, optimistic types, rather than the negative ones — though the ‘negative’ types can definitely be effective in some environments.”
Considering that Archbold’s own style of management is about being the kind of manager that people want to work for, it makes sense that he’d find other managers who are optimistic and positive about what may end up being their life’s work.
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