5 mins

What if the key to better managerial presence was absence?

As an engineering manager, finding the balance between fostering your team’s independence and your managerial responsibilities can be difficult. 

In reality, it can be more beneficial to focus less on balancing and more on creating space between yourself and your team. This will help to develop agile and autonomous teams that can perform well without constant direction.

An ideal place to start cultivating independence through absence is via a manager’s leave. This can be a great opportunity for teams to manage their daily tasks and challenges without specific instruction, thereby developing greater autonomy and reaping the benefits that come with it.

Familiarize your team with your responsibilities  

The first step in absence management is to identify the activities that you are going to delegate to your team during your leave.

To do this, start by listing your day-to-day activities, then organize them into categories. Using the label features in your calendar, you can go through your meetings and time slots, assigning a label and a color to each. I recommend grouping your calendar obligations in the following way:

  • People management: for activities related to managing people like 1:1s, interviews, appraisals, team meetings, performance reviews, etc.
  • Operations: for project management and software development process activities, like sprint planning, reviews, demos, and reporting.
  • Technical: for technical discussions and activities like system design reviews, technical boards, etc.
  • Client: for activities and meetings with the clients.
  • Corporate: for corporate and transverse activities.

Of course, this isn’t an exact formula and some areas may not apply, but having a rough outline is a good start. 

Once you have separated your activities, making them visible to your team members is essential. Host a meeting and provide documentation in a shared space like Confluence, to make sure everyone is familiar with and aligned on your role. It is also a way to demystify the manager’s job and make it accessible to all team members.

Ask your team for feedback on how you are organizing your work and whether they need more details about some activities. When doing this, this is often the point at which I discover some of my reports’ gray areas in my work that need clarification. 

Define and communicate an absence process

In order for your teams to learn how to be independent, the absence process should move beyond appointing an interim in an out-of-office automatic reply. Often this will lead to vital issues being postponed until the manager’s return as the colleague covering needs contextual information and legitimacy to take action. 

This prevents them from dealing with tasks outside their comfort zone. They will be confronted with some important decision-making and exposed to dealing with different parts of the organization. 

To keep this from happening, create a transparent, visible, and effective absence process. The goal is not to question the team’s autonomy, but to provide a context for the team to exercise it better.

The following elements should be included in the process: 

  • Delegation scope: Define the activities that you will delegate to your team and those that are excluded, like budget management and some HR activities. Generally, it’s prudent to delegate to one report that oversees the leave period, but all other team members should have visibility on delegated tasks as well.
  • Interim management: As a manager, you can either appoint an interim and explain the rationale behind your choice, or ask your team if anyone would like to elect themselves into the role. If more than one person is interested, you can establish clear appointment rules. In my team, we use a rotation system between three team members. This may also serve as a chance to recognize the team members who are interested in pursuing a management path and assist them in developing their careers.
  • Delegation legitimacy: When you appoint an interim or delegate part of your managerial scope to your team, they must have the required legitimacy. You should explain that you will support and commit to the decisions made by your team, even if you disagree with them. By doing this, you will communicate to your team that you trust in their abilities and support their choices. Additionally, it will strengthen the culture of accountability.

Once you have defined your absence process, you can communicate it across the organization, or at least to the relevant stakeholders. As a member of my company’s board of directors, I ensure that the interim manager will attend and actively participate in the board’s meetings during my absence.

Assess and improve 

The absence period is a valuable learning opportunity for your team and yourself as a manager. 

Immediately upon your return from leave, organize a retrospective meeting with your team. This retrospective would be more than a reporting meeting on what happened during your absence. It would include your team members’ impressions, observations, and suggestions. They could bring a fresh look to your day-to-day job, detect gaps in the shared list of activities, and suggest improvements to the whole team’s functioning.

Since the interim period also presents a chance to assess whether your direct reports can take on a management position, it’s vital to establish transparent assessment criteria. Examples of such criteria may include the interim manager’s ability to prioritize tasks, the regularity and quality of team meetings and ceremonies, the interim manager’s initiative in resolving new challenges, and their contribution to the organization’s events and meetings. 

Final thoughts

Managerial absence is a powerful tool.

It can bring forth conversations about the absence period and could lead to coaching sessions for those interested in pursuing a career in management. Perhaps it can even reveal opportunities for individual contributors, like software developers and architects, to discover management. 

When reports have the opportunity to discover a more senior position during an interim period, managers can also reap tremendous benefits by getting a broader view of the organization and being exposed to strategic and business issues. They will be able to acquire the situational skills required to climb the organizational ladder confidently.