|Technology people seem to have a difficult time making the transition from front-line expert to first line supervisor. Thirty-five years ago, I was one such manager. When you are good with hands-on technology, it’s hard to let someone else do it, especially when you know you can do it faster and better than they can. This is the first challenge of management: letting your people do what you are good at doing. The second challenge is even more daunting: your sense of accomplishment needs to come from them doing it.
There have been many definitions of management, but this is the simplest truth: managing is about accomplishing things through other people. To borrow from the realm of music, to manage effectively, you need to make the transition from being a player to being a conductor. The point to this analogy is that the conductor is the only one in the orchestra who does not have an instrument (baton notwithstanding.) If you can’t make this leap, you can’t manage. This book is first a book about making this transition.
Three things came together for me in the winter of 2006. I read the introduction to William Sloane Coffin’s, Letters to a Young Doubter; I heard a speech by Stephen Denning on telling stories; and I began a monthly discussion with a new manager of technology in another country, who I will call Adam.
As much as I love managing a team, talking about it--for me--is boring. When I pick up any business book or journal and read a dozen pages, it’s hard for me to get pumped up about most of what’s said. It’s just not the stuff that a good novel of fiction or movie has. Why is that? It’s not for a lack of good writers and good information. It’s just that I would rather hear the stories than the theories—which brings me to Stephen Denning.
I heard Stephen Denning speak about storytelling in companies during a conference in the fall of 2005 and something Denning said stuck with me: his observation that when people get together to talk outside of business, what do they do? They tell stories. And stories lead to more stories. Why don’t we use that for communicating inside the company?
When I thought about this and what I have learned through experience and decades of being a perpetual student of business, I realized that I often tell stories to make a point about managing people, projects and a business. So I started to think about all the stories I tell. I kept track for a month or two, then a year or two. My list of stories soon grew to twenty, then fifty, then over four hundred stories a decade later. I began to share these stories with others, and it resonated. People like to listen to and learn from stories. And they remembered them. So this is also a book of stories.
The only problem with telling a bunch of stories is that it’s not personal enough. It’s personal for me, and I want to make it personal for you. How do you tell stories about lessons learned, knowledge gained and advice to the lovelorn? In walks William Sloane Coffin, with an idea he borrowed from the great German poet, Rainer Rilke. What Coffin did was write about things he learned over sixty years as a college chaplain, activist and preacher as a series of letters to a hypothetical student who was wrestling with matters of faith and meaning. Called “Letters to a Young Doubter,” the book immediately drew me into the one-side of the conversation he was having with a student, by allowing me to stand at his desk and read over his shoulder—if you will—the letters that he wrote. As you would expect, this is also a book of letters.
Now that I’ve told you the story of how this book came to be, I invite you to look over my shoulder as I write about the stories to a young manager somewhere on the planet who asked me about learning how to be a better technology manager. If one or more of these stories resonates, don't tell me; ask yourself why. Then go tell someone else.