Mistakes I've Made as an Engineering Manager | CSS-Tricks
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Some folks think that management looks like a steel fortress of preparedness and authority. I’m not so sure about that.
If something goes wrong, are you more likely to tell the manager acts as though they have everything together all the time, or the manager owns their mistakes? The truth is that your team needs to know you’re human. You can’t fix problems if you don’t know about them, and no one will tell you about them unless you make space for that.
You’re the manager, so if someone is going to show vulnerability first, it’s easiest on team dynamics if it’s you. You can try this by admitting you’re having a bad day, that you don’t understand something, or that made a mistake. You don’t have to do this constantly, a little is helpful.
No one likes to feel like they’re repeating themselves. It’s annoying to say someone more than once, and it’s annoying to hear something over and again. But if you have a big enough group and there’s enough going on, things are going to slip through the cracks, so repetition becomes an important tool to make things stick. The trick is to say the same things, but in different ways.
Think of all the ways we have to communicate these days: chats, emails, video meetings, texts, document comments, and so much more. And because some people communicate better in one medium than another, using all of the platforms have in various mediums becomes a strategy for repetition without nagging.
I’ve found that what work best is allowing everyone to own the information themselves. For example, if your team practices career laddering, the individual can read aloud each of the ladders in one-on-one and then talk you through their responses to each item. That way, you’re not lecturing — they are owning where they are and what the next steps are as you guide them along.
Years ago, I managed a woman who was bright, talented, capable, and an all around pleasure. She was sort of new to the industry and could come across as timid, so I did my best to be a poop umbrella for her, fighting battles behind the scenes to set her up for success. She was on a steady track to land a senior role. Even after I decided to leave the company, I let the next manager know this person is track for a senior position in the next few months.
Here’s what I learned: her promotion wasn’t the same high priority for the capable hands I left her in as it was for me. The team was challenged with a million other things that took center stage to the extent that her promotion fell off the radar. But even more than that, what became very clear to me was that all of that “protection” I thought I had set up for her didn’t really serve her well for the long haul. For example, I didn’t teach her how to advocate for herself or how to navigate the system. I vowed never to make that mistake again.
Try to think through what skills someone needs to succeed without you. Teach those things incrementally. Sure, this is easy advice to say, but it’s really hard to do in the thick of things. Spend some time with it, and think through ways you can inject that learning into everyday work and interactions.
How do you get around this? Asking helps. I’ve started doing an exercise with my team where I ask the group as a whole how they would like to get feedback. Not only does it open up ideas, but it also helps that each individual has to think for themselves how they prefer to receive feedback. Normalizing this type of vulnerability and self-reflection can help us all feel like partners, instead of some top-down edict.
Another thing that’s helped? Asking folks directly in a one-on-one meeting if they have feedback for me as a manager, and following up with an anonymous survey. Again, it makes things feel less one-sided and provides everyone the opportunity to say things that they might not want to say directly to my face, which I know can be tough.
And lastly, if something comes up, addressing it immediately can be helpful. There’s nothing worse than your manager having an issue with something you did and only finding out about it three months later, especially if it’s tied to a performance review that you could have impacted had they been transparent earlier.
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