An open leader has at least three responsibilities

What does the manager of an open team do, anyway?

"What would you say you do here?" My answer involves three principles for open leadership.

What does the manager of an open team do, anyway?
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While hosting a quarterly town hall meeting with my team a few months ago, I announced that we had finally hired a new senior manager to lead a big portion of the group. This role had gone unfilled for a while, so I'd been temporarily filling it. After describing the new leader and reviewing the selection process, I asked if anybody had any questions or comments. There was just one, and it was something like: "So, now that you are hiring this new person, what are you going to do?"

This image immediately popped into my head. I felt like the blindsided employee in Office Space, when one of the corporate consultant "Bobs" asked: "What would you say you do here?"

The question was genuine, though it took me by surprise. Our need for an experienced leader was so clear to me, and I had compiled such a long list of things this new person would be able to help us with, that I thought it would be self evident that we needed this new person so that I could focus on my other work. But evidently it wasn't clear: What is my "other work"?

Some time later, I received some feedback that contained echoes of this question. The feedback was from an associate who was indicating that they felt senior management (i.e., me) could do more to help people advance their careers. That was the second comment in a few weeks on the same theme: What am I, as a department head, contributing to the team I lead?

These two incidents made me want to revisit the role of managers in an open organization. If you're a manager, what is your role? If you're an individual contributor, then what should you expect from your manager and organizational leadership?

3 dimensions

In open organizations, leaders tend to emphasize individuals' ability to take charge of their own careers through initiative and proactivity (rather than waiting to be given an opportunity). Sometimes, however, the idea that everyone is empowered to assume accountability for their career comes across as a nice sounding way of saying "you're on your own"—and that was the subtext of this feedback. Is it not, in other words, part of the manager's role to help the people who report to them advance their development?

For the sake of this post, I'm focusing on three areas that I find to be critical to my work.

The first thing that comes to my mind is support. As a manager, I feel that a large part of my job is to support the people on my team and give them what they need to be successful. That might be advice, resources, information, training, introductions, or just encouragement and reassurance. If necessary, support can also be in the form of protection or defense when disagreements arise. In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek describes this as the "circle of safety". Sinek writes, "As leaders, it is our sole responsibility to protect our people and, in turn, our people will protect each other and advance the organization together."

Another important theme of my work as a manager is equally important but can be more ambiguous or elusive for some: setting vision and context. Essentially, I need to help my team answer the following questions as often as necessary:

  • Why is our work important?
  • What is our work leading to?
  • How does our work fit into a bigger picture?

Jim Whitehurst has written of context, "When people understand why they're doing the work they're doing, they're much more likely to want to do it—and to help one another do it more creatively. Leaders who can effectively align their teams' passions with the organization's core mission will see success. . ."

As a manager, I feel that a large part of my job is to support the people on my team and give them what they need to be successful.

I think of context and vision as elusive because explaining them in a way that people can effectively comprehend them can be rather difficult. As a leader, I might think I've done a great job of setting context and establishing a vision, and some people on the team might be on board, but others might have missed the message or glossed over it. Perhaps I didn't communicate it enough or in the right format, or perhaps it got lost among a million other messages, or perhaps I just didn't explain it well.

This is where a third part of my role as a leader comes into play: seeking feedback to better understand not only how people are feeling about their work and the environment, but also how well they feel they understand the context of their work itself. I've been using Marcus Buckingham's method as guide for seeking feedback. Creating a continual feedback loop is something I see as vital for the manager to understand if what they are doing is helping each member of the team advance towards the vision, and to change tactics if it isn't.

Taking time

I try to do each of these things iteratively over time.

Proving support is a continuous activity a leader can reiterate in every email, every conversation, every team meeting. It might take the form of directly asking what I can do to be helpful, or it might be through a coaching conversation to help someone better understand their challenges and think through some solutions.

Setting context is something I approach in multiple ways. As the director of a department, I hold a quarterly town hall meeting for the whole staff. I try to use this time to reiterate our goals, how those goals connect to the broader departmental and organizational goals, and share some examples of successful things that have happened in the last quarter. At the same time, context can be reiterated in one-on-one discussions and team meetings. You have an opportunity to provide support and set context any time you have a conversation with a team member.

Feedback is something I tend to structure heavily.

Feedback is something I tend to structure heavily. Every quarter for the past three years, I've asked everyone in my group to complete a short survey. I review these results carefully, share the results with the entire team, and work with the managers in the organization on taking action to address any challenges we identify. At the same time, throughout the year I visit different offices and meet with team members individually. My hope in these discussions is to give people an opportunity to provide feedback and suggestions, to help people work through challenges, and to widen my perspective.

Seeking feedback, setting context, and providing support are critical elements of helping people achieve their potential in ways that serve the business most effectively. Doing these things is not easy or fast; each requires careful listening, iterations, and time to be effective.

The next time someone asks me what I do here, that's what I'll say.

About the author

Sam Knuth - I have the privilege to lead the Customer Content Services team at Red Hat, which produces all of the documentation we provide for our customers. Our goal is to provide customers with the insights they need to be successful with Open Source technology in the enterprise. Connect with me on Twitter: @samfw