One of the most important management lessons I’ve learned was amidst a project that had not gone as planned. The client was understandably upset, and resolving the issue was our team’s highest priority.
Leading the charge
I thought my job as a leader was to rally the troops and ensure we were doing everything we could to set things right as quickly as possible — I had a “by any means necessary” mindset.
A worthy goal, for sure. In fact, it’s hard to argue against doing whatever you can to make a client happy.
I asked anyone who’d be available to put in long hours and participate in late night hackathons. I joined as well, offering support and encouragement, not wanting to ask my team to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.
I was continuously letting the team know how important it was we make this right. By focusing on the client needs and putting in long hours with my team, I thought I was being a good leader.
Slowing our roll
Matt, one of the founders of HQ, reached out to me and recommended I tone down my stress-inducing approach. Slow down. Breathe. Work at a measured pace.
I thought the constant nose to the grindstone was the marker of a hard-working and dedicated team member. And to be fair, it can be. But that doesn’t mean it’s always a good approach.
Matt taught me that stressed employees can’t produce the kind of quality work we and our clients should expect from HQ. The team knew the client was upset. The team knew we needed to address this as soon as possible.
Losing sleep and feeling constant pressure wasn’t going to make it better.
I took the advice to heart, and since that moment, reducing stress for my team has become one of my highest priorities as a manager. I can honestly say this has improved the quality of our work.
What I got right
- Dedication to customer service. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Some projects have minor snags, and sometimes bigger issues arise. It happens to everyone in every industry, so the important thing is to focus on making it right.
- Being with the team. No leader should ask their team to do something they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves. Whenever I asked the team to stay up late or work over weekends, I was there with them.
- Encouraging my team. At no point was I berating them — I love the people I work with, so even while putting the pressure on, I had full confidence in them and wanted them to know I appreciated their efforts.
What I got wrong
- Asking the team to work late nights and weekends. You work to live, not the other way around. A person’s job shouldn't become more important than their physical and mental health.
- Keeping pressure on the team. Even when well-intentioned, this is going to do more harm than good. The team knew it was important, and I didn’t need to keep stressing the point.
- Focusing on speed. Again, well-intentioned, but quick work is often sloppy work, which can lead to more — or maybe just different — problems. Sometimes it takes a concerted effort to focus on quality over speed, but considering the alternatives, quality work is the quickest work.
How it’s changed
- I don’t ask my team to burn the midnight oil anymore. When we were a team made up of 20-somethings, the late nights were honestly fun and exciting much of the time. But as I’ve grown, I’ve learned “grinding” is nothing to be proud of.
- I prioritize employee mental health over client concerns. Of course, resolving client concerns is one of my highest priorities, but it simply cannot be a higher priority than making sure our team is healthy and able to do quality work. The optics of late nights will not outpace the quality of measured work.
- I’ve learned to better communicate realistic timelines. If something is truly urgent, we always find a way to get it taken care of. But unless you’re a first responder, “truly urgent” likely won’t happen more than a few times each year. We know a priority when we see one, but we have two whole days between Friday and Monday where work will likely be paused.
Adding stress and reducing sleep in the name of speed is like only putting some gas in your car during a road trip: Sure, it might feel faster in the moment to hit the road, but stopping multiple times or running out of gas is much slower than taking the time to fill the tank.
Unfortunately, employee burnout is a well-known trope in the tech industry, and it’s something we at HQ avoid like a plague. When your work requires brainpower, you’ve got to take care of the mind.