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Lead Time Chats, Episode 6: Lara Hogan

Lara Hogan speaks to Jean Hsu for Lead Time Chats

March 31, 2021

Note: Lead Time was recorded to be watched and listened to in video format. We recommend you watch the video if you’re able to. Our transcripts are automatically generated using transcription software and include limited human review so they may contain some errors.

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Jean:  Hi, Lara. Welcome.

Lara: Thank you so much.

Jean: Yeah. Thanks for joining me for lead time chats. So let's just dive right in. The reality is we're a year into a pandemic. A full year now, and lots of people are depleted and low functioning. Dare I say, most people and you've been coaching and training engineering managers, before the pandemic, during the pandemic, throughout like how have you seen managers be able to effectively lead people in the situation?

Both navigating supporting the people on their teams and holding them accountable for work getting done, especially when the managers themselves may also be struggling and low functioning.

Lara: What a nightmare.  It's weird that the thing that I've found is the theme running through it is that everybody's been really different in surprising ways.

Some people thought this would be really catastrophic and up under their lives and they've been flourishing during this time and other people were like, I'm prepared. I'm great during crises, but this is a marathon, right? It's just been really interesting, both for the managers themselves and for their teams.

Everything is a surprise for everybody. So it's been a lot of okay, given that what we prepared for, what we expected, or how I thought it would be is not truly what's happened. What do I do now? How do I pivot? How do I get over this surprise?

Jean: Being adaptable to your own resilience or reaction to everything that's going on and everyone's going through the same similar storm.

Lara: Exactly. One of the things that I found really surprising was the managers who are flourishing. They're trying to be really empathetic.  They're not just I'm great so everybody's great. They  really do understand that their situation's abnormal and they need to go the extra mile like everybody does. But for those managers that are also depleted, either it's  having to hold people accountable when they themselves are just burned out it's rough.

So there's a couple of things that I've been talking through a lot with them in terms of tactics and processes. One is prioritizing one way communication. So this is helpful for everybody involved often. I found, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, I'm sure you saw this too.  Managers: let's make a happy hour. Let's all hang out.  We're all isolated. Let's be together.

Well-intentioned. Terrible. No everybody's drained. Zoom fatigue is a thing. A lot of people had so many other commitments that they needed to keep.

Jean: Yeah. Kids at home.

Lara: Seriously. I can't have a 5:00 PM Zoom.  Thank you for the intention, but not going to work for me. So one way communication means one to many and usually in an asynchronous medium, but it can also be synchronous, but what are the ways that we can communicate where it's just one person communicating things that people need to know about or things that people would like to know about. Things that will inform their predictability, their stability, their amount of choice.  All the stuff that we care about. That  one to many tends to really help people's brains because they can watch it while they're doing something else. They can watch it with their cameras. They don't have to feel like they're going to be called on or need to be on at all.

So that's been really helpful. Whatever you can do to make things one to many, please    do it.

Jean: What kind of things  do people usually not do one to many, but you encourage them to? All Hands?

Lara: All Hands, absolutely.  We don't need to have every single conversation  be  how do we take feedback and ask for questions? That's really useful, but what are the other asynchronous mediums where you can gather that information and casual things like, okay, here's the holidays that are coming up. Here's the PTO that's coming up. Here's what our new plan is for, being co-located again or not like updates on that stuff. Really any changes in like company policies, what are we supporting? What are the refreshes for learning and development, budgets and home office. It's all that stuff.

Even just stand-ups honestly. How can we make the manager be like, okay, here's what we're expecting for the sprint. Here's what I'm looking for, to get out of it.  Here's the surprises that we are anticipating, or that we're planning for. Holler if I can support you all in it.  Slack me, or  we can talk further in our one-on-one.  Rather than being like any questions, which  you're not going to get a response now.

You might have one or two people being like chomping at the bit to ask a question, I guarantee you, everybody else isn't.

Jean: We do all our daily check-ins through Range and so we don't have a Zoom daily thing. I can't imagine having to get on one.. We do have other meetings of course, but like we have a mid day social time, which is nice.  I'm like, oh, this is during my work hours not like taking from my family time.

It's totally optional. It's not mandatory fun. One other way. I found one-way communication even one-on-one right. If people are. Struggling. So on Range, sometimes people can mark themselves as red, which is I'm really not doing well.

Or, if I know something's not going well sometimes I'll just Slack them, be like, Hey, no need to respond. That's the one way part of it, even though it's, one-on-one like no need to respond, but I figured you might be feeling a bit, upset about this situation.

I want to let you know that like, whenever, if you want to chat, I'm here, but no need to respond.

Lara: Yeah, cause it feels like otherwise everything you're wondering, does my manager want me to respond to, are they asking the question? Do I need to read between the lines, but that's all of those it's so much work.

The mental

Jean: The mental load, giving someone a baby shower present and being like part of the gift is no, thank you. Card needed.

Lara: Yes, absolutely. That red, I assume it's like a red, yellow, green thing, right? I've been recommending this to a lot of folks, even in one-on-ones it's just like a lightweight, how can we make our check-ins as lightweight as humanly possible that red, it can mean so many things to many different people, but only having to say red and not having to explain the why is huge. Same for yellow honestly, sometimes. Same for green. We might be doing great and just not want to talk about it.

Jean: Yeah. Good. Just say one word.

Lara: Yep. Exactly. When it comes down to one-on-one meetings, especially, some people do want some time to process and share concerns or just talk about nothing for an hour, just to have that social time. Other people, it just breaks their focus or, they just want to get their work done. So making sure that as a manager, you're able to gather that data from them in a way that feels not weird and not like it's gonna reflect poorly on them in the performance review.  A lot of people are worried about how they show up or what they ask to be excused from because they're worried that's going to impact how people think of them.

Jean: This morning I was on a mom’s in tech Facebook group I'm on and people were talking about this, having something where you share your mood on a mood elevator or something and some people were like there's no way I'm going to. They don't feel safe in that environment.

In some teams, you're just not going to feel safe saying, “wow, I am really struggling today. I'm really fried. I am at my wits.”  They're going to worry about how that reflects on them.

Lara: Now there's like the other extreme that I'm finding with lots of managers, where they have direct reports that are just like, let me tell you about my childhood trauma, and like the managers take this position to be like, I want to support my teammates.

I want to make sure that they're okay. I want to be helpful, but this is beyond my skill and expertise slash this is a therapy conversation. or--I've been thinking a lot recently about this--energy draining. One-on-ones where you just dread one-on-ones with any one or two people cause you know, it's going to be a lot.

So for those managers that are struggling with that, what we talk through a lot of is, how can we set appropriate boundaries? You do have to help them. You are responsible for keeping them safe and making sure that they have what they need, but that's for work. You are not responsible for making sure that they have what they need in the personal childhood trauma section of their life.

So helping managers think through, okay, what is my role? What do I want my role to be? In addition to how my work describes my role, how do I want to show up for these people and where can I define that boundary? I'm sure you and I having gone through coach training, they talked to us about this. Coaching oversimplified is like work-focused and future-focused and therapy tends to be past focused and personally focused as coaches. We get training. Here's a way to nudge the conversation to be work-focused. Yeah. Got it. It sounds like that was a really hard experience. Sounds like that's bringing up a lot for you. How has it showing up for you at work? What can we do to create support systems or what can I do to support you going forward and really trying at work? And coming up with a line it's yeah, got it, it sounds like that's really important for you. I can't provide that. I'm not equipped or I don't have the skill set or there's gotta be some with some training that can be helpful to you. I unfortunately can't do that, but what I can do is help with, again, work. Keep on redirecting as much as possible. So we've practiced that in coaching sessions and for some people it's okay, thank goodness.

I have a line I can say. Yeah. For other people, they just get sucked in because they really want to help, and that's so hard.

Jean: Yeah, I find that with coaches, I think that's a comment you want to help. So if someone comes to you with something they need help with, it's hard to be like, can't help you with that. Let's move on or let's refocus, right?

Lara: Yeah. Managers too, it's just because they want to, they care, and they really want to help. But especially if you, as a manager at the end of your tether, it's hard to have the energy to. Be useful or be helpful. So that's why what's your role, figuring out what your role is for today and for this season, what's the number one thing you're optimizing for?

Or what's your North Star? How do you want to be for your teammates? That can be a helpful reframe to be like, okay. Here's where I should put my priorities. And here's what I need to know too, because it doesn't fit with what that role is today. There might be energy. I have. Yeah.

Jean: One thing I've personally also found useful is just thinking about What's actually in my control, right?

Someone having some conflict with their spouse, that all is not in my control. Like I can maybe help them lightly, but it's not, I'm not going to be couples counseling and help them resolve that. And so getting clear on what is the sphere of influence you have and then trying to let go of the things outside of that as a way that I think managers can Take care of themselves and set back, or be a little bit clear about boundaries, especially when they want to be helpful.

Lara: Yeah. I don't know about you, but I definitely had people that I work with, I just cared so deeply for it. I just ended up worrying about them off hours and for so many managers, like how do you turn that off? It's a good instinct, but again, I like to reframe it as okay, you need to be a teammate for all of these people, not just this one person.

This comes up in like normal performance review conversations too. Like how much time are we spending working with somebody who needs a lot of our attention versus everybody we need to be supporting right now and doing some math around okay, what's the right amount to give that way.

I can make sure my oxygen mask is on so that I can also be available and useful to everybody else who needs to lean on me too.

Jean: Yeah, one thing you mentioned before was that people are responding to the situation we're in and very different and sometimes unexpected ways. And one thing I've noticed is that there are people who are visibly.

Struggling. And that shows up in their work. And then there's some people who are doing fine in their work. And so you, but you want to make sure you do check in with everyone, right? This is what I've heard from friends and stuff too. Like people are able to escape into their work. So they may seem extremely productive.

But  if you then translate that to like, “Oh, they're doing fine.” That may not be the case.

Lara: 100%. That's what I get. I love the red, yellow, green, cause again, they might be looking really green.

Exactly. Love that. I was just like, again, a lightweight way. We don't need to go into it if they don't want to. There's like a, there's so much wrapped up in here about as a manager, you don't push people to share with you what. They're really enduring right now. Like they may not, it may be more work for them to explain what's going on for them, but find a way to check in.

And also I'm sure you've had this experience asking someone what they need doesn't work like, okay, what do you need right now? Pretty much, no one has answered that question. Otherwise they would probably have already asked for it. So I recommend that as managers, we think about one or two solutions that we can offer and say, or more something else, okay.

Like I get it. You're red right now. It seems like you're shipping on time. Would it be more helpful to talk through what you're going through in this one-on-one or skip this one-on-one entirely or something else, ended up having to something else opens the door for them to choose something new, but having some specific, they could just have a choice, can really decrease the energy needed for them to expand, to get to where they need to get to be.

Jean: Yeah. I love that. And even just it, it reminds people who are struggling and low functioning, the options that are available to them. Remember you have PTO, right? Remember you can take a day off and if you need, yeah. Remember you can do that. We reiterated that a ton during the election season and all that.

Remember, you can take time off, you have PTO, and just like really gentle nudges. For people, if they want to take time off or if they want to escape into their work that's fine too.

Lara: You're present. I see a lot of managers concerned about that. I think it's some managers like mandating time off, and that is a risky move because who knows what you are asking them to go and face. So again, giving people options and I love that reinforcing, Hey, even minimum PTs, just hey please. This is here for a reason. I promise and modeling it though, too. Cause I find that if managers are not modeling the behaviors that they want to see in their teammates aren't going to do it.

It doesn't feel safe.

Jean: Right. What are other ways that you've talked about setting boundaries, modeling the behavior. For managers who are really struggling and still having to lead, what are some other ways that they can better take care of themselves first so that they can also support their team?

Lara: Totally. I've been a huge proponent of defragging your calendar for a long time. And by that, Checking in on how much your current meeting schedule and when you have meetings and how often you have meetings is draining your energy specifically.  The kinds of meetings, context switching is so hard.

Having lack of focus. Time is so hard. Sometimes the volume of one-on-ones is unbearable. Like we all have a good healthy amount that we can have in a day. Mine's three a day is my max. Even coaching. I love it, but it's emotionally draining. So taking a look at your calendar, moving things around, if possible, to mitigate some of that energy drain and give you the reenergizing focus time.

Should that be useful to you? Everybody's going to have a different looking calendar. Everybody's gonna have different things that give them energy and things that deplete their energy. So it's gonna be custom, but yeah. You have my permission to go and revisit, especially longstanding recurring meetings, would they be better again, a one-to-many versus an interactive component?

What ways can you decrease the need for people to be, have their brains on and engaged, including you as a manager?

Jean: Yeah, I'm making more. Yeah. One thing I noticed was that we have something called product collab time. We have this twice a week. We should be participating in once a week. They were like, 1:00 PM and it felt like it cut into my, Thursday, Tuesday, focus time.

So I just brought it up in a meeting and I was like, hey, like how many of you, thumbs up, if you would prefer it to be earlier in the morning so that you could have more focus time in the afternoon? Because looking at most of the engineer's calendars, it was afternoon time. It was really the only meeting.

There was some historic reason why it was at that time. Then we just moved it. Now everyone has their afternoons free for focused work and get all your meetings done in the mornings. It was magical just like the long standing meetings. A lot of times people don't feel like they can move them. Oh, there's a good reason they're there. Maybe that reason is not relevant anymore. Who knows? At the beginning of the pandemic we had all sorts of restrictions so revisiting them and then also modeling to people that these things can be moved around. Raise a flag. If you feel like it's not working for you, we're all engineers here.

Lara: Run it as an experiment. You don't have to say here's how it is from here on out. Give it time, box it, something. You gonna check in on it.  Once you've run through that time and see if you want to change it again. There are no rules.

Jean: I remember reading Kate Houston's post. People really are averse to process changes, but you just say, it's an experiment. Say we're gonna run it as a pilot. We're gonna run it as an experiment for two weeks and then check back in, be like, Oh, cool.

Lara: Yeah, that sounds great. He loves it, especially if you say what you're checking in on, like we're gonna, we're going to send a two question survey afterwards about whether or not this is working for you or how much focus times do you give back or name a thing, be specific about the thing that you think people are really in need right now you've heard in one-on-ones people really need more of right now. Yeah. I used to work for a CTO who made sure that any recurring meetings had an expiration date of six months. It was like in the final meeting, there was a like intentional agenda item. Okay, we're going to check in if we should re up this again.

If so, what changes should we make to the format of the agenda at the time or the frequency? And it was not always. We didn't always remember to do it, but just knowing that we had permission to set things for six months and I would say even shorter these days, like whatever for three months and see what you want to change, yeah. It can be a really helpful reminder. Like this doesn't have to be this way forever.

Jean: Yeah. I've heard of couples doing that for like relationships. I can see that working. Yeah. It's like just being really intentional Hey, is this working or not? And not defaulting to like, we're just in it forever.

Lara: Yes. Totally. Because again, so much of this is like by accident, we came, as you said, like we made some decisions at the beginning of the pandemic that have stuck around because we didn't put in a check-in point. We didn't. Yeah.

Jean: They're like, we're going to remote. Let's just cobble together something and not think now we're stuck with it for a class.

Lara: Exactly. So to anybody watching this, you have both of our permission to go  and run some experiments. It's really, it can be so like reenergizing to know that you have that choice, that autonomy over how your day is supposed to look.

Jean: Cool. So defragging your calendar. Any other last minute tips?

Lara: We've covered so much ground here. I'm really hopeful that people are going to be able to like, get some energy back, put their oxygen mask on. Yeah, for sure.

Jean: Take care of yourself so that you can support your team and whoever else. Needs you at home as well? Precisely. Yeah. Cool. Thank you so much, Laura. This was so helpful. I'm sure everyone will get a lot out of it too.

Lara: Truly  a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Lead Time Chats, Episode 6: Lara Hogan
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