NN18: Manager Confessions: Yeah... I’m Gonna Need You to Come in on Saturday

This morning at Netroots Nation I had the honor of moderating a panel of very smart managers at progressive organizations.  In case you missed it (and I can't blame you if you missed a 9 am panel after enjoying New Orleans last night!) here's a blog-ified summary of the learning that came out of our session.

Our panelists:

Malinda Frevert (she/her)
Deputy Digital Director, DSCC

Adrian Reyna (he/him)
Director of Membership & Tech Strategies, UnitedWeDream

Rachael Junard (she/her & they/them)
Senior Regional Manager, ActBlue

Sean Carlson (he/him)
Senior Vice President, Revolution Messaging

And your kindly moderator:
Jill Raney (she/her & they/them)
Founder & CEO, Practice Makes Progress


Strong relationships between managers and their staff are founded on trust. How do you earn the trust of your team that you're safe to disagree with and safe to have difficult conversations with?

  • You don't have a right to the trust of your staff. You have to earn it, and it takes time to build.
  • Focus on the person and not just what they can produce. If something's not getting done, it's very likely because there's no time or because they don't know how to do it. Look for the root causes of problems, because it's more humane and it's more effective.
  • Clear expectations and transparency are foundational.
  • Good managers help people find and address their inner self-saboteurs. Good managers also manage their own insecurities instead of projecting them onto their staff.
  • Take dissent seriously, and pay attention for when dissent is bubbling under the surface. If somebody's quieter than usual, maybe they think the project is a bad idea, so make time and space for them to say so and be open to changing the plan to incorporate their feedback.
  • Maintain awareness of how the world being on fire might land on each of your staff and make a point to be gentle when they and their people are under direct threat.
  • Trust is reciprocal, so you have to show trust in your staff -- let them own their projects and their ideas.
  • Create opportunities for your staff to do stretch projects.
  • When your staff make mistakes and come to you about it, a response along the lines of "I'm mad at the situation, I'm not mad at you" earns trust that you won't fly off the handle and punish them for the honesty you want from them.
  • Everything you do, your staff are watching.

The vast majority of my work with Practice Makes Progress is emotional labor. I'm really good at trans inclusion trainings because I've had to explain to people in all kinds of situations what it means that I'm nonbinary. How does your life experience outside of work, things like your childhood, any activism outside of work, and your everyday life, influence your management style?

  • Cultural. Humility. Learn about it! (101)
  • Life experience of marginalization often helps us understand the importance and dynamics of trust in a deeper way.
  • Organizations and teams are interdependent -- every person has an impact on every other person.
  • Harsh consequences can backfire, and they can trigger deep shit for some of us. When your staff aren't getting something done, get at the root problems.
  • "Why has this not gotten done" is a question you probably already know the answer to, so answer it for yourself first and then have a nuanced conversation with your staff.
  • Many of us have to actively unlearn the management styles of our parents and other early authorities. We will mirror those things whether they're healthy or not unless we get ongoing support (from a therapist, a management coach, a peer/mentor whose style you respect).
  • The best leaders have "feminine" qualities like listening, deferring to others, sharing, supporting, empathy.
  • Building structures around yourself that wouldn't otherwise exist is a common experience of many queer people that can be a super helpful skills-building experience.
  • SHARE POWER SHARE POWER SHARE POWER! Power as dominance is unhealthy and the domain of the fascists we're fighting. Shift your understanding of power from power-over to power-to.

So many of us have a personal stake in progressive work that we wouldn't in a corporate job, but boundaries between our paid work and the rest of our lives are still important. Organizing jobs often demand that those of us with life experience of marginalization share our pain with our coworkers and the public. How do you support your staff to set healthy boundaries so that they can meet the needs of this moment without burning out?

  • Model to your team healthy boundaries with your own behavior. Asking them to go home at 6 pm when it's not a real emergency. Take flex time after travel, avoid always-on communication habits, take your vacation, and encourage these habits in your staff.
  • We're healing the world and healing ourselves at the same time. Look out for how much your staff might be clinging to work as their therapy, because that can be healthy, and it can also get dangerous.
  • Boundaries between agencies and clients are very difficult to set and maintain because many clients expect and are paying for always-on attention. Rotating on-call shifts after hours can be very helpful.
  • No one person should ever be so mission-critical that they can't step away. It requires ongoing cross-training to live this out in practice.
  • The world is on fire, everything is an emergency all the time. Determining what is urgent, what is urgent and important, and what is urgent and important and actionable for an individual person is always a crucial triage skill, and what falls where on that triage scale is different in this political era because everything is on fire.
  • Create spaces for staff to be human and vulnerable, with the team and on their own depending on their needs.
  • Different jobs require different ways of organizing your time. Most community organizing has to happen outside of the 9-5, and non-field workers often want 9-5 type consistency, therefore you have to compromise when people with different job types need to work together (especially when they need to collaborate on a daily basis).
  • Organizing is a way of life -- building relationships in the community means you have to maintain them, means you have to pick up the phone when your volunteer calls at midnight, and that means you have to train your staff in where to draw the line in the context of these demanding jobs.
  • "Work-life balance" implies you leave your life at home, and that's just not true of these jobs where the stakes are personal. Many of us are fighting for our lives, and we need to have room to be real about that at work.

This is a question for the audience as well as the panel: raise your hand if you've ever had a bad manager.  [Nearly everyone in the room raises their hand, sigh.]  Yeah.  For the panel, what have you learned to do and not do as managers after having been managed badly? Further, what organizational culture and structural things do you think contribute to unhealthy work environments, and what culture and structures have you found foster healthy teams?

  • Many of us have experienced bad managers AND bad management culture. What is strong and healthy management culture? It's connected to the broader work culture.
  • Dedicate yourself to be ethical and above-board in all your actions, be transparent, follow through on your commitments -- do your best to uphold these intentions at all times, and apologize when you fall short.
  • We need movement-wide commitment to management as a craft, including high-quality, ongoing training and support for managers.
  • Don't complain down to your staff. People you manage are probably dealing with a lot of grunt work and little control, and also putting on them the hook to manage your feelings is unfair.
  • Keep your promises -- and don't promise people things like time off or bonuses that you can't guarantee.
  • Tell your staff that you need to take a little time to think about something instead of promising somebody things that you might not be able to follow through on.
  • Managing 1 person takes up at least 25% of a manager's time, and often lots more when a staffer has a steep learning curve.
  • When you grow your team, make sure you can devote sufficient time to managing each person.
  • As a manager focus your time on the work where your attention will make the greatest degree of difference, and delegate everything else to your team.

Audience question: How do you dig deeper with quiet staff without being pushy or ~extra?

  • Honor that everybody's different and try different conversation styles as you get to know each of your staff.
  • Ask people how they're doing and care about the answer.
  • Treat people as people all of the time.
  • Sometimes people just don't want to open up about particular things and we have to respect our staff's boundaries.
  • Draft questions before a conversation that will be difficult to answer with just a few words -- like, not "how's the project going?" because it's easy to just say "fine".
  • Managers need to manage our own shit so that we don't project our anxieties onto our staff. Some people are introverts and need time to think before they speak, some people aren't big talkers, some people are dealing with hard things and need time and trust before they'll share something you would really like for them to share. Be ready to sit with your staff and wait. Make the time for the conversation and your own prep.

Audience question: Resilience is super important and undervalued. What do you do to develop your team's resilience?

  • Celebrating wins, even very small ones, is important to do on a regular basis.
  • Electoral campaign work is just extremely demanding in the last few months -- so protect people's time until it's absolutely necessary to work all-out, that way they won't be near burnout already when the high-gear time is starting.
  • Set people up for success by defining success with clarity and the level of flexibility that's realistic for your context. Some of our definitions of success are stretch goals -- and some stretch goals, like winning an election or passing a bill, rely on so many factors beyond our team's work. Alongside your ambitious goals, define success in ways that are reachable when your team does their best, even if you don't reach every goal you're aiming for.