The challenge

You’re new to leadership. You’ve inherited a team or received a battle-line promotion. You’re a formal leader with no direct reports. You’re the only fill in the blank (person of color, woman, person without a degree, etc.) in leadership. Your team has experienced high turnover and new hires. You spent a large part of the past year having difficult conversations and acquiescing to ego. You legit don’t know who you’re actually managing.

The struggle is real, y’all. It really is. But it’s often not impossible to overcome. Being intentional about how you create team culture with your small, low-stakes responses to daily tasks, conversations and pressure can shift team dynamics and help you be a more curious, empathetic and deliberate leader.

The assignment: Create a user manual

As a leader who manages people, it is your responsibility to create the sense of belonging necessary to engage, retain and promote the talent on your team. You can do this by the way you ask open- ended questions (coaching, not directing). You can do this by the way you listen and reflect back (not regurgitate) what you’re hearing. You can do this by the way you elevate (instead of deflate) voices in the room.

You can also create and actually model belonging by the way you promote self-discovery, reflection and awareness — of yourself and of your team, for one another. So our exercise this week is to deep dive into how we lead by creating a user manual. This is a sort of guide for your teammates on how they can best work with you. It is explicit and unapologetic, and it helps people understand how you like to work and collaborate.

User manuals are a tech industry favorite, and they often lead to better working relationships. They can be used to reset a relationship as well to onboard new hires (interns and fellows included).

User manuals are also affectionately called a ReadMe or a UX of Me.

Make it happen

The goal: To keep your manual specific and succinct, a couple bullet points per topic is plenty.

How to:

  • Set up your user manual in two parts: What everyone should know about me and How to work with me.
  • Next, choose 3-4 topics below that will complete each section. Be careful not to only choose the “easier” topics, but give yourself a chance to dig into some of the more thought-provoking topics as this personal interrogation won’t just benefit you and how you work, but it will benefit others and how they work with you.
  • Now, take 30 minutes to an hour and answer the questions with the first thing that comes to mind. Feel free to get creative and replace any of the topics below with ones you like better. To do this, take into consideration what your team/company values most.

Topics for a user manual:

  • My style
  • What I value
  • What I don’t have patience for
  • How to best communicate with me
  • How to help me
  • What people misunderstand about me
  • What energizes me
  • What drains me
  • I like to receive feedback via
  • I like to give feedback via
  • I approach conflict by
  • I like to celebrate an achievement by
  • Biggest current goal
  • Biggest hot button
  • I particularly value these qualities in people I work with
  • I’m good at
  • I’m working on

If you get stuck, you can check out my API user manual in deck form for inspo. Also read up on what it actually looks like to put people first from Anika Anand, Deputy Director at LION. Finally, what one leader learned from writing her user manual and this 30-minute exercise can make teams less anxious and more productive.

Take it further

You may want to propose an exercise like this to your teammates. There can be a verbal discussion and team meeting once everyone’s user manuals are complete. (Some folks find this awkward but still helpful. Some start with answering the questions about their teammates and then open up the discussion.)

If you do make this part of your team and culture, just remember to revisit your documents annually for updates.

View the second challenge.

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