Improv + Management with Joe Natalzia

Name: Joe Natalzia
Role: Software Engineering Manager
Company: JW Player
SNYAM cohort: 06 Brooklyn

Managing people is like…

the most audacious balancing act.

The hardest thing I’ve ever encountered as a manager is:

Six or so months into managing my first team I noticed a recurring pattern. Despite being given the resources for success, not to mention having 3 stellar employees on the team, we constantly found ourselves struggling to find work beyond fixing old systems that were working just fine. The team’s ownership sat between two other teams who in most cases were responsible for the majority of the work. After doing some historical research it became clear that this was not something that had merely crept up over the last few months, it was indicative of a larger problem where the team had been originally created to fulfill a need. Now that the need had been filled, the team struggled to find meaning at the company.

This led to months of conversations in my 1:1s where my reports asked “What’s next for us?” It was a constant burden on team morale and a constant nag in the back of my mind as I struggled to figure out what to do.

As a team we tried many different tactics, some which worked for a short time and others which fell flat due to lack of business buy-in or other external factors. After weeks of back-and-forth and many meetings discussing the team’s role in the company’s future the idea was brought to me to restructure. The broader organization had roles to fill and meaningful, impactful work for each employee, but it meant that if we went down this rather extreme path, we would no longer be a team.

And therein was the crux. We had spent all this time getting to know each other and work with each other, had formed bonds and friendships… in fact some had been on the team since they started at the company. And now it was all potentially on the chopping block.

Stepping back, I found myself asking “What is my job?” To me, my job was to make sure that everyday the people who worked on my team were excited about the work they were doing and also that that work was meaningfully driving the company forward. This restructure had the promise of doing just that.

So we went through with it. It was not an easy endeavor and there were definitely some bumps, but after it all I am more than happy to report that my former team is now excited about their work and meaningfully impacting the company’s future. I moved to manage a team in a different section of the organization that needed another pair of hands.

Sometimes the best decision is the hardest one.

I take care of myself by:

I’ve been a performer since I was a kid. I started doing theater at a young age and it’s been a crucial part of my life ever since. In college I found improv, got bit by that bug, and found myself moving to NYC because a.) there was a job there and b.) there was improv.

While the amount of time I have to dedicate to it has dwindled, it’s still my outlet. I direct one show a year usually and perform in various children’s theater shows (it’s low commitment!) while improvising on the side. There’s no feeling like being lost in a character or a scene after what may have just been the hardest day of your career. It’s an even better feeling when your improv scene pushes you to inhabit the characteristics of the person or circumstance that made it a hard day. It’s humanizing and difficult, but rewarding.

As an aside, improv has been one of the most amazing tools in my toolbelt when it comes to management. It prepares you for unforeseen circumstances and makes you comfortable heading into the unknown. If you have the time, I would seriously recommend you try a class or a short workshop. You’d be surprised what it can teach you about being present, listening, saying yes, and always, always trusting your scene partner.

Here’s a practical tip about managing:

I recently picked up a book titled Doing Justice by Preet Bharara. He’s the former DA for the Southern District of Manhattan and took to the pen to give his thoughts on the judicial system and what ‘justice’ is and means. What I didn’t expect from the book was a treasure trove of thoughts and advice on leadership, imposter syndrome, failure, and everything else we are hired to deal with.

One of his pieces of advice truly stuck out to me. In one section, he was detailing his team’s efforts to prosecute and how they would spent countless nights preparing for each case. A part of the way they approached case-building was: prepare your opponent’s case better than they will. What this meant was that in order to truly be prepared you had to do your work and your opponent’s work. You should know every place they would crack your arguments, every piece of evidence they would try to use to sway the jury. In preparing their side you could bullet-proof your case and be as prepared as possible for what they might throw at you.

While we’re not prosecuting criminals every day, the main idea stuck with me. When you’re advocating for a raise, or getting a new opportunity for your team, or simply trying to get someone to see things from your point of view, prepare their case. Knowing how they’ll react to you is not only a good exercise in empathy and seeing things through their eyes but it will make your “case” that much stronger.

As an aside, I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested. There’s one particular anecdote he tells about lunch with a supreme court justice that will make you realize everyone is human and you are more than worthy of the position you’ve been given.

And finally…

The only other thing I’ll say is use this SNYAM community! Managing is hard and stressful and being in charge can often be a lonely endeavor. You have the unique opportunity of having an entire group of people who know what you’re going through just a keyboard stroke away. Don’t take it for granted.

Want to attend a manager training where we turn traditional management tools on their heads? Join us at an upcoming event… details here.