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How to Avoid 'Manager Gameface!'

Katie Womersly
Director of Engineering

Openness and authenticity are critical to gaining trust and respect your new direct reports. How can you do this when you don’t yet know what you’re doing? Rationally afraid of appearing incompetent, many new managers resort to putting on "Manager Gameface": presenting a sanitized, slightly robotic version of yourself, and pretending to know what you’re doing. Your strategy is doomed to fail because you don’t - but that’s ok! In this practical talk, Katie will share real-world stories and tips about how to jump-start trust building and be the right kind of vulnerable. You’ll learn how to avoid the dreaded “Manger Gameface”, and become the confident, authentic and professional leader that your team can rely on.


thanks. Hi everyone. Let's just test. Oh, y'all cool. Thanks. That was such a great talk, Mike. I like awesome job. Cool. So I'm Katie Walmsley. I'm director of engineering at buffer. We're most known for being radically transparent and fully remote. But in our day jobs, we do social media stuff. And I'm here to talk to you today about managing game face.

So rather, how do you avoid it? How do you be an authentic leader, especially when you knew? So can I get a quick show of hands here? Here is a new manager, perhaps you're in your first six or so months on the job. So, this is mostly aimed at exactly your new managers and it's going to be really great, but I've experienced a lot of this at every different stage of my role.

So both as a new engineering manager, as my team has grown as a new director, being new to the executive team. So a lot of you are a lot more seasoned, so I hope you can find something there.

you've probably heard that you should be really authentic. As a leader, right? Like you should just open up and be yourself. But on the other hand, you know, it's a very specific job to lead and it's not always natural to do that. You do have to step up and you do have to inspire confidence in your team and you need to do need to put it jacked a certain image of professionalism, for lack of a better word.

So that's, here's the paradox of authenticity. On the one hand we're told, you know, just be yourself, you don't put on a mask, but on the other hand, you also hearing, you know, like be professional. I mean, you have to like step up, you know, inspire, inspire confidence. So what do you do? I mean, do you just sort of admit that, look, I have no idea what I'm doing here.

Anyway, sorry. Or do your fake it until you make it and put on a game.

when I suppose promoted to my first role as an engineering manager, I went full on like managing game face. Like I was promoted as one of the newer software engineers on a team that had tried out self management and it hadn't gone that well. So hence me, I was also one of the newer engineers on that team and I was younger than all of my soon to be directors.

I was also the only woman at the time. So just talked a lot about what that was like. And I felt all of that. You know, why me, you know, what is the bar? And one of my new direct reports asked me like, Hey, have you done this before? And the panic, I just felt like I have no idea what I'm doing. And they know they can see right through me.

I felt so vulnerable. So basically I did what any reasonable person would do in that situation. I thought at the time, and I kind of. I never missed a beat, but then I was back on it and I said, yeah, well, my previous company, we didn't use a lot of formal titles. I was kind of a lead there and we tried on self management.

So that seemed plausible. And I then went and read all of the books. If you want a book recommendation, hit me up. I followed a bunch of engineering leaders on Twitter, some of whom spoke here today. And I literally, I Googled how to do everything. You know, like how to run a staff, meeting, how to do a one-to-one like one of them is really helpful, but I was really careful.

I can, every interaction just like bring my most professional, manage yourself. And I think it's really scary to open up because it legitimately is risky. You could be confirming other people's voice. It was about year and I have seen this happen and your team. To follow somebody that knows where they going.

You know, when people don't want to see in that leader, like, oh, I'm really scared. I've also seen leaders that also much buddy so much just themselves, we're just going to hang out, you know, or that while everybody gets on pretty well with no one clearly leading, it's very difficult for a team to resolve issues.

And I've seen the spool into de-motivation and frustration. I think putting on a live game face is so common because. Being a good manager. It's a huge responsibility. And it is a very specific role. I mean, you do need to level up and you do need to lead in a way. That's not always going to feel natural, but I was so, so focused on leveling up that I wasn't really coming across as

I stumbled on what I needed to change. Mainly by accident. I was kind of talking and I remember making a ridiculous pun. I don't remember what it was, but somebody said like that is so name. It's actually funny. And a couple of people kind of chuckled and I felt pretty flustered. I was like, oh, why not? Not very professional.

Okay. Wrap that up, Katie. But at the same time, when I had these like little accident moments, you know, where the true me would sort of slip out. In those little moments. I felt my relationships with the people I was working with deepen and an almost magical way. So kind of had to close my eyes and grit my teeth and lean into it.

It doesn't come naturally at all. And it was for me the most difficult growth moment as a new manager, but it turns out that my manager game pace was just not very helpful when two humans are trying to work together and figure it out.

I think it's so common to go one way or the other, you know, either a very strong kind of manager image or the sort of, oh, I'm just going to be myself and, and B be a buddy, you know, stay the buddy because the middle way of being a leader, but also being authentic and true to yourself is full of mystery.

So I'm here to demystify this middle way and show you some of the things that you can do on Monday. Like. To be an awesome am or tech lead, whatever your title is that your team is going to be excited to follow, but also be authentically you. The main thing to know here is that the less that is implied or mysterious about you, the safer other people are going to fail working with you, relying on you and critically as a manager being open with you about themselves.

So the three methods I'm going to share in this talk to demystify this happy middle way are being really clear on what you're here for. You know, what is your job description, having a good idea of what you stand for? My creating a manager rate me and then understanding leadership styles or colors as I'll explain them, which can help you learn how to lead from your natural strengths.

So in that way, you'll be showing strong leadership, but also coming across as authentic you're presenting something true.

So, what is your job? Literally raise your hand. If you can write down in like 30 seconds or less, a pretty clear, accurate description of like what it is you do at work as a leader of some kind here could like run its own. Cool. I mean, you're really lucky and that's awesome. I saw her very few yeses. I thought a lot of uncertainty, I guess if I thought really.

If I really focused. And a lot of you have not raised your hands or maybe, you know, you just don't like raising your hand, but I think it's, I think it's really common in our industry to like get promoted to elite and then sort of have go lead, you know, that's sort of, it. And it's like, what do you mean by that?

So it's really important if you don't have a job description. Like if you don't know like what it is that I do, like I am here and I'm going to ensure like a and B, if you don't have that clear in your mind, this is homework. You should go home and write that down and you should have that. You need to have your job description front and center of your mind at all times.

You're there on your team as a tech lead and engineering manager, whatever it is to ensure these specific things that you care about and knowing what your job is means that you can share that openly and humbly with your team. There's a third thing that you can point to the job, you know, as an engineering need, I am here to, for example, support and empower you to do your best work.

So I'm going to do that through holding regular one-to-one with you, where I'll get to know your goals and I'll figure about how you can best grow and flourish here on teams. All also, I am accountable to the overall health and the productivity of team X. So that means I'll be leading the sprint planning and I'll be leading retros, and that's going to help us set impactful goals as a team that also sustainable and realistic.

If you can have this really clear, if you can say this, it means that your team is able to understand and respect the work that you do and why you do the things you do. But more importantly than that, it means that you will be able to understand and respect your own role. A lot more clear. And sometimes that can be the single biggest thing that's holding you back

So once you're really clear on what your job is, and that might be harder than you think. The next thing that is very helpful in coming across as authentic sharing who you are, but as a leader is creating a manager, read me. So Ron's talked a lot about his raid, me and the talk. It's sort of a document like any other software read me.

And it's how you operate as a man. This covers two objectives. The first is people know who you are as a leader, and as a person, they know what you value and they know what is expected, what they can expect from you and what you're gonna expect from them. This is very helpful for building trust because it's hard to trust an unknown quantity.

And then secondly, the other purpose of having a read me is you're a lot more likely to get feedback from your team, from your direct report, if they know what you expect from yourself, the more common reason that I've heard for not giving managers feedback is, oh, I wasn't sure if it was their job to do blah, blah, blah, or like, I'm just not sure if they should have, or, you know, I'm not, I'm not really clear on what managers.

And if you think of how few of you don't have job descriptions for yourselves. I mean, if you think of, from your team's perspective, like how clear is your team on what exactly you're expecting from yourself? So, especially if you're a new manager, but at all stages of your career, getting the ski back is so, so important for growing as a leader.

So this is a light outline of a couple of things that I'd like to cover. The first is your leadership philosophy. So what is it that you value and optimize for as a leader? This is probably going to change over time and that's healthy. That's okay. So examples of this I've seen are I optimize for longterm relationships beyond this one role?

Maybe even beyond this one company or I value transparency and empowerment as a leader, or I'm here to help other people flourish. Then sharing expectations. So we both, what you expect from your direct reports and what they can expect from you. There'll be a panel later on difficult conversations. I see Christian over there, and it's really helpful to have these kinds of expectations that are clearly humbly documented ahead of finding yourself in a weird situation where you realize you have very clear expectations.

And they'll very far from that. It's great. If they're shown. And then lastly, sharing anything that people should know about you, your sort of human strangeness as Ron's put it. If you happen to ask questions and your first one to ones to get to know folks a good idea, it could be sharing what your own answers are to those questions.

So whether it's how many siblings you have or what you look for in a manager, yourself, having a really clear job description and having a manager, Remi, I like having an authenticity. So these are tools you can use. And I do recommend using a little bit of setup for yourself. So rather than just being like, here's my manager read me, which is something I have done, you can instead say something like, look, I was at calibrate, it's a conference for engineering leaders.

And I heard a lot about this manager read me concept. And apparently it's very helpful taking a stab at creating one. And I'd love to hear what you think. I have shared my, read me with tons of people at this point. And no one has ever said to me, that was weird. And I was very worried that it would be weird because you're creating this document about yourself, right?

It's like, here's a document. It's about me. Read us.

Like, excuse me. Who are you so arrogant? That was literally never happened. I mean, people are genuinely curious and they've been quite touched that I would take the time in the trouble to share about me as a leader. And they wanted to know like, what's going on? How do you work? They want to work effectively with you.

So you're just one thing from this conference or from this talk specifically, I would recommend making a manager.

So authenticity is a minefield and there's a lot to unpack here. Like when you're sharing your rate, man, his all about me as a leader stereotypes do really influence what we perceive as leadery. Right? So fortune 500 CEO is they're predominantly white men. Also their average height is six foot two. Now that's 2.5 inches taller than the average for men in the USA.

Substantially taller than the average fall of us in the USA. Even a few wear wedges. Sorry. Right. Sorry. Coaches are telling us, you know, be authentic, share your mistakes, be open about your shortcomings and your self-doubt. Now, if I do that as a white man, who's six foot two, I'm probably going to come across as very authentic people are going to think.

Wow, like he's so real. And they're going to think what a great leader and the stock price is going to soar. It's going to be great if I do that as well. I might be confirming my employer's worst fears about me. So if you are part of marginalized group, you're, you have a Verde good sense already of what's safe and what is not safe for you to experiment with when being authentic.

I won't go into all of that, but I do want to say that other leaders are here to support you as you figure this out in groups like the rands leadership slack group. Looking through a lot of the manager read me is I'll share a great resource where you can read tons of them. And just talking to folks and places like this conference where diversity inclusion is something that I think we'll do

So before getting much deeper into these snakes and letters, I'll share a little bit of what authenticity is and what it isn't. I thought a ton about this when writing this talk and authenticity is, is not mean sharing everything that's on your mind. It doesn't mean having no filter. Like you should have a filter.

It also doesn't mean a free pass to stay inside your company. Or to fall foul of the naturalistic fallacy, you know, like I'm not naturally outgoing, so thinking, oh, well then I can't do presentations. That's a fallacy. That's not authenticity. Right. It also doesn't mean that you're exactly the same in every situation right now.

You're seeing conference talk, Katie, this is who I am when I'm on a stage with a mic and I have slides and I'm talking to you and I'm trying to adjust my behavior. So you as an audience, like this is definitely not how I talk to my mom on the phone. What authenticity does mean is that your actions are in accordance with your back.

And that what you do as a leader, it connects to who you are as a person and to what this situation is calling for. And you do, and aspects of yourself selectively, depending on what the situation needs. This is very natural. And most people will unconsciously read emotional cues. Like, I don't know if you've ever like run into room laughing and like very lighthearted and just realized like, oh, you know, This is a very serious situation.

And you're just knowing like, what is called upon me right now is Rabbitohs and you just like drop the lottery and you're like, right. So that is authentic. That is sensing what's needed from you to connect to another human in a way that is authentic. Most neuro-typical humans do do this fairly naturally.

My cousin is heavily autistic and he is taught to do this. Like specifically, they have diagrams and slides. You know, if somebody smiles at you, smile back. So this is not sneaky. This is not manipulative. This is fundamental to what it means to be human. And this is all very abstract, right? Like presenting different ways yourself in different situations.

But how so way? I like to picture this was with leadership colors, leadership colors are a metaphor for different ways of leading. Some people think of different personas. I've also heard of leadership animals, like leading like a lion or leading like a raccoon.

Okay. I'm not, I'm not super sure how that works. I'm going to stick with the colors for this one. So this is from the amazing Laura Hogan blog post is there and it's linked at the end. Also, Laura does coaching and she's great. And the idea is that of these types of colors, these are just examples.

You could add other colors, whatever works for you. We'll all have our default ones, the colors that come like really easily. Then there's ones that are a comfortable stretch. You know, if you put your mind to it, you can embody that color. And then there's ones that are like really quite way out there.

Right? So red is a bit of edge, a bit of urgency, intensity orange, very cautious. Think of construction worker orange. Yellow is like Bobby, Joe cracking green. Very all about the feelings. Blue is like calm. Reliables. Creative and flowy is purple. Brown is nuance, subtlety, complexity, and black is blunt and unfeeling.

Like very cut and dry. I always picture em from bond. You know, when she says and bond, if you break into my apartment one more time, I'll have your shot. It's just, it's very clear. So. My default color is red. I've partly, it's about the way I raised my eyebrows in those days store. The problem is I've never explicitly had to tell someone like, listen, we're here to do a job.

And it does bring a lot of energy to a team. There's a lot of focus. Lot of striving, we can get a lot done, which is exciting. The first thing you learned when red is your default color, it's hard to do blue before everyone around you is completely exhausted. So at this point I can be the, the steady, the reliable leader fairly comfortably.

My hottest color is purple for sure. I once had a leadership coach and she was saying to be a leader, you need to have this vision and inspire people and show the end destination and craft the narrative and take everybody along. And Selma is so legit. And I was all in and we had the sprint kickoff and I was like trying to like craft the story.

And I was just rambling in my team. Who is this? Don't find it pretty shaky. You, it like we didn't have the usual, that's crushed those kind of red pet talk and they're a little confused and anxious. So purple was at that time way too much of a stretch. It's not that my leadership coach was wrong. It's just that it wasn't a natural color for me.

And when I suddenly just tried it out, it backfired on me. It came across as not authentic. So does anyone here recognize like a natural leadership color? I'm seeing Austin Nani. That's awesome. It took me a lot of reflection. I think it's because I didn't want to think of myself as an angry leader. So I try to avoid admitting that red was my default.

It is knowing your default colors is really powerful because that is why you hear like, this is what got you to where you are now. So there's definitely a lot to be said there by keeping a lot of your leadership in this line, maybe 60% of the time drawing on the leadership color. Comes easily comes naturally helps you show up as a leader, but also is authentically you.

That is going to help you to come across as a very credible leader and also as yourself and because different situations do call for different styles of leadership. It's important to practice the next closest situation, the sorry, the next closest colors. So if somebody is saying to me like Katie, I'm pretty exhausted and feeling a little burned out.

I mean, you don't want to be a red leader at that point. Like, that's just not helpful at all. You want to bring a different color and then lastly, learn what really different colors. So for me, green or yellow, like those are really different ones. Learn what they look like on you and look for lowest stakes situations, situations where like, it doesn't matter too much.

If your team is looking at you, like that's the way I do those little moments, they just will happen. So choose moments where it's not very high stakes, right? Not the quarterly architecture review meeting, like choose something. Okay, no last name growing as a leader and learning how to be authentic, but also inspire trust confidence in others and having that credibility, it is an ongoing journey.

And the best thing that I ever did was get a leadership coach or at this point, a series of coaches and the benefit of this is they can help you work through specific challenges and scenarios as they arise and figure out how to do this in a way that is in tune with your own body. And find your own leadership voice.

As you gain experience at a time, you're going to find more and more ways to leave that ring true of you. And in this journey, support from other managers, from professionals like coaches or therapists are really helpful. Like if you can afford that or get your company to pay, it's one of the best investments you can make in yourself and in your career, because the better that you can understand and trust yourself.

The stronger and the more authentic the leadership you'll be able to show. And as you continue on this journey, the best advice that I can give you is to remember that you're not alone.

Sorry, I've put these slides up on speaker deck and I'll tweet them out as well. These other resources I mentioned the first one is like a hub of manager. Read me is where you can find tons of read MES. And that's really helpful. There's about my own leadership pillars and a bit more on the paradox of authenticity.

So I'll share those and then thank you so much for your time and especially your attention today. Like I know you've had a lot of talks and I really appreciate how present many of you. I think all of you really have been with us talk. This is a very slow animation. So when it does finish loading, eventually it's.

Let's keep keeping going. Eventually yeah, my Twitter handle and my email will come up here. So really, if you email me, I would be delighted. You can DM me on Twitter. My damsel orphan, I would love nothing more than to carry on this conversation with you. Thank you all so much for your time.

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.

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