Recap: November Girl Geek Dinner with Sherry McMenemy

And we’re back on track with our geeky dinner schedule! On Tuesday a bit smaller group gathered at The Bauer Kitchen to learn from Sherry about Managing up, down and sideways for girls, geeks and managers.

Sherry started off by addressing the age-old question of and distinction between geeks and nerds, using a number of icons from science and literature as examples. (Unsurprisingly, there were oblique Buffy references with two of them…) Continuing with the theme of perceptions, she went on to discuss how managers/bosses are often perceived, and how with a promotion one person can become someone entirely different seemingly overnight in the eyes of subordinate staff. What the manager actually does also shifts dramatically, both in terms of job functions and in terms of priorities and perspective about the team and the company.

One point she noted several times was that managers are translators, and a big part of their job is to keep information flowing from their team upward to upper management, and down from the C-suite to the front lines. (And also communicate laterally among various groups who may or may not be technical.) She noted that what sounds like jargon to one group might just be professional shorthand among another group, making communications more efficient. Language and communications can be a strong indicator of identity on teams, and can also be used to delineate “us and them” lines within companies.

Sherry addressed training and its value from a number of perspectives, including obvious ones like improving the team’s skills, but also in maintaining professional networks and relevance, rewarding good performers, and just plain old using budget for the forces of good that would otherwise be taken away. She noted that training is one of the most important things managers can maintain and protect for their teams (and often one of the first things to go when budget cuts come around).

Next Sherry moved on to team interactions and an overview of the realities of communicating as well as specific tactics. As a manager, pretty much inevitably part of your job will involve keeping secrets, and the higher up the corporate ladder you climb, the more secrets you will have to keep. At the same time, being a brick wall to your team(s) isn’t cool, either. People aren’t stupid, and they tend to know when something is going on, even if they don’t know the details.

Be it a project update or a looming layoff, Sherry recommends providing context to the team and asking their opinions where it makes sense. Walk through if/then scenarios and involve them in processes of decision-making when possible. (Though this is not the same as letting team members be the boss.) People on the front lines have different knowledge and perspectives and can come up with great ideas from their vantage point. And it’s perfectly okay to admit when you don’t know the answer to something. Becoming a manager doesn’t make you omnipotent.

Further to that, Sherry recommends a realist approach to addressing attitudes and the emotional side of things that occur. Sometimes things will happen that simply aren’t fair, or downright suck. And a manager can’t always fix that or shield their team from it. Acknowledge these situations, acknowledge their sucky-ness, and to the best of your ability, explain why things are the way they are. (As aforementioned, however, sometimes you can’t explain much, because of the necessary secret-keeping. These are the days when being a manager isn’t much fun.)

Moving along, Sherry addressed everyone’s most hated part of the business day: meetings. She doesn’t say you shouldn’t have them, but that they should only happen when needed or when other avenues of communicating and organizing have been tried. They should be kept as short as possible and they should have a purpose (and, relatedly, an agenda, which is followed). If you need to assign homework before the meeting to ensure things stay on track, do so. (If you’re assigning it to people outside of your department, you may not be able to guarantee they do it, but you do what you can…)

One thread that wove through the whole presentation was communication styles. Not just translating among different groups, but different groups’ chosen styles and modes of communicating. Nerds and geeks prefer not to be interrupted and need stretches of deep and consistent focus to get work done. They like to be able to think through things as they work. Hence a preference for online communications like email and instant messaging. Many other groups are the exact opposite. Marketing and Sales people, for example, tend to be more extroverted. They like to discuss things in person, or at least on the phone, and often like meetings because they get to think through things by talking about them and bouncing ideas off each other. Needless to say, these two different kinds of groups often don’t enjoy each other’s company much, and approaching one or the other can be intimidating.

Next Sherry switched gears to the management side and how girls and geeks can understand and work with them better. One point she made was that a manager’s world is often all about evaluation. They are constantly being evaluated: by upper management, by other managers, by their teams, potentially by customers… And as a result their priorities are strongly and inextricably linked to these evaluations, and their teams need to be sensitive to that (especially when it means they’re not getting what they want).

As much of her presentation involved communication, her next point is hardly surprising: don’t surprise your manager, unless it’s to tell him/her that you saved money or completed something ahead of schedule. Managers can help with issues, roadblocks and questions, but only if they know what they are as early as possible. (Hiding stuff and hoping it fixes itself doesn’t work when you’re 5, and doesn’t work when you’re a grown-up, either.) And sometimes when a manager asks you something, all they need/want is a yes or no answer. No explanations, no excuses, no bullet points: Yes/No. Because that’s probably the answer that’s been requested of them from someone above them, too.

An interpersonal point that applies to both team members and managers is to always represent the team well (even the weird ones). Technical teams, particularly, can be home to many quirky personalities that are not well understood by many others in the organization. So be it, but you still need to have their backs. You know your team better than anyone else, and how you represent and discuss them will go a long way in how they’re perceived and treated throughout the organization. Mocking or slagging your own people will also come back to bite you, since, if other departments have little respect for your people, they’ll be less likely to help them get things done. And, quite possibly, they’ll have little respect for (or trust in) you, either. If you’re willing to throw your own team under the bus, so to speak, why would you be any more loyal to anyone else?

Sherry closed off with addressing some “girls” issues directly, which boils down to: it’s your choice. It’s your choice if you choose to ask for what you’re worth, or not. It’s your choice if you choose to stretch yourself and take on responsibility and speak up, or not. And it’s your choice if you choose to stand out (and how), or not. Especially on technical teams, it is entirely possible for you to be the only female in the room, either as a geek team member or manager. You have to be cool with that and learn how to manage it, because in STEM, from academe to the corporate sphere, there are still many lame stereotypes at play that don’t make achievement for women any easier. (Some of the quotes she showed were positively HULK SMASH-inducing…) Oh, and if your choice is not to go for it? You don’t get to whine.

Sherry also addressed some common perceptions of women working with women, and what expressing a preference for working with men really means. How much are these perceptions based on experience, and how much on perception and stereotypes? And how much is it the “other women”, and how much is it us?

And with that Sherry wrapped up her very thought-provoking presentation, liberally sprinkled with real-life examples and anecdotes from her own experiences. (Some of them even I might have trouble believing if I hadn’t been there for them…) The talk was an excellent primer on how, as girls, geeks and/or managers, we can communicate better, understand our teams and managers better, get better work done more efficiently, and enjoy what we do while gaining the recognition we deserve.

Managing up, down and sideways for girls, geeks and managers slide deck

Stay tuned for the announcement for our December Dinner — coming soon!

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