Be a Transparent Manager

People hate working on things that don't make sense.

But you know what's worse?

Having to do things that make no sense while being kept in complete darkness about the reasons behind it.

If you're a manager, you can do better.

Management wasn't something I was taught in college as a CS student. And I didn't need it (or care about it at all) back then either.

Why would I need management skills as an engineer?

So by the time I started hiring people for my "startup" a few years later, I had zero management knowledge or experience. I was still an engineer at heart, and I guess mediocre engineers don't make great managers.

Lack of transparency was one of my biggest failings as a manager back then. I rarely explained my reasons for doing things, and I expected people to just do whatever I'm telling them to do.


Two reasons:

  • I honestly didn't think they need to know the reasons.
  • I didn't know what I'm doing myself, and was afraid to admit it.

The first reason stemmed from my engineering mindset: if I've hired you to do X, you need to do X, and not question me about it. If I tell you something needs to be done, then it needs to be done because I told you so. What else there is to know?

Looking back at this today, I think I might've read one too many Steve Jobs and Elon Musk biographies. Curiously, Musk's recent email to Tesla managers feels exactly the way I thought about it back then:

You can argue whether or not Musk's leadership style is what made him successful. I'll argue that being direct, dry, and abrasive won't make your employees perform better no matter who you are, and especially when you're a nobody like I was.

The second reason was just me being me. I grew up shy, was bullied in school, and by the time I had started my business I had a thick shell around me that made me appear tough and confident. It also made me rigid, stubborn, protective of my ego, and pretty closed-minded. Not the attributes of a great founder or manager.

You don't really learn when you're stubborn. And when you don't learn as an entrepreneur, well, you've got a problem. For the first few years or so, I was a jerk of a manager, really. I didn't explain my decisions or accept arguments, and I kept micromanaging people I hired even if I was often wrong.

Not a great place to be at. A management culture like this creates problems:

  • You have to work harder to attract and retain great people.
  • It kills motivation, so you can easily turn great people into mediocre ones.
  • It takes more time to get things done and mistakes take longer to get fixed.

As far as I know people want to work at Tesla and SpaceX despite Elon Musk's management style, not because of it.

Fortunately, I managed to grew up as a person and as a manager. Took me a few years of running a business and a few more years of soul searching.

Transparency was the first thing I've learned, and honestly it made my life as a founder and a product manager way easier. Team members like transparency, and stakeholders like transparency, too.

If I'm in charge, I explain my decisions. If I get marching orders straight from upper management, I try to explain the situation in more detail to my team.

Want your team to be happy and productive? Be transparent with them.

Having been on both sides of this, there's nothing more demotivating than being told to do something that doesn't quite make sense without a sensible reason.