6 Lessons from Lara Hogan on Humanizing Management

By Lara Hogan    |    October 02, 2018
GitPrime elevates engineering leadership with objective data. In this interview series, Engineering Leaders talk about how to build high performing teams.

Lara Hogan is the kind of leader that doesn’t take shortcuts.

She’s constantly on the hunt for better ways to support her team. Take a look at the people she’s led, and you might think “How did she hire all these amazing people?”

She invested in them. And retained them. She’s gracefully hired and fired, and coached individuals to have difficult conversations, to step up as leaders, and to mentor others to do the same. For anyone who manages people (and takes it seriously), this is an unthinkable level of badassery.

After a decade of leveling up engineering organizations and growing leaders at companies like Etsy and Kickstarter, Hogan is now the co-founder of Wherewithall, where she offers one-on-one coaching services for managers, executives, and individual contributors growing into leadership, and consulting services to support engineering organizations.

In this interview, Hogan reflects on her experience to share 6 lessons she’s learned about honing the craft of management (by taking a people-centric approach).

1. Recalibrate what success looks like

“As engineers, we have that solid, internal barometer of success. We know what it looks like to succeed,” Hogan says. “You become a manager, and you just have to develop a new internal ‘spidey sense’ about your success, which can be a slow and frustrating process.”

She offers an analogy: “Do you play any instruments?” she asks. “What do you play?”

“Okay — I’m picturing you. You’ve learned to play the guitar. You’re like, ‘I’ve got this. I’m going to branch out—I’m going to start playing the piano.”

“How did it feel to start with a new instrument? Pretty awful, right?” she asks. “You always start with Hot Cross Buns. And you may think, ‘I know how to play a concerto on this other instrument, but now I have to start over with Hot Cross Buns.’ It’s the worst feeling,” she says. “That’s what it feels like when you’re switching from being an individual contributor to being a manager. You have to start over again with Hot Cross Buns.”

hot cross buns music

So embrace the fact that there is a beginning place for you. The Hot Cross Buns of management, Hogan believes, is learning what to do with your time.

You might feel like you accomplish nothing in a day because all your old measurements and deliverables are – poof! – gone. “Your new building blocks are intangible,” she says. “It’s about recognizing that the time you’re spending is still work. It’s just very different work.”

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits all when it comes to the top deliverables of management. Developing that ‘spidey sense’ is really about understanding what your people need. “Maybe your people need strategy. Maybe your people need some emotional support. Maybe your people need you to get out of the way,” Hogan explains. “It could be so many different things, depending on your situation, your company’s situation, and what your direct reports need.”

Hogan offers her baseline for what a successful day looks like:

  • “When you leave knowing how to solve the things that you’ve royally screwed up the next day,” she laughs. “That’s a good day. All the mistakes that I made today, I aim to have a game plan for addressing them tomorrow.”
  • “Also, a successful day is when things are clear and communicated. Things don’t have to be certain—there should be a healthy amount of ambiguity and uncertainty. But we ought to be clear on what the ambiguous and uncertain things are, and how long we expect that to go on for.”

In other words, shorten the mean time to addressing your damage, and maximize clarity.

2. Our first 1:1

Whether your new to facilitating 1:1s, or you’re kicking off a new reporting relationship, Hogan recognizes that getting some particular data during an initial 1:1 can be really helpful. Sure, you can wing it, based on your own previous one-on-ones. Some people do their best work off the cuff. But others, like Hogan, prefer to prepare.

“A little while ago, I shared Questions for our first 1:1 on my blog. It’s a list of questions that you might want to ask the first time you have a one-on-one with someone, but it could also be the first time it’s occurred to you to ask these questions,” she explains. “If you’ve missed that window, don’t worry. You can ask these questions anytime.”

She recommends learning 1. what makes the individual grumpy, and how to know when they’re grumpy, 2. how your report prefers feedback and recognition, and 3. the person’s goals and needs (from you, from their team, etc.).

"You don’t need to know these things today, but you’re probably going to need to know in the future. You don’t want to find out how someone prefers to receive feedback, once it’s time to give them feedback.”


3. The ‘feedback equation’

When it’s not going well for an individual on your team, it can be challenging to know how to approach that—especially as a newer manager.

When you find yourself in this situation, Hogan says, “there’s a classic three-part feedback equation that you can do.”

  1. Can you describe it as if it was recorded on a video camera? “Think through the observation of the behavior. What are you observing?” Hogan asks. “Late deliverables are a perfect example. You can observe that it’s late. But you can’t record something like ‘saying something stupid’. Stupid is relative – good feedback is grounded in something objective.”
  2. What is the impact of the behavior? “Identify what the impact is,” she suggests. “You are late with this deliverable. The impact was we didn’t ship on time and that meant that we lost X amount of dollars. If you can’t identify the impact, it may not be worth giving this feedback. You may just be bothered by something someone is doing, but it’s inconsequential. Wrestle with whether or not this is feedback-worthy.”
  3. Ask an open question. Giving people command statements, like “Show up on time,” doesn’t help them feel heard. “As a manager, you want this to be a partnership,” Hogan says. “You are supporting this person. It’s not just on them to do a thing differently. So I usually include an open question, such as, ‘How can we address this?’ or, ‘What can I do to support you in changing this behavior?’”

“Any new manager ideally can consider these three things and bring them together into a (less worrisome) feedback delivery session,” she says.

4. Managing through crisis

When Hogan refers to ‘terrible times’, she doesn’t necessarily mean chaos within your company. Hogan explains how she responded to an event that was happening outside the company that affected people’s spirits and stability. “I actually was abroad when it happened,” she recalls. “I sent an email to the people who reported to me, who were all managers.” The email wrote:

I need you to support your teammates right now. We don’t know what people are bringing to work today. They might have a lot of fears that you may be unaware ofI need you to have empathy. I need you to be clear. I need you to restate the values that you have as a manager and that our organization has built. Create safe places for people to share if they want to, and do a lot of listening.

You won’t be able to see the full picture of what’s going on in people’s lives. But you can support them and create a safe workplace by focusing on clarity. In Managering in Terrible Times, she writes, “The easier and clearer you can make processes like taking time off, or how the company can support individuals, or your expectations of their work, the easier the load will be for those affected.”

"Every person is a universe. We’re bringing our full selves to work.”

Now, there will be times when you can effectively support your team, and times when you can’t. “There are times when you are not going to be a helpful, healthy person at work,” Hogan says. “I strive to build my relationships with my direct report in such a way that when I’m crumbling, I can tell them and it’s safe.”

“For me, it’s all about recognizing what’s happening in yourself right now, as a manager,” she adds. “Get the help that you need, and when it’s safe, acknowledge that you’re not the wholest person you can be right now.”

"Put your oxygen mask on first. You can’t be a good support of your people if you are not supported.”


5. Optimize for long-term relationships

Every other Friday, Hogan has breakfast with two fellows, Jason Wong and Rafe Colburn. Wong was Hogan and Colburn’s manager for a long time. And while breakfast seems simple enough, this biweekly get-together is more than a meal: it’s Wong’s philosophy, personified.

In Etsy Lessons, Hogan says, “Jason’s management philosophy is optimizing for long-term relationships. He treats you as a teammate not just for this job, but for the rest of your career, whether or not you work at the same company.”

"We all have ideas that we need to throw against a wall to see what sticks. We all have problems that we need to verbalize and get advice on. Having these long-term work relationships is incredibly valuable.”

“The three of us have each taken different paths,” she says. “It’s been so wonderful to have these two people who I relied on, as a peer and as a mentor and boss, who I still get to rely on.”

“And as I said goodbye in one-on-ones with my team, I stole this page from his book. I’m here for my team, not just here at this role, but forever, supporting them and championing them in any way that I can.”

6. Develop your manager crew

One of the more taxing challenges managers face is not getting the support they need. Whether it’s a lack of feedback, a lack of context, or a lack of advice, it’s likely that we’ll all taste plenty of different flavors of this problem.

“I believe in the concept of a manager crew or a manager Voltron,” Hogan says. “Frankly, we can only do so much to help each other. Even if they are the best manager in the entire world, they’re still going to fail you. Besides, it’s not that healthy to lean on one person for everything anyways—you need to have a diverse set of people that you go to. You should be on the constant lookout to build up a crew of people you can cobble together to be your ideal manager.”

"There are a plethora of people out there whom you can lean on to find the variety of support you need.”

Assemble a range of individuals, as diverse as possible, who you can lean on for support as you grow. Include people who are similar to you in terms of tenure and experience, and people who are vastly different than you. You can learn from all of them.

About the author

Lara Hogan Engineering Leadership Coach and Consultant at Wherewithall