The biggest reason technical managers fail

One of my clients told me today, “Managers have to do so much work, I feel overwhelmed!” Their main complaint was that as individual contributor, they were able to focus on a single project, but as a manager, they had to switch between a million tasks every day. And a lot of those tasks don’t show any meaningful progress for months and sometimes years. It’s easy to see how that could lead to feeling overworked and overwhelmed.

The truth is, as Tom DeMarco puts it in his book Slack, “Overworked managers are doing things they shouldn’t be doing.” That’s right, the million tasks you switch between every day — a lot of them you shouldn’t be doing.

The diagnosis: my client, just like many other managers who feel overwhelmed, is suffering from cantletgoitis. It’s a common ailment that plagues many first-time managers who can’t let go of doing the work they used to as individual contributors.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to self-diagnose and even harder to treat on your own. So plenty of managers go untreated for years and eventually succumb to burnout.

Over the years, I’ve seen overworked managers try a few home remedies like:

  • Multitasking — they would just get overworked faster.

  • A “better” productivity system — somehow, regardless of what system they choose, it just adds more stuff to their already endless to-do list.

  • Work harder — um…

Does this sound familiar? I bet it does. Most of us who spent a decade or two as individual contributors before switching to the leadership track struggled with cantletgoitis at one point or another. And tried all the obvious ways to deal with it with no success.

If you are an overworked manager, too, I have good news for you. There’s a cure! It has been clinically proven to be very effective. Best of all, it is available without a prescription and absolutely free!

Be warned, this medicine is bitter, and the side effects include severe ego swelling and lightheadedness. But if you’re ready to commit to getting healthy today, here’s the cure:

Let It Go!

Yes, that’s right! You must let go of the need to contribute technical work if you want to become a competent and confident manager. Clinging to it not only makes you overworked but also a terrible manager.

“Alpha geeks make absolutely terrible managers unless they can learn to let go of their identity as the smartest person in the room and most technical person on the team.” — - Camille Fournier, The Manager’s Path

It won’t be easy. The instant dopamine hit you get from committing a new feature and seeing it deployed to production is a difficult addiction to kick. Not only it’s satisfying, but it’s also easy to point at and say, “I did that.” Whereas preventing a conflict between your employees doesn’t have anything tangible you can point to when it comes time to discuss your promotion with your manager.

Your relative inexperience is also making it excruciatingly uncomfortable to deal with problems you’ve never dealt with before. So, you procrastinate by picking up familiar tasks. Often tasks that are no longer your job.

And think what it must be like to be your direct report. You might think you’re supporting your folks by taking some difficult or boring work off their plate, but the opposite is true. The responsibilities become less clear, your employees feel uncomfortable pointing out your mistakes or even resentful of having to correct them. And even more importantly, you’re not supporting your team in ways that actually matter.

Like helping develop and drive your team’s vision, establishing the processes and interfaces with other teams, setting healthy boundaries and developing strategies for getting rid of busy work, hiring, and of course, helping your employees grow and develop.

To be clear, the problem is not that managers contribute technical work when the situation demands it. I’ve spent numerous nights digging into tech problems with engineers when I was an Incident Manager in one of my previous roles. You support your team in the way that’s most meaningful in each situation.

What is a problem is contributing because it’s a comfortable and familiar thing to do. It ends up being a crutch and a distraction.

So, it won’t be easy. But to grow, you must let go. It will trigger your ego or fear at times. You’ll think, “I can do it better and faster.” Or “I’ll become irrelevant if I stop doing technical work.” But I promise you, if you show courage and let go, you’ll transition from a technical expert to an expert manager faster than you actually thought possible.