Some developers always seem to be on the cusp of the next career step.  Here are some thoughts about how their managers can help them.

As a starving startup founder, I never pass up an opportunity for free food and drink.  Since our coworking space is only a half-block away from my last employer, I often benefit from the munificence of my former teammates.

Lately, when I’m sipping a delicious craft coffee in their lounge, the topic that is top of mind for just about everyone has been performance evaluations and promotions.  They just completed annual reviews, and folks are starting to have official meetings with their managers.

Whether these conversations are easy or difficult depends on how the employee falls on two axes: performance and potential.  A simple illustration:

We all work with folks in each of these quadrants.  The ones in the upper-right have usually established such mastery of _____ that we call them the “the _____ guy/gal”.  Everyone knows what they’re about.  Their raise/bonus/promotion is assured.

The ones in the upper-left are the ones that give managers ulcers.  They clearly have abilities – but you can’t cite a specific contribution that’s impactful enough to justify their raise/bonus/promotion.

Some of these folks have personal stuff going on, or are just plain lazy.  In my experience, though, a clear majority are victims of the following organizational pathology:

  1. They are super capable, so everyone goes to them with questions and requests.
  2. They have trouble saying no (more on this later).
  3. Their time and talents are diffused across so many obligations that they never complete that One Big Project.  Their immediate team knows how valuable they are, but it’s hard to convince anyone else.

The brute-force reaction of many managers is to tell these folks, “You just need to learn how to prioritize” (or even offer to help).  Here’s the problem, though: prioritization as a discrete exercise is easy to do and teach.  However, in most organizations, ad-hoc requests and questions are continuous – whether it’s through software (“@Bran: u t?”), or taps on the shoulder.

These interruptions are intrinsically costly (according to research, to the tune of :23 minutes of productivity:).  Even worse, though, the expectation of a real-time response forces the individual to prioritize and commit without thinking through the implications.  Whether it’s out of politeness, optimism, or FOMO, they pause their work and accede to the new task (more often than not).

So, as a manager, how can you protect your team from these interruptions, and keep them focused on the big projects that are critical to your team – and their own careers?  Well, you don’t have to build a 700-foot ice wall, or hide them away in a cave.  Here are a few simpler suggestions:

  • Make sure everyone has a good pair of headphones.  In most open-plan workplaces, headphones have already supplanted the closed office door as the universal “Do Not Disturb” signal.
  • Coordinate at least two hours of daily “Deep Work” time for each team member to work on their top-priority project, and block it off on calendars.  Let stakeholders know that time is sacrosanct for the team, while making yourself available for immediate escalations.  Chances are, no one will be rude enough to push back on a mere two hours.
  • During Deep Work time, encourage your team to put their phones away, and snooze notifications in the corporate chat client.  This will be really, really, really hard for the first few days, and then become a reflex.

Do all of the above for a month, and regroup with your team.  You might be surprised at what you all were able to accomplish – and how much more satisfied everyone feels about their work.

If that seems like a tall order, stay tuned to this space.  At Kettle, we’ve been building a system to help teams that want to do more Deep Work.  We’re about to start our first pilots with companies, so I’ll have stories to share—for better or worse—pretty soon.

In the meantime, hit me up if you have questions, feedback or just want to trade notes.  I’m not going to say no to a free cup of coffee 😉

Dan