10 Questions Engineering Managers should be thinking about constantly to elevate your teams
To become a better leader, consider a people-first growth mindset approach to managing your reports
Not unlike other functions, or industries, managing software teams shares the same principles in leadership and people development; the only difference is needing to understand a bit of the tech — and the more senior you become, the less it’s required to be successful. In fact, many successful technology leaders in upper management (Directors and above) are likely coding little to none. And if the real goal is to become a multiplier, all efforts should be put toward making your teams more efficient and productive.
As a matter of transparency, I borrowed (and rephrased) these ten questions that were implemented at Route.com for management performance reviews, a company I feel prided itself for its healthy culture of building and developing leaders.
Am I giving timely actionable feedback that helps my reports improve their performance?
Providing feedback with actionable examples that are developed together will help guide your reports in knowing what’s working, and what isn’t. And it’s just as important to do this frequently — and at minimum during your regular 1:1’s. Avoid making judgements, and do your best to understand their motivations.
Am I micromanaging? — Am I getting involved in details that should be handled at other levels.
Despite seemingly stating the obvious, the real challenge is finding the balance of maximizing autonomy, and also not plunging into the details. Like a good design or flow, the best user experience is an invisible one. An engineer likely doesn’t mind being managed, they just don’t want to feel managed. This can be tough for first time managers despite thinking there’s no way I’ll ever be a micromanager; you’re likely more qualified than your engineers (you were just doing their job after all) so it can be tempting to jump in and do the work — maybe even better. But a strong word of caution here: don’t do it. Mistakes are the best tool for learning, and it’s your job to codify this into practice.
Do I show empathy for people as humans and their lives outside work?
Perhaps the most underrated, but showing interest, vulnerability, and candor with your team is an invaluable life practice that is healthy beyond the spoke of just management, but nonetheless proven to create highly productive teams. By showing empathy, and truly understanding someone else’s perspective and problems, you build trust. And by building high trust / low blame cultures, according to DevOps Research; is known to increase developer productivity by a factor of 1.6×
Am I valuing perspectives different from my own that are brought to the team?
The power to changes one mind, or even considering others try different approaches is the key to learning and growth. One trick I like to use here when I share a different view is avoid immediate responses that start with “I disagree” — even if you have a thoughtful explanation as to why. Instead try “I have a different perspective,” and be willing to let your idea go. It isn’t about you, but about empowering your team to try things their way as long as they are in alignment with the business. Be mindful that you factor in time for mistakes to be made; or better yet, to be surprised that your original assumptions didn’t matter as much as you thought.
Am I keeping the team focused on our strategic priorities and committed to our purpose?
This is where diving into company alignment comes into play and you’ll need to wear your business hat. Companies with a high position of agreement tied to a shared purpose are multiple factors more likely to succeed than cultures that do not have a connected sense of direction. In fact, in one rather shocking study to most leaders, 95% of employees are unaware or don't understand their company strategy
Regularly communicate the plan. If you don’t know it yourself, ask your other senior leaders. Get clarity, and be a living example of the purpose, and frequently connect your team’s work back to the purpose and why their work matters.
Am I transparent in regularly sharing relevant information from other senior leaders at the company, keeping my team in the loop?
It’s important to keep the team focused with minimal distractions, but do balance that with letting team’s know what’s going on outside their scope of work, company news, and personnel changes. And equally important, be transparent and candid, even if it’s sharing news you don’t agree with. There’s no need to sugar coat information to other adults. The role of a leader is to level with others and people can form their own opinions. The challenge here is doing your best to deliver all information with context.
Have I had a meaningful discussion with my reports about career development in the past three months?
Earlier I wrote on the topic of creating a transparent career ladder for your engineering organization. Ideally something like this is in place at your company. If that’s the case, refer to it. I like to bring this up on a monthly cadence.
Have I clearly communicated our main objectives for the team?
The child component to question 5 which involves communicating purpose and strategy, this question is more of a reinforcement of those strategies by clarifying the objectives, and changes thereof. Remind the team of the goals. Frame problems with context. Explain the challenges. The more connected to the issues your customers face, the more creative your engineers will build practical solutions.
Do I have the technical expertise required to effectively manage the team? Eg; coding, architecture, SDLC.
You probably wouldn’t be in your position if you didn’t have a sense of how to do the job of your reports. However knowing specifics of programming languages is the least of your worries. Understanding the process from idea to production is key so that you might effectively locate bottlenecks, and identify where your team might be more efficient.
Would my reports recommend me to other employees at the company?
Returning to empathy, and seeing yourself through the lens of your team. Do you actually see your reports recommending your leadership style to other departments? Collect criticism on yourself and take the opportunity to uncover blind spots. Even if you and your employees believe you’re doing a good job, consider challenging your reports to speak up and speak candidly for you to discover areas of opportunity to grow as a leader.
A people-first growth mindset is essential for any leader in order to create a healthy and successful team. Asking for feedback, showing empathy, and building trust while balancing a technical know-how palette, clarifying objectives, and reminding the team of their purpose are all key components in being a successful leader.
In my time at Route, I regularly kept myself accountable by reviewing these questions on a weekly basis to be a better Engineering leader, and because of it, we were a better, faster, more efficient, happier team.
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New conclusions from the 2022 Accelerate DevOps Research
Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, “The Office of Strategy Management, Harvard Business Review” #R0510D