Talking Like a Manager

Whatever your challenges are as a manager you are going to need some solid skills in communication to be able to deal with them. As an IC you can sometimes code your way out of problems but when you are a manager you are almost always having to talk or write your way to a better place.

Here’a a few tips in no particular order.

Practice what you are going to say before you say it

When something is important to communicate, its important to get it right. Getting it right isn’t only about having the right words to say. It’s also important to be able to say them clearly and with confidence. I’ve found the only way to do this is to practice. If you have a difficult 1-1 coming up with someone on your team, you don’t need to rehearse the whole thing in front of the mirror but it is worth rehearsing the key points that you want to get across. Say them out loud in advance.

Before any important meeting think about the most things you want to get across and practice saying them. Make sure they sound clear. Think about ways the meeting might go off the rails and see if you can come up with some things to interject which would bring things back to where they need to be. You may never have to use these items, but its good to have them in your back pocket.

A lot of what goes on in meetings is not that interesting or important. People like to hear themselves talk. Other people just want the meeting to be done. A good strong clear statement can make a difference. Try to focus your input on the highest value stuff and keep things on track.

Be quiet if someone else is already saying what you want to say

You don’t need to always lead, you just need to make sure things go in the right direction. If someone else is already making your argument, even if they aren’t using the precise words you would use, let them keep going. You can nod in agreement or interject a “good point” now and then but you don’t need to be the one who is driving the discussion. If things do get off course, then you can always jump in but don’t feel compelled to re-adjust things which are going well already. If there’s a tiny nitpick, maybe you can deal with that later or maybe you won’t even have to.

Lead with the weakness, follow with the Strength

Most people engage in Persuasion by simply listing the things which support there point of view and downplaying or more often ignoring those things which don’t support them. I find this practice annoying but it does seem to be working for people.

Personally I find it more useful to lead with what I think are the weak points about my position. For example, If I am trying to advocate for a SWE to get a high rating I will start by acknowledging a weakness they have but then follow with but …..  This does a few things.

  • It establishes that I’m not blind to the problems and establishes some credibility
  • It can pre-empt someone else bringing the weakness up before I do which makes me look weak
  • The weakness is framed by me and not someone else
  • It provides a clear “even though” narrative that people can enjoy. People love a story about progress or overcoming setbacks.

If you say “X is great but sometimes has a problem with Y” you are open to people digging into the Y. If you say “X has had some issues with Y but is improving and they really delivered on Z” it’s a much better story. 

Other forms are: 

  • I know this isn’t what you wanted to be doing, but I think it is important we get this done soon.
  • We didn’t get the commitment we wanted from Team x but I think we can still succeed by doing Y.

Give the hard to give feedback

At least for me it never stops feeling uncomfortable to give feedback that you think people don’t want to hear. I can say that I always feel better after doing it. You can follow the formula of hinting at things to begin with a light touch but you need to be prepared to follow up with the more direct conversations if that doesn’t work.

When it gets to that point my technique is usually to write out what I want to say to them. I read it over beforehand and then tell them the message in person. After that I followed up with an email restating “what we talked about” based on the original draft so that I know what I did or didn’t get across. Doing this right is worth it.

Enlist someone else to make the point or ask for you

There are always times when people are going to be averse to listening to you as the manager. This is true for your team and when working with other teams. There are things which can sometimes only happen when you are not in the room.

Maybe its a lack of trust or maybe people just don’t want to be told what to do. Maybe its some nefarious bullshit politics where some other manager doesn’t want to let anyone else have a win.

When I was at Amazon it was really hard to get a partner team to do anything for your team. When I needed another team to do something for my team sometimes I would get one of the developers on my team to ask one of the developers on the other team directly. If I ask the manager, the answer is going to be no, but between two developers with no manager in the room, its just an interesting problem to be solved and that’s what good developers want to do. If the developer wants to do it, it can be hard for the other manager to say no.

This also works with schedule commitments. When you have someone on your team who is always pushing back and always has some additional thing which needs doing before you can ship, it can be hard as a manager to get an kind of definite statements out of them about what is left or when we might get to done. If you ask another developer on the team you trust to meet with them 1-1 you can often get to the whole truth with a lot less angst.


One of the hardest things I had to learn was that repetition is important. Not everyone is always listening and people take away different ideas from things even when they are paying attention. The end of a meeting (and/or in a follow up communication) is a great time to call back to the key points you want everyone to leave with.






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