Congratulations on becoming a manager's manager! You’ve got this far because you’ve demonstrated technical know-how and mastered the human side of software development, but your juggling act just got a bit more complex – now you have strategy and company goals to balance. With that also comes solving real business problems and focusing on processes and organizational issues.
What’s more, your primary concern lies in understanding and communicating the 'why' behind actions and decisions. It’s not about telling your direct reports what to do anymore; it’s about the bigger picture. The good thing is that you share a common language – you were once in their shoes, so you know how important it is to be a great leader and to help them become great leaders too.
When I first started pushing through the ranks in my journey as an engineering leader, I realized that one position isn’t better than the other. It really comes down to feeling and knowing that you’re in the right place and that you are in a role that brings you fulfillment and happiness.
In this comprehensive guide, I hope to help you feel more at home with your recent move as we'll explore effective strategies for managing managers. Let’s dive right in!
How to Manage Managers
Grow and Develop
Your dedication, patience, communication skills, empathy, and ability to inspire and motivate people are skills that have been battle-tested in the trenches. Now one of the most important tasks ahead of you is to harness those skills to nurture and elevate your engineering managers. Since you’ll be offloading a lot of your tasks to them, it’s important to invest in their growth, enabling them to manage these tasks even more effectively than you once did. How did I do this? With mentoring.
Here’s how I embraced a mentorship mindset. When I transitioned to managing managers, I began to emphasize active listening and insightful questioning in 1:1 meetings or feedback sessions. My goal was to understand how my managers approached their tasks and where their skill sets were most effectively utilized. Rather than intervening when their methods differed from mine, I used guiding questions to help them refine their managerial skills and to pick out their blindspots. Throughout this process I also learned about their career goals and how they aimed to get to where they wanted to be. We came up with ideas together, to help them grew into their roles and become better leaders.
Note: Investing in their growth also helped me establish a strong leadership pipeline, one that would endure beyond my tenure and contribute to the company’s lasting success.
Observe, Give Feedback, and Learn
For this “field” assignment, you might have to put on your metaphorical green anthropologist pants 😂, as it would be a good idea to observe your engineering managers amidst the ebb and flow of their daily managerial tasks. Whether it's in team meetings, during job interviews, or while overseeing a project to its completion, each interaction provides a unique window into their management style.
This immersive approach can be quite revealing. It offers deep insights that surpass mere surface-level observations. It's not only about grasping the unique leadership styles of your managers to provide feedback but also about learning from their subtle yet effective problem-solving techniques.
Additionally, the distinct personalities of each manager (consider conducting a personality assessment for your engineering managers) will challenge you to adapt your leadership style accordingly. For instance, with an engineering manager who leans heavily into technical aspects, a more logical and practical approach may be required. Conversely, for those who are more human-centric, leading with empathy and emotional intelligence might be more effective.
An additional advantage of this approach is the opportunity to observe the interactions within your direct report's teams. This allows you to assess team dynamics and understand how they operate under your manager's guidance.
Embracing this holistic leadership style fosters an environment abundant in shared learning and mutual respect. In such an ecosystem, diverse methodologies are not only recognized but also celebrated for their unique contributions.
Strive to Be an Inspirer
As a leader, your impact goes far beyond just issuing instructions – you now have the ability to inspire your engineering managers, igniting within them a passion and drive to being creative and doing things differently. But the question remains, how do you unlock this potential?
Engineering managers thrive in an environment that not only presents challenging problems but also encourages experimentation and learning from mistakes. In creating such an environment, I encouraged them to use the latest technology and grow and innovate any way they choose. I simplified processes, gave them autonomy, and surrounded them with people that could motivate them too. Only with a little guidance on my part, they found ways to stimulate their growth, creativity, and independence. There was no added pressure to this; I simply engaged them and learned what made them tick.
Our blog post on rewarding developers has been extensive and insightful from a management perspective. However, the approach changes quite a bit when it comes to showing appreciation to your engineering managers as a director.
Often, the most significant and impactful work happens where individual contributors and engineering managers intersect. Acknowledging and publicly commending your engineering managers at that axis can greatly enhance this interaction.
This doesn’t mean applauding your engineering manager for meeting deadlines or delivering features. It's about celebrating the leadership attributes your engineering managers have exhibited that contributed to crossing the finish line. This includes acknowledging the strategic decisions they made and the overall influence they exert on their teams. Your appreciation should highlight not just what was achieved but how it was achieved, underscoring the value of their leadership and decision-making skills.
However, as we’ve written about in the past, appreciation need not always be in the public eye. Personalized recognition can be extraordinarily impactful. This could involve offering opportunities for further professional growth, bonuses, participating in advanced training programs, or attending leadership conferences. These actions demonstrate your investment in their growth and your appreciation of their role in shaping both the team's culture and the organization's broader objectives.
Remember, recognition from director to engineering manager often differs from the more tangible, metric-based recognition seen in the engineering manager-developer relationship, making thoughtful and individualized acknowledgment even more crucial.
We’ve all heard it before, that effective communication significantly influences your team's productivity and morale. This doesn't simply imply maintaining an active Slack channel where everyone talks over each other. Rather, it's about cultivating a culture where ideas and feedback are exchanged openly and transparently, in an environment free from fear of retribution.
Good communication also means being in sync with your engineering managers and understanding their individual communication styles. Some might excel with direct, data-focused interactions, while others may connect better through storytelling or a more narrative approach.
Reflecting on my early days as a director, I remember a project that was falling behind. My initial thought was a technical issue, and I responded with technical solutions. It wasn't until I engaged in deeper conversations with one of my managers that I realized the problem lay in a misalignment of team roles. This experience was a turning point for me, emphasizing that effective communication is as much about listening as it is about speaking. Such an engaged approach not only resolves challenges more efficiently but also maximizes the strengths of the team.
Another critical aspect of communication, especially for a director of engineering, is the ability to demystify technical jargon for a non-technical audience. You'll frequently find yourself in discussions with stakeholders who may lack a technical background. Articulating how a technical contribution will support their business objectives will save you money and time down the line. This skill in bridging the gap between technical and non-technical spheres is vital for ensuring mutual understanding and fostering successful collaborations.
Lead by Example
Beyond coaching and mentoring, there are other crucial leadership practices you should’ve mastered already, such as hiring and firing, rewarding team members, resolving conflicts, onboarding, and establishing team rituals like constructive feedback, check-ins, or 1:1 meetings. I call these boss ceremonies, and I discuss them a lot in my Effective Engineering Manager Course.
It's vital that you execute these practices to the best of your ability. This is not just about the immediate impact on your team but also about setting an example. Many of your engineering managers may aspire to become directors themselves, and observing how you handle these key responsibilities can provide them with valuable insights into what the role entails and the level of proficiency required.
Inconsistencies between your words and actions can create confusion, sending mixed messages about the standards and interactions you expect within the team. It's this alignment between what you say and do that reinforces your credibility and sets a clear example for your managers to emulate.
However, it’s okay to make mistakes and show vulnerability. You’re human, after all. What's more important is being deliberate and transparent about your management decisions. For example, regular self-reflection, openly acknowledging mistakes, and seizing opportunities for improvement are key.
Such transparency and adaptability in your leadership will teach your managers valuable lessons. It will cultivate a culture of ongoing learning and growth and foster trust and respect within your team.
I often emphasize that excelling as an engineer does not automatically equate to being an outstanding leader. Leadership at the highest level in engineering demands a unique blend of strategic insight and technical acumen. There’s also people management, which is an entirely distinct discipline, one that requires a deep understanding of human dynamics, effective communication, and the ability to inspire and guide a diverse team towards a common goal.
At this level, you could really appreciate the art of management. But as you navigate the complexities of leadership, remember that your growth is a continuous journey, marked by learning, adapting, and evolving alongside your teams.