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Clearbit's approach to management

At Clearbit, we care about good management, an art we think is severely underrated in the wider business community. Your manager can make or break your experience at work. They are your primary contact with a company, responsible for a whole host of things integral to your success.

Ultimately, people don't leave companies; they leave managers.

Yet, when you join a company, it's a crapshoot as to whether or not you get a good manager. Training is not consistent (if it's done at all), and individual contributors are suddenly "promoted" to managers without much thought to the fundamental career change they're undertaking.

It follows that, if the performance of your managers is critical to your team's success, then the training of those managers is also critical.

So last year, we set out on a mission to create the best-managed company in the world. A lofty goal, sure, but even if we get a good deal of the way there, I'm hoping we can help raise the bar.

Great management training consists of many things, from training videos to handbooks to 1:1 coaching. We are developing a system at Clearbit to do all of this, and our plan is to publish as much of it as we can so people can apply it to their own organizations.

Our internal wiki contains a Manager's Handbook — a living, breathing, compendium of all our best practices.

Clearbit Manager's Handbook table of contents snippetA snippet from the handbook's table of contents

We're going to publish the whole handbook later in the year, but in the meantime, here's the TLDR.

Jump ahead to:

Do

  1. Attract, nurture, coach, and retain talent.
  2. Communicate what the next most important challenge the company/team is facing.
  3. Set goals, not tasks.
  4. Be the tiebreaker when your team can't reach consensus.
  5. Be the information hub. Know what everyone is working on, and connect the dots that wouldn’t otherwise get connected.
  6. Create a feedback-safe environment, where people feel heard, and celebrate critical feedback. Lead by example.
  7. Keep an eye on your team's health and happiness.
  8. Hire the right people to succeed at the team's goals and ensure everyone's strengths matches their roles.
  9. Give your team a clear path to progress in their careers.
  10. Enable your team first, ship your own projects second. For every direct report dedicate roughly 15% of your time to managing them. A manager with 7 reports should have very little bandwidth for IC work (105%).

Don't

  1. Micromanage your teams work or daily output (creative work isn’t an assembly line). If you find yourself supervising too often, you've hired the wrong people.
  2. Publicly shame (ever).
  3. Accept gossip or intra-team politics.

Motivation

  1. People work for you because they believe in you. Access to their talent is a privilege.
  2. Authority isn’t bestowed freely. It’s earned by repeatedly making good decisions.
  3. Don’t make decisions unless you have to. Whenever possible, allow the team to explore ideas and make decisions on its own.
  4. Determine how much buy-in a decision needs. Delegate accordingly.
  5. Do make decisions when it’s necessary. Few things are as demoralizing as a stalled team.
  6. Don’t shoot down ideas until it’s necessary. Create an environment where everyone feels safe to share and explore ideas.

Hiring

  1. A manager’s output = The output of her team + The output of the neighboring teams under her influence.

  2. You are measured as a leader on how many people you need on your team to achieve the desired output, i.e. your managerial leverage, or how much are you able to do with as few people as possible.

  3. When adding someone, ask yourself if someone:

    • is individually so productive that they raise the average productivity of your team? OR
    • acts as a multiplier to everyone else on the team?

    If the answer is no to both questions, don’t add them to your team.

People

  1. Hire great people, and then trust them completely. Default to trust, and then let anyone go who doesn't live up to that trust.
  2. You’re the one who makes final hiring and firing decisions. Everything that happens on your team is your responsibility.
  3. If you feel something’s wrong, you’re probably right. Trust your gut.
  4. If you find yourself blaming someone, you’re probably wrong. Nobody wakes up and tries to do a bad job. 95% of the time, you can resolve your feelings by running a respectful clearing session.
  5. People make emotional decisions 90% - 100% of the time — including you. All intellectual arguments have strong emotional undercurrents. You’ll be dramatically more efficient once you learn to figure out what those are.
  6. Most people don't easily share their emotions. It's your job to pull them out and set the example by sharing your own.
  7. Have the courage to say what everyone knows to be true but isn’t saying.
  8. Discover and fix cultural problems your team may not be aware of. Have the courage to say what everyone should know but doesn’t.
  9. Unless you’re a sociopath, firing people is so hard you’ll invent excuses not to do it. If you’re consistently wondering if someone’s a good fit for too long, have the courage to do what you know is right.

Zone of Genius

  1. People’s performance consists of a mixture of skills, strengths, and talents.
    • A strength is anything that gives you energy.
    • A talent is an innate ability that can’t be taught.
    • A skill is a competency that can be taught.
    • When all three are aligned, we are in our zone of genius.
  2. It’s often clear when talent isn’t present. Strengths are less clear. Beware the zone of competence, where someone is good at doing a function but doesn’t get energy from it — it will ultimately lead to burn out.
    • Every person is unique.
    • You can’t turn weaknesses into strengths, or create talent where there is none. (It's really hard.)
    • All you can teach is skills. Direct your feedback there.
    • Focus on doubling down on someone’s existing zone of genius.
    • Align people’s work with what they’re already good at.
    • There's no such thing as an A player in isolation. There is an A team, where each member on the team brings distinct value.
  3. Ask yourself whether this person is capable of doing the work you want them to do if their life depended on it. Is it a question of motivation or a question of capability?
    • If their life depended on it and they could do it, then that’s on you as a leader not providing the proper motivation.
    • If however, they would be unable to do it even if their life depended on it, then that is your mistake as a manager for expecting them to be able to.

Decisions

  1. Don’t judge too quickly; you’re right less often than you think. Even if you’re sure you’re right in any given case, wait until everyone’s opinion is heard. Remember that you are the loudest voice in the room.
  2. Once everyone is heard, summarize all points of view so clearly that people say “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” List any points of agreement with each view, and state what you’ve learned from everyone. Then make your decision.
  3. Set the expectation that once a decision has been made, everyone gets onboard.
  4. Reopen the discussion if there is significant new information.
  5. Don’t let people pressure you into decisions you don’t believe in. They’ll hold you responsible for them later, and they’ll be right. Decisions are your responsibility.
  6. Believe in yourself. You can’t lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.

Conflict

  1. When disagreement gets personal or people don’t accept well-reasoned decisions, it turns into conflict.
  2. Most conflict happens because people don’t feel heard or don't feel like they have agency to control their world.
  3. Sit down with each person and ask them how they feel. Listen carefully. Then ask again. And again. Then summarize what they said back to them. Most of the time that will solve the problem.
  4. If the conflict persists after you’ve gone to reasonable lengths to hear everyone out and fix problems, it’s time for a clearing conversation.

Clearing conversations

(What is a clearing conversation?)

  1. Run your clearing as soon as possible.
  2. Try not to assume or jump to conclusions before the clearing.
  3. Understand where you are in the drama triangle: Villain, Victim, Hero
  4. Before starting ask, "am I above or below the line?"
  5. Use the template — seriously. The formula works.
  6. Have the courage to state how you feel and what you need. People are drawn to each other’s vulnerability but repelled by their own. Vulnerability isn’t weakness.
  7. Expect people to extend you the same courtesy. If someone makes you feel bad for stating your needs and feelings, then they don't belong at Clearbit.

Setting boundaries

  1. People will push and prod to discover your boundaries.
  2. Occasionally someone will push too far. When they do, you have to show a rough edge or you’ll lose authority with your team.
  3. A firm “That's not ok here” or "I'm not OK with that" is usually enough.
  4. If you have to firmly say “I’m not ok with that” too many times to the same person, it’s your job to fire them.
  5. Don’t laugh things off if you don’t feel like laughing them off. Have the courage to show your true emotions.

Thanks Matt Sornson, Brian Hemeryck, Ethan Hackett, Jeff Hardison, and Janet Choi for reading drafts of this. Special thanks to Matt Mochary for inspiring and providing our springboard into concious management.

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