There’s uncommon wisdom about the role of managers at companies today, specifically the bullshit around “push work down” and “delegate ruthlessly”. I’ve found that these paradigms of working together as a team doesn’t quite work, and is counterproductive to creating and sustaining great team cultures.

Instead, I've found that the the best analogy for how a manager should work with their team is from long distance running. As a manager, you're sprinting with your team. You're never pushing work down. In fact, the role of a manager not dissimilar to that of the role a pace rabbit in long distance races.

Pace Rabbits

Pace Rabbit Image from cbc.ca, may be subject to copyright

If you’ve ever run a half or full marathon, you already know what a pace rabbit does. I ran my first half-marathon in 2011 (the Scotiabank Half in Toronto), without adequate training or an understanding of how to pace myself over 21 kms. I desperately wanted to break the 2:00 hour time on my first try. Six kilometers into the race, I was clocking 5:15 mins/km, but way ahead of the pace that I needed in order to attain my desired completion time. I was overheating and at risk of tiring out too early.

That's when I discovered the pace rabbit with the 1:55 marker. The person was clearly a powerful runner, but helped me maintain a steady pace throughout the half. There were times when the pace rabbit would slow down, and allow the pack to catch their breath. When a hill was approaching, the pace rabbit would let everyone know and encourage and cajole the pack up the hill. And on the downhills, the rabbit let the runners to experience the joys of running. The pace rabbit also helped letting me know when the next water station was coming up so I could rehydrate.

After having managed teams over the past 5 years, I've realized that my role is very similar to that of the pace rabbit who helped me finish the Scotiabank half. I'm not there to heckle or cheer from the sidelines. I'm not there to scream expletives to make the team work harder or faster. I'm there to work alongside every team member, staying a few steps ahead to ensure that I'm clearing roadblocks along the way. My presence has to be proactive, not reactive. If I'm too far ahead of the team, they'll start to tire out. If I fall behind the team and can't stay on top of planning of development work, trust starts to erode, and team morale wanes. Every effective manager I've worked with employed these tactics successfully when managing teams.

This analogy is especially true for data team managers. Data science and engineering work is gruelling. Data is always dirty, and the output is rarely well defined. On most data science projects, the destination feels miles away, and I always have the feeling that I'm running a long distance race. It is imperative to be able to keep the spirits of the team high, and the way to achieve that is to lead from the front, and bring team members along the journey. Being able to keep a steady pace through all the challenges is the difference between team burnout and a well oiled machine.

As for me, I didn't hit my 2:00 hour goal on my first marathon, even with the support of the pace rabbit. I took a few more tries, and a lot more training before I finally hit 1:45 time at Scotiabank Half in 2014.

Changelog

  • 2020-05-20: reworded pace bunny to pace rabbit; bunny felt like a derogatory term
  • 2020-05-23: Minor edits for clarity