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The conventional definition of management is getting work done through people, but real management is developing people through work.
Agha Hasan Abedi
Why did you become a manager?
The journey from a seasoned engineer to a successful engineering manager often feels like charting a new course rather than simply moving up the career ladder. It is not a straightforward progression but a transformative shift requiring different competencies, strengths, and a fresh mindset. This transition might not be the right fit for everyone in the tech field. Many people, including myself, have discovered that fostering individuals, nurturing talent, and taking pride in the growth and accomplishments of direct reports can be very rewarding.
Leaping into management means you are ready to delve into the complexities of personalities, motivations, and personas. As a manager, one of your most important responsibilities is to build trust with your team. Trust is critical to any successful relationship, including the one between a manager and their direct reports. With a foundation of trust, you can have open communication, take risks, and celebrate shared successes. Building trust takes time and is earned through consistently being honest and transparent.
In this new realm of leadership, something other than what worked for you as an individual contributor may work for those that report to you. What fuels your fire and motivates you might not necessarily ignite your team members’ passions. As you build trust, it is crucial to remember that active listening and understanding what motivates each individual are pivotal aspects of your new role.
Managing people is challenging because each person is complex and constantly evolving. However, the opportunity to mentor and influence future industry leaders is a privilege that can be immensely satisfying. Despite the roadblocks and challenges, successful leadership is possible.
I have had different types of managers throughout my career. Some were toxic and controlling, while others were challenging but inspiring. The latter pushed me to my limits and helped me grow professionally. I am grateful for the excellent managers who have helped me in my journey as a leader and manager. With over 20 years of management experience in this field, my main goal has been to promote, develop, and mentor aspiring engineering managers.
I am here to offer my support and guidance as you navigate this challenging yet rewarding journey. In this post, I will share some tips and ideas about management and leadership. These tips are not new or revolutionary but come from many books, articles, and courses. Plus, I am sharing skills that have helped shape my experience, too. This post is a practical guide for new managers to help them do their job well. My intention is not to come up with a completely original idea. There is nothing new here about management or leadership that you can’t get from the various learning outlets. Instead, I aim to put my unique perspective on things based on my firsthand experiences in the tech field.
You can’t learn management only from books. New managers need multiple support options. I recommend two primary groups, top-down coaching, and peer support meetings or collaboration (new managers learning from the experiences of their peers).
One of many possible lists
Here’s a list of skills that I recommend new managers should aim to develop:
- Trust Building: Developing trust with your team is crucial. Being consistent, honest, and transparent over time creates a safe environment where team members can openly communicate, share ideas, and take risks. As a new manager, it is crucial to prioritize building trust as it forms the foundation for a strong team.
- Self-Awareness: It is important to know your strengths, weaknesses, biases, and how your behavior affects others. It is crucial to develop emotional intelligence regarding yourself to manage better and comprehend your own emotions and those of your team.
- Self-Management: Maintain control over your emotions and behavior, align your actions with organizational goals, demonstrate resilience in the face of change, and balance your professional and personal life. Recognize the things that trigger you and take a moment to pause before reacting, as I’ve learned from my own experiences of responding too quickly.
- Leadership Skills and Style Development: Develop your leadership style, strike a balance between authority and approachability, and inspire and motivate your team. You will also learn a lot from all that is out there. Learn to take bits and pieces and build your management and leadership toolkit.
- Servant Leadership: Servant Leadership is a leadership philosophy that emphasizes the role of the leader as a servant to their team, prioritizing the needs and growth of team members. When integrating Servant Leadership into the core people management skills for a software engineering manager, consider adding the following: Empathy, Active Listening, Stewardship, Commitment to Growth, Building Community, Self-Awareness, and Healing (Being aware of the personal or professional obstacles that team members might encounter and providing support, understanding, or resources to help them overcome these challenges).
- Communication Skills: Develop your skills in active listening, effective team communication, giving and receiving constructive feedback, and handling difficult conversations. Active listening was the most challenging part for me. Learning to pay close attention to the discussion at hand is crucial. If you can’t concentrate, it’s best to postpone it until you can.
- Cognitive Biases: Understand and manage cognitive biases, and value diverse opinions and perspectives.
- Adaptability: Be open to new ideas, and adapt to changing circumstances. You will fail with a fixed mindset and an aversion to change.
- One-on-One Meetings and Coaching: As a manager, nothing shows that you care more about your direct reports’ success than the one-on-one. I recommend prioritizing one-on-one meetings as they are essential for building strong, trust-based relationships with team members. These meetings provide a unique chance to learn about their aspirations, concerns, and needs and offer guidance tailored to each individual’s goals. Showing up on time for meetings and prioritizing them shows you are committed to helping your team members grow and succeed. In these meetings, it’s important to focus on your direct reports and allow them to discuss their accomplishments, challenges, and career goals. These meetings can lead to more profound mutual understanding, trust, and rapport. It’s also an excellent opportunity for coaching and working with different personalities. Over time, these meetings can lead to increased engagement, productivity, and team cohesion. Make sure to equip yourself with the skills to have challenging conversations and negotiate effectively during these sessions.
- Emotional Intelligence: Emotional intelligence, or EI or EQ, is crucial for successful leadership. If you possess high emotional intelligence, you can positively handle your interactions with your employees, display empathy towards others, surpass obstacles, and resolve conflicts. Developing your emotional intelligence can assist you in fostering better relationships, making improved decisions, and approaching conversations with a different mindset.
- Team Building and Talent Development: Learn to become better at recruiting and welcoming new team members, identify their strengths and weaknesses and focus on improving their skills. Listen to them and help them achieve their career aspirations, even if it means eventually sending them away to pursue higher opportunities.
- Recognizing and Appreciating Efforts: Acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of team members, and implement both formal and informal recognition programs.
- Visibility and Availability: Be present and engaged with the team and maintain approachability for questions or concerns. This is critical in today’s remote world. Go out of your way to be present either through one-on-ones, recognition, or even a Gemba walk from time to time (search Gemba walk).
- The Multiplier Effect (I recommend this book, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman): Create an environment where team members feel valued and smart, empower your team members, and encourage the team to stretch beyond their comfort zones.
- Ethical and Fair Practices: Make decisions with integrity and fairness, and treat all team members respectfully.
- Delegation: Learn to delegate tasks without micromanaging. Intelligent and capable team members surround you. Learn what you can about proper delegation.
- Feedback: It’s important to actively seek and provide constructive feedback to encourage a culture of feedback within the team. Feedback may be challenging, but providing examples and reasoning behind your feedback is essential. Getting feedback from your direct reports may also require effort and attention.
- Strategic Thinking and Decision-Making: Make informed decisions that align with the company’s goals, and develop skills in data analysis and decision-making under uncertainty.
- Handling Tough Conversations and Performance Improvement: As a leader, you often need to have challenging conversations about improving performance, resolving conflicts, or sharing bad news. Handling these discussions with sensitivity, communication skills, and precision is essential. As a manager, you must give concise and practical feedback to encourage struggling team members. When talking, concentrate on the problem instead of the person, and strive to achieve a favorable resolution every time. Approaching conversations with a sincere interest in helping your team member grow and develop can turn an awkward situation into a chance for learning and progress.
- Humility and Vulnerability: Even managers make mistakes, and it’s okay to admit that. Some of the best leaders are those who show humility and are open about their vulnerabilities. When you acknowledge that you don’t know everything and own up to your errors, you build trust, promote communication, and encourage your team to be honest about their mistakes, ask for help, and seek answers. It’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the abilities and efforts of your team members. Being receptive to learning from them can enhance your leadership skills. When combined with effective leadership, vulnerability can create stronger relationships and encourage a culture of understanding and teamwork.
- Goal Setting: Once goals are established, your role as a manager is to furnish resources, offer feedback, and facilitate progress, which includes regular check-ins, development opportunities, and obstacle removal. Commemorating milestones and accomplishments maintains motivation and underscores the merit of goal-setting. Understand that goal-setting isn’t static. It’s a dynamic process that evolves with shifting priorities and project developments. Flexibility and open dialogue about adjusting goals foster a realistic understanding of goal-setting, keeping it integral to work reality rather than a stiff, administrative task. Two frameworks for goal setting: The SMART framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound), and the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework for more complex, long-term goals.
- Managing Change: As a leader, it’s important to have the skill to manage change effectively since change is inevitable. As a manager, you may need to initiate change by introducing new processes, adopting new technology, or redefining team roles. Sometimes, you may have to help your team navigate changes from higher company levels or outside influences. To do this effectively, you need to explain why the changes are happening, listen to and resolve your team’s worries and objections, and provide assistance as the changes occur. Managing change can be challenging, but you can guide your team to overcome it by being open, understanding, and providing strong leadership. Also, acknowledging and commemorating the team’s successful adaptation to the change can encourage a positive outlook toward upcoming changes.
- Continuous Learning and Self-Improvement: Seek continuous education to enhance your skills and knowledge. NEVER stop learning and improving. Be willing to unlearn, relearn and rethink your understanding.
- Shaping Culture: Managers play a vital role in shaping the culture of their team, which in turn can impact the department and even the entire organization. Culture refers to a group’s shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and actions, influencing how team members interact, tackle challenges, and prioritize goals.
Wrapping this up
Although I covered many essential skills for managers, I didn’t address every skill or subject. Being a manager involves much more, but building trust is the core of all these skills. It is essential for fostering open communication, encouraging risk-taking, and enabling shared successes to thrive. These skills can create an environment that fosters productivity, builds an engaged team, and provides valuable leadership. Combining these skills with a strong work ethic, dedication, and sometimes industry-specific knowledge will pave the way for a successful career in management.
The journey of management is continuous, marked by lifelong learning, adaptability, and the joy of seeing one’s direct reports or teams flourish. When done right, the privilege of mentoring and influencing future leaders makes every step of this journey worthwhile. Only time and feedback will tell how you did as a manager. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and what we’ve discussed is a guideline, not a rule book. Leadership, like Trust, is earned one day at a time. So buckle up. It’s going to be an exciting ride!
I invite your perspective to analyze this post further – whether by invalidating specific points or affirming others. What are your thoughts?.
Let’s talk: phil.clark@rethinkyourunderstanding.