Lessons in Managing Humans

Ever since I first discovered his writing about four years ago, I’ve been a big fan of Rands (real name Michael Lopp, an experienced leader in software engineering functions in major companies such as Apple, Pinterest, and Slack).

His user manual — called ‘How to Rands’, which he wrote way before more people started to write such things — was one of the first ones that I read, and it helped inspire me to write my own.

I read Rands’ book Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engioneering Manager a couple of years ago:

https://twitter.com/mcleanonline/status/1180892691086872584

Sometimes I like to write about the most valuable bits from books I read, in order to help me reflect on them, remember them, and so I can easily refer to them later.

In Managing Humans, Rands uses the metaphor of a “management quiver”, where particular management skills are like arrows in a quiver. As a manager, when you learn a lesson, you get an arrow:

“It’s not only a reminder that you learned something, but it’s a tool you throw in your quiver so that the next time you see a similar problem, you grab the right arrow”.

Here are my top take aways from the book, the arrows that I want to keep in my management quiver. They are not meant to be a comprehensive list of what you need to know in order to manage humans. Obviously.

I chose these arrows and made notes on them a couple of years ago but never properly wrote them up in a state to publish them. And so my notes sat in an unfinished draft post. However, Rands has just published the 4th edition of his book, and so I thought I’d dig out my draft and finish it.

1. When you start a new job, focus on understanding people

Many years ago, when I was about to start a new job, a coach recommended I read The First 90 Days: : Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael Watkins. I found it super helpful to follow its advice on how to be intentional when strating a new job, and I’ve recommended it to several people since.

The chapter with Rands’s advice of what to do in your first 90 days in a new role contains “a framework for how you are going interact with people” and is a reminder to focus on “understanding not only their goals, but also their invaluable personal quirks”.

[As an aside, I also like Sniram Krishnan’s quick playbook for how to get the most out of your First 30 days as a leader in a new role.]

2. How to design and run an off-site

I’ve planned and run plenty of off-site meetings (20+), but I still found lots of lessons, in Rands’s chapter on things to think about and do in order to design and run an effective off-site.

In discussing the characteristics of a good offsite meeting, he covers:

  • when to call an off-site,
  • who should attend (not everyone),
  • who should present/speak (everyone who attends),
  • where to have it (not your usual building, despite the cost — it’s worth it for people’s full attention), and
  • how long it should be (at least two days — you need to give people time to sleep on the subject you’re dealing with).

He also stresses two roles you need in your offsite meeting: a ‘master of ceremonies’ who is “the person responsible for not just moving the day along, but also knowing when to stop and pivot” who “knows when an idea has been explored as best it can and it’s time to move on”. He stresses that this person should not be external facilitator: “they couldn’t give a shit whether you solve your problem or not. You need someone running the show who has skin in the game.” The other role he calls the ‘Taker of Notes’, who captures not just the bright ideas, but the right ideas, and who then assigns them to the people who can and will drive them forward.

He also has a few rules for offsites, each of which I’ve failed to follow at least once:

  • no personality tests,
  • no staged games or activities, and
  • ensure that the energy of the off-site is channelled back into the day-to-day work and immediately acted upon.

3. How to manage a major incident

Rands documents his process for what to do when the sky falls and you need to manage a major incident.

Thankfully, I’ve never been the person in charge when disaster has struck but I’ve been very close to them. And it’s not a pretty place to be, inside the ‘war room’ as Rands call it.

When a Thing needs sorting NOW and lives potentially depend on it, I’ve noticed two factors make the biggest difference: the character of the person in charge, and the clarity of the process for sorting this type of Thing. And as I read Rands advice on what you need in your process for managing a major incident, I was nodding along. That’s why I’m keeping this arrow in my management quiver, although I hope I never need to use it.

4. Design meetings to meet user needs

Rands has written quite a lot about a meetings.
And quite a lot of what he’s written about meetings is quite hilarious.
Much funnnier than my own advice on meetings.

His description of the different ‘meeting creatures’ is my favourite. Not only because his observations are so close to the bone they made me laugh and wince with the pain of recognition.

Also because he reminded me that in a meeting a manager’s job is “to figure out how to include people by taking time to understand what they need and doing your best to give it to them”.

5. Take time to think

In ‘The Soak’, Rands explains how “any big decision, any big problem deserves time and consideration”. No matter how experienced you are, “you’re still going to be faced with situations where the right decision is not to decide, but think.”

His advice in that situation is to “plant the seed of a thought in your brain and let it bump around in a rich stew of ideas, facts, and whatever other random crap that seems to relate.”

You can do this actively (eg by asking questions, sketching out ideas, re-wreiting your ideas) or passively (eg sleep on it, go for a ride), or a mixture of both. But however you do it, soaking takes time, and you need to give yourself that time.

6. You need to start: Nothing happens until you start

Whether the thing you need to do is impossibly dull or impossibly hard, the most difficult thind is getting started. In ‘Trickle Theory’, Rands stresses you have to begin. From that point you can iterate and it will get easier. But first you need to start.

And if after you’ve started you get stuck, then maybe you need to switch and start on something else.

7. You need to figure out how to start

Rands shares his pain of not starting working on something, of procrastinating. Getting started is important but it’s also hard, so figuring how to start is itself important.

I took three things from this chapter:

  1. Stress kills creativity.
  2. Sometimes you need “an unrelated creative excursion” before you can start. Such things might not be avoidance but unrelated inspiration, because “creativity begets creativity”. (I totally need such excursions sometimes — perhaps that’s what writing this post is?)
  3. Sometimes you need to break the task down and start with the most menial bit. For example, you could ask yourself, “what is the smallest piece of research I can do relative to the project?” Take earlier today, when I started a different blog post by nothing more more than just writing out two quotes that I know I want to use from a book and finding a couple of links. But I started, and it was productive.

8. People are messy and a manager’s job is to include everyone

The book contains a set of chapters that describe different ways people behave at work. Rands calls these descriptions “starting points for understanding where different people come from,” and he wrote them to encourage managers to take the time to understand what different people need and then think how to include them. Reading his descriptions, I came to see myself as a ‘holistic’, an ‘organic’ who imposes lots of mechanical things on myself at work to get stuff done, and an ‘incrementalist’. As he says, people are messy.

If you want more arrows, head to Slack

Rands set up a Leadership Slack channel, where people discuss all things leadership:

“The Rands Leadership Slack exists to help longtime, new, and aspiring leaders to learn through conversation and sharing of ideas.”

I’ve been on there for 2–3 years, alongside almost 20,000 other humans interested in leadership, and it’s a supportive community and a living, evolving goldmine of information.

Or you can dig around the Rands archives.

A picture of the front cover of Managing Humans

Disclaimer: I have the third edition of Managing Humans, which I got when Richard Northover recommended the book to me soon after I joined Elsevier. I’ve not loooked at the 4th edition. But from Rands’s description of the changes, it looks like all of the chapters behind my arrows are still in there.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Richard McLean

Richard McLean

Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.