Babe Ruth, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, once said that “the way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” Replace “club” with “business” and his point still holds true – individuals and teams that collaborate and work well together, achieve more and better results.
Clearly, you are awesome at being an engineer but writing great code is one thing, while managing people, getting them to give their best as individual contributors while also synergistically turning these efforts into team achievements is a completely different story. As a new engineering manager, understanding that what got you the role and what will make you succeed in it requires different skills and different ways of thinking and acting is absolutely essential. Although it can all seem a bit overwhelming at first, rocking your new role is not only possible (obviously, others trusted you have potential since you were given this opportunity) but also very likely as long as you follow some guiding rules. Here are some of our recommendations:
Connect with others
Remember how others did it. Make a list of things your favorite managers/mentors used to do – how they built relationships with team members, what they did to gain their team’s trust, how they motivated the team, how they handled challenges, did they have a routine that stood out, what did they do to make sure everyone contributed at a steady pace, how did they handle mistakes made by the team members or themselves, etc. Don’t be shy to reach out to them for advice, they will likely be happy to help you out.
Reach out to both peers and senior leaders. Spend time with other managers, and try to understand what their leadership style is, what kind of challenges they came across and how they figured things out.
Join a company program. Talk to your HR BP or Learning & Development Manager and find out if there are any new manager, coaching or mentoring programs that can help you grow your people managing skills. Even if there isn’t a formal mentoring program available, reach out to senior leaders and try to find a coach/mentor – don’t be shy to ask them thinking that they are already too busy, you’d be surprised how many people are actually willing to help others grow. Being asked to mentor or coach someone is usually both flattering and meaningful and most people will say yes when asked.
Be aware of what’s on your current plate
Planning, coordinating and supervising, understanding the overall company strategy and where your department and team fit into that strategy are just a few of your new responsibilities. You will also need to
- help your engineers set goals that will help achieve the overall department or company goals;
- coordinate team efforts, supervise and follow up on progress;
- connect with peers and your manager to understand what is happening at the next leadership level;
- cascade relevant information and keep your team informed.
Skills you will need to develop
- Empathy: to help your team succeed, you will need to be able to put yourself in their shoes.
- Coaching: being able to guide your team’s work through issues and find solutions themselves will win you the respect of your team while also successfully achieving team goals.
- Communication: managers need to hone their listening skills along with refining a clear, respectful, honest, and encouraging communication style. You will need to be able to separate the content of what is being said from the emotional elements. The ability to provide relevant and effective feedback will also help you get the best out of your team.
- Stakeholder management: being able to influence both team members but also peers, senior leaders, and clients is another essential skill for all types of managers.
- Time management: learning where to put your time and energy in every moment of the day, avoiding time wasters and understanding what it means to work smarter, not harder, is useful for individuals, but absolutely necessary for managers.
- Delegate: as an individual contributor you were used to doing everything by yourself but as a manager that will get you in trouble very quickly.
Build a team that trusts and respects you
Rule No.1 – understand your team members, get to know their strengths and weaknesses, their values, what motivates each one of them, what they need to achieve their goals.
Care about the team and show loyalty. The worst thing you could do is to make your engineers feel like you care more about looking good in the eyes of upper management than about them or that you only care about how the team’s success will reflect on you instead. This is a recipe for disaster – a sure way to demotivate your engineers, lose trust and respect, block communication and undermine goal achievements.
It would be helpful if you could learn about the team from the previous manager – ask as many questions as possible, see if they are willing to share about previous challenges with the team, the mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learned from them, etc.
Make time to meet often with team members – both in 1to1s and as a team. Don’t forget to allow your team to get to know you also: share your career’s trajectory so far, your areas of knowledge, your interest, and passions, share some personal aspects about your family or your hobbies too.
Lead by example – people notice and care more about what you do rather than what you say. You can’t ask your engineers to respect each other if you yourself treat people with superiority and condescendence; you can’t ask them to help each other if you never make time to help someone through a difficult issue or are never around to guide; you can’t ask them to be responsible and take ownership if you always avoid difficult conversation if you can’t admit when you’ve made a mistake or if you are always blaming others.
Understand what your team is working on
In your previous role, you were used to focusing mostly on what you as an individual contributor needed to deliver but, as an engineering manager, that is a luxury you can no longer afford. You are now responsible for the common effort and achievement of the entire team and, to stay on top of things, you will need to learn as much as possible about:
- the product they’re working on: the technical details (the technologies, the code, the sore spots, the problems the team came across in the past, the current challenges, the impact on other teams, etc.
- the clients (meet with them in person where possible), the history of each client with the team and the company, past challenges, the preferred interaction style, the expectations, the sensitivities, etc.
- what success looks like, how the team plans to achieve it and what strategy will be used to get there. Define KPIs and clarify measurements. We recommend using an agile data-driven tool like Waydev or Gitprime where you will be able to track the output of your engineers.
Build a learning culture
A study by Bersin and Associates estimates that there is a direct link between a strong learning culture and performance. According to the study, a strong learning culture translated to better performance, more innovative teams and a higher market share. An increasing number of CEOs believe that their companies are having real problems keeping up with disruptive changes and the majority of them believe that the necessary skills to ride these changes are not there.
Build a growth mindset among team members. A solid learning and development culture encourages and helps create a collective growth-mindset and instills a sense of confidence in each team member, helping them see themselves as individuals on their way to getting better and better through practice and effort instead of drowning in self-limiting beliefs (the fixed mindset).
Four steps to building a growth mindset culture:
- Take every opportunity to talk to people about the growth mindset and neuroplasticity.
- Create an environment where mistakes are looked at as a normal part of the learning process, growth cannot happen outside of a psychologically safe environment.
- Make learning part of the conversations. Create visibility for existing learning programs and tell the story of their impact – how they made a difference (if they didn’t, you might have to take a closer look and see where the issue is) and promote upcoming ones.
- Recognize and reward improvement – sometimes it’s hard for people to see how they’ve gotten better and why that matters.
Never forget that your mission as an engineering manager is to help your engineers be the best version of themselves and help the team achieve success!