“I don’t think I’ve been doing a very good job lately.”
Not the way I usually kick off 1-on-1 meetings with my boss. But that day, it’s what needed to be said.
I’d been managing the content marketing and social media team for about two years, but with a growing sense of unease. Ever more anxiety, ever more stress. The recurring dream I have whenever my life starts slipping out of control even returned.
Finally, I identified the problem: I was doing a lousy job leading my team.
Fast forward a couple months, and I’m still on the same team. Just no longer managing it.
Stepping down a rung on the corporate ladder isn’t all that common, especially doing so by choice. I suspect there are lots of people who might like to downshift (even fantasize about it), but aren’t sure whether it’s a legit option or how to think through it.
What follows is an account of how I decided it would be a good move for me – who I talked to, the questions I asked myself – and how the transition ultimately played out.
No seriously: I wasn’t a good manager
Before you dismiss this claim a as case of imposter syndrome, know that I came to that conclusion rationally. I made a list of which aspects of my role I’m good at, and which aspects I struggle with.
I’m good at writing. I’m bad at project management. I’m good at building relationships with people in other departments. I’m bad at delegating. I’m good at mentoring my team members and connecting them with projects that line up with their career goals. I’m bad at keeping tabs on how those projects are progressing.
Ummmm… yikes. In our department, being a team lead is largely about leading projects (which involves a lot of delegation), and wrapping your head around the projects your team members are involved in so you can provide meaningful guidance and coaching.
Struggling with your job’s primary functions is kind of a big deal.
But why was I struggling? I’m capable, I’m intelligent, I apply myself… I even have a college degree to prove all those things. WTF?
Root cause analysis to the rescue
Fortunately, I’ve spent enough time on engineering teams to be familiar with root cause analysis (RCA) techniques, like “5 whys”.
If this is a new concept, allow me to save you the hassle of fancy management training. You start with a problem and think about why it exists. When you have an answer, ask why that is the case – digging deeper and deeper as you go. By the time you’ve asked “why” five times, you’ve probably exposed the root of the problem.
So I set out to answer the question “Why am I sucking at really important aspects of my job?”
Basically, because I wasn’t devoting much time to those aspects. Ok. Then, “Why am I not devoting much time to those aspects?” …and so on. Ultimately, it turned out I sucked at those parts of my job because I didn’t want them to be part of my job.
What I really wanted to do for a living is write. I’m good at it, I enjoy it, I have hella subject-area knowledge on the topics people at Atlassian tend to write about.
I’d been latching onto any writing project dangled in front of me (or inventing them myself) instead of tending to my actual job as team lead. Stealing time, essentially. Cheating my team members out of the guidance they deserve. Cheating the projects I owned out of proper management, which made life that much harder for everyone working on the project.
Admitting all that to myself was liberating. And kind of scary. Not to mention laced with a heavy dose of guilt.
It was time to come clean
Stomach butterflies a-flutter, I entered the fateful 1-on-1. I skipped the small talk and got straight to the point: “I don’t think I’ve been doing a very good job lately.” My manager was a bit taken aback, but she hung in there with me.
Then I laid it all out. How wanting to write instead of lead projects was at the root of the problem, and the effect it was having on my team. I was pretty nervous about where this conversation was going to lead, but damn! did it feel good to get all that off my chest.
“So, what should we do here?” I asked, finally. “Should we restructure my role so I can legitimately spend most of my time writing? Or should I embrace the project and people leadership stuff, and get really good at that?”
Her response was immediate. “Let’s figure out a way to get you more time writing.”
*Phew!* I was open to setting writing aside for a while for the sake of building some management chops. But wow: what a relief not to have to.
We spent the rest of the time discussing changes we could make immediately, and speculating as to how the transition might go. I let her know I wasn’t concerned with where I sit on the org chart or what my title is – a rather startling realization I came to as sort of a by-product of doing “5 whys”.
Admitting I don’t care how high up the ladder I climb felt like a betrayal of my self-image as an ambitious person.
It felt good to tell people I managed a team of writers and marketers. My family was proud of me. I was proud of me. Isn’t climbing the ladder what a capable, engaged person is supposed to do?
But deep down, my ambition isn’t to rattle off an upper-echelon job title during cocktail party small-talk. I’d rather say I’m elbow-deep in writing something that’s going to help people in some way. And frankly, staying in management wouldn’t afford much opportunity for that.
No longer a manager, still a leader
We ended up combining my team with a sister team, and now we’re a big happy crew of writers, marketers, and SEO experts. I report to a woman who had been my peer before, and the people I used to manage are now my peers.
That’s been the harder transition. Not that my teammates are awkward around me. In fact, they’re awesome. It’s just that I’m still in something of a leadership role, though unofficially.
I haven’t yet figured out if that’s because people still look to me as an authority because I’m a senior member of the team, or because it’s a dynamic I’m perpetuating out of vanity. Until I understand the cause better, I’ll be a little uncomfortable with it. (Should probably step through some root cause analysis on that one of these days…)
On the other hand, I’m a firm believer in the idea that leadership is more personal than positional. So if that’s true, maybe nothing is actually out of whack here.
And btw, I love love love my new role as Principal Writer. I’m making a more meaningful contribution, and having lots of fun doing it. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s this: doing whatever job you’re passionate about is the best way to add value.
That goes for adding value at home, too. I come home to my family a better person. Less frazzled, more patient, more emotionally and physically available.
Your mileage may vary
In many ways, I won the career-pivot lottery. The people around me were incredibly supportive. I didn’t have to move to a different company, or even a different team. I’m really happy with the change.
In other words, I got crazy lucky. Other managers who move back to being individual contributors might not have such a smooth transition.
Still, it’s a move we as a society should be more open to. We have a knee-jerk tendency to take highly-skilled individual contributors and promote them into positions where they no longer use that skill. That doesn’t even make logical sense! Maybe demoting from within should be the next big thing.
I wish I’d done this sooner
If you suspect management isn’t really for you, have a conversation with yourself right away. Don’t dismiss that feeling or put off facing it because “work is just really crazy right now” and you’ll get around to it “when things die down a bit”.
Things are always crazy at work. Decide right now to step up and take your feelings seriously. Do some root cause analysis to dig deep. (You can find lightweight training on “5 whys” and other problem exploration techniques on the Atlassian Team Playbook site if you want help getting started.)
Maybe you’ll end up changing roles, maybe you won’t. What matters is that you choose your path, and choose mindfully. You have to decide to decide.
Also published on Medium.