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Manage projects, not people

In my personal values, I wrote "manage projects, not people", but isn't that the essence of people management? A former line manager of mine once told me to "lead people – don't manage them". At the time, I truly did not know what that meant. Here's what I've learned since then.

Remote meeting

When I was given the opportunity to supervise performance of others for the first time, I lead with my strengths. I'm a work horse by nature so I knew the formula and frameworks for project management, task distribution etc. I thought that knowledge could easily transfer to managing people.

I was wrong, sort of. I had three reports whose performance I was responsible for. I took on a player-coach role where one Designer welcomed my feedback and mentorship with open arms. The UX writer did so as well with an open mind. And the third was a disaster.

4 types of managers

The other Designer, perhaps the one closest to me in regards to craft, told me that he will not take direction from me and that he thought I was a career chaser. You might be asking yourself, what's a career chaser? Below are some examples of the different types of managers.

In this article, written brilliantly by Bas Wallet, he describes the career chaser as a manager who uses social politics to get ahead – someone who is clearly competitive and is okay with throwing their report under the bus when outcomes are not great or taking credit for the guidance they administered when the goals are reached. I've worked under this manager type, at least, three times in my career. They're usually first-time directors looking to prove themself.

A conflict avoider is someone who is loyal to the company but agreeable to many whenever there's potential conflict. This manager is good at making it seem like they have your back and giving you credit but they're main superpower is de-escalation of growth. They discourage opportunity seeking from proactive reports looking to grow. Why? One person's treasure is another person's trash. In other words, the opportunity might conflict with the quarterly business objectives or product strategy. In some cases, the task or opportunity will create noise that the conflict-avoiding manager does not want or know how to defuse. As a by-product of the gaslighting used to deflect action, the direct report feels insecure, lost and discouraged from growing their skills.

The self-manifesting rebel. I personally loved working under this manager. That said, they're stint in management was short-lived because this type of manager is loyal to their team more than adhering to company compliance. They fight the battles on behalf of their report and advocate fiercely for their team. They're fantastic at driving outcomes and challenging others along the way.

So am I or was my leadership style that of a career chaser? On the surface, yes. I matched the definition of one but if you asked the others during that time and the reports that I managed since then, they'd probably describe me as more of a grassroots ambassador... hopefully.

Ambassadors tend to pave the way for their team and give credit, both behind closed doors and openly. However, this type of manager is not great at advocating for themself. Have you ever had a great manager who was suddenly let go or left on they're own accord due to burn out?

Go to your manager’s manager to express your gratitude. It’s a small gesture that can have a big impact.


Like in this article from Rei Inamoto, 7 traits of a good boss: Motivate, care, listen, support, take action and admit mistakes. The seventh is to have a superpower – something that compels others to follow you.

I'm not totally convinced that I'm able to attract followers in that sense or if I even want to. It feels more like an extrovert's game. However, my superpower is to lead by doing, create space for reports to grow, nurture and serve the needs of those around me.

  1. Lead by doing: Become an expert at managing projects through roadmaps and goal definition. Be inclusive and collaborative with your team but also transparent about what's flexible and why.

  2. Foster growth in others: Whether it's peer coaching or direct management, it's important as a leader to create space for growth and advocate for it. According to this survey on Why Designers quit, most are unhappy with the work they're doing and they don't receive acknowledgement.

  3. Servant leadership: Those who stated that they were unhappy, also felt they were unable to change or control this. I've learned that when I delegate initiatives to reports who want it, they feel more empowered in the workplace. They feel more control and others in the organization see them as experts as well.

  4. Visible praise or advocacy: Even if budgets are tight on promotions, I've learned that stakeholder happiness is more stable when I openly advocate for the work of my peers and reports. Relationships and professional respect is key to longevity.


Additional resources

Everything I wish I knew about people before becoming a manager by Beck Novaes – Principles of psychological safety in the workplace

Setting up performance reviews for Product Designers by Adam Sadowski – Practical tips for evaluating your reports


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