Bring me problems!
What to discuss with your manager and why.
Managing a group of great engineering managers I ran into an unexpected complication. Quite a few of them were reluctant to bring up problems they did not have a solution for. They felt it was unprofessional. I’ll do some soul searching on what that says about me as a manager. Am I that person that slams their fist on their desk and yells: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”?
The Old RAG
For much of my working life I had to submit a RAG report before I could start my weekend. It’s a standard tool in large projects. Each lead reports their progress weekly as items in Red, Amber, or Green. Green means progress made since the last report. Amber are issues that are under control. Red are issues that are not under control and need to be addressed a level up.
I said goodbye to the old RAG without tears, but I still find it a useful model to think about what to discuss with my manager in one to one meetings.
What are you working on, what progress have you made? It is useful for your manager to have a complete picture of the work that is in progress and to know what you are contributing. Knowing what you are working on, what engages you, how busy you are, will also help them identify what opportunities might be of interest to you.
Most managers don’t like surprises. It makes them feel they are not in control. So it’s helpful to share the challenges you’re facing, even if you’ve got them covered. When your manager hears about these issues through others they won’t have to worry, because they know you’re on it. If your manager has the habit of jumping on things, you can add the explicit message that you are not looking for them to bud in.
Chances are that your manager has relevant context for you that they have not shared. Not because they like secrets. But because they did not realize it is useful for you; or it has slipped their mind. What you share in your one to one will help your manager understand what context they should provide.
Every role has it’s scope, every job has its job to do. It’s good to stretch the boundaries of your role, but whatever your level in the organization, you’ll face some problems that you won’t be able to solve. Bubbling those up quickly will be more impactful than grinding away. It will not always be clear what you can and can’t handle yourself. All the more reason to bring it up in your next meeting.
Your one to one is an opportunity to drive the conversation a level up. What do you think your manager should be discussing with their peers and their manager? What context do you want them to have in mind? These are the things to bring to your next one to one.
For further reading I recommend this great, short article by Will Larson on Partnering with your manager.