Seven Lessons from Managers at Shopify, Slack, Github and More

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Article Summary

  • Why should you read this?  If you’re not familiar with it, LeadDev is a fantastic community of engineering leaders.  Last week, LeadDev Live, their virtual event, was an opportunity to hear from managers at companies like Shopify, Netflix, Slack and Github on how they lead their teams.  It’s the accessible, insightful, practical manager peer community you wish you had at your company.  We’ve summarised our highlights in case you missed it.    
  • It’s a marathon but it’s also a relay race:  we’re almost a year into the pandemic and people are exhausted.  It can feel like a marathon, but that’s not how you should be viewing it with your team.  Your job as a manager is to be aware of who has the energy, at what time, so that work can be allocated appropriately, those who need a break can take it, and you can stay in the game.  It’s not a marathon, it’s a relay race. 
  • Treat your communications like your product: it’s no secret that for a manager, communications are important, particularly now. But how can you make sure they’re the best they can be?  Treat them like a product.  Ask your customers (your team) what they think and what could be improved. Then try experiments and evolve. 
  • Stability is underrated: there’s been a lot of talk over the past 12 months about perks companies can provide for remote workers.  One thing that may be more important than you think: stability.  Are there ways you can provide clarity and certainty for your team on their work which enable them to plan the rest of their lives? It’s probably more valuable than any standing desk allowance.
  • Use more video: video is a wonderful way of communicating but it can seem time consuming to put together and distribute.  That’s changing.  Screen capture tools like Loom and the fact that so many more meetings are online make it easier to make clips of what you’re working on and distribute to others who would benefit.  One VP of Engineering at Shopify even has a block of time in his calendar where all he does is that. 
  • Influence without exerting authority: a manager title confers authority and maybe some power, but it doesn’t give you influence, which is what you’ll need to have genuine impact in a workplace over the long-term.  It was a reminder to constantly be assessing which stakeholders are crucial for your team’s success and to work on building those relationships.  You never know when you might need them.
  • Be more open: ‘my door is always open’ has become almost a cliché for managers to say to their teams.  But often teammates don’t just walk through it.  It can be hard to approach leaders, particularly on issues which are not normal business.  That’s not good enough right now.  We heard examples of managers who had set up formal processes to bring employees into discussions about their pandemic planning and how it would affect them, and were using video calls to proactively reach out when previously they might not have.  
  • Tell more stories: at a time when good communication is invaluable, we were reminded that telling stories is often the most powerful way to get a point across.  Work out what you want your audience to know and feel and then use some tried and tested techniques to grab their attention. 

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We’re constantly amazed that more companies don’t create peer groups for their managers to come together.  A place where they can laugh, cry and learn about what can be an incredibly challenging role.   

Setting these up is a topic for another post.  If your company has some of these groups already, fantastic.  If you don’t have a community though, you might want to check out LeadDev.  

If you don’t know it already, LeadDev describes itself as ‘a community of software engineering leaders that come together to learn and get inspired on all things team, tech, process, and personal development.’  To do this, they produce fantastic content and events on these topics, along with running a Slack community and social media.  

LeadDev Logo
Source: LeadDev

‘But I don’t work in tech or software engineering?’ you might say.

It’s true that some of the content is focussed specifically on engineering managers (‘having a separate CI/CD pipeline for frontend’ anyone?).  But a lot of it is about motivating and growing diverse teams of bright, curious individuals to do great things.  At its heart, this is what most management is about.  We have learned an enormous amount from their work over the years.

Which brings us to LeadDev Live, their big live virtual event, which we attended last week.  It had a bunch of exciting speakers across a whole range of leadership-related topics.   We’ve always said we can learn a lot from how other managers have tackled similar challenges.  This was a great opportunity to hear from managers at Shopify, Netflix, Slack, Github, Atlassian and many more about how they approach their work.  Particularly through the year we’ve just had.

You can check out the videos from the day here.  But we wanted to bring you our main takeaways.

You’ll see pretty quickly they’re not just for software engineers.

It’s a Marathon but it’s also a Relay Race

Unsurprisingly, the whole day was framed by the dynamics of the pandemic and its challenges.  One of the specific questions that came up was how managers are thinking about their roles almost a year into it.  How are you managing this marathon?

One perceptive answer came from Jean-Michel Lemieux, the CTO of Shopify, the Canadian e-commerce giant.  He pointed out that although it did feel like a marathon, it’s a weird marathon, because it’s also a baton relay.

Everyone has felt the pressures of the pandemic differently.   Individual circumstances, personalities, employment, health, and location have all determined your experience.  That can all change wildly, not just month-to-month, but week-to-week and even day-to-day. 

In that environment, your job as a manager is to be aware of who has the energy, at what time, so that work can be allocated appropriately, those who need a break can take it, and you can stay in the race.  

It’s a marathon but it’s also a relay race.

Relay Race
Source: Braden Collum on Unsplash

Treat your Communications like a Product

It’s no secret that good communication is essential to managing teams, the past year more than ever. 

Dana Lawson, a VP of Engineering at Github, the Microsoft-owned software development platform, pointed out that your ways of communicating shouldn’t stay the same.  They should evolve over time with your organisation.  

To do that, think of your communications like your product (to be honest, this is applicable for all internal processes).   Your people are your customers.  How do you know whether your product is working for them? Ask them!  Speak to your team about your comms.  Could it be better, if so, in what ways?  Experiment with changes in a small group, and if those work, roll them out to a wider audience.  

Apply the same level of rigour and service that you would to serving external customers and you could find surprising and effective ways to improve.

Stability is Underrated

We have some strong opinions on company perks.  We know this might be controversial but we feel that some companies focus too much on salad bars and meditation apps and not enough on good management and career progress.  As one of our readers said:  ‘I want career development opportunities, not free f*cking cinema tickets.’    

We digress (slightly).  The point is what is most important for managers and companies to provide for their employees at this time? 

Jean-Michel suggested that rather than specific perks, at a higher level, one of the best things you can give your team at the moment is some stability and clarity, which they can use to plan the rest of their life.  

At Shopify this line of thinking led them to make one of the earliest commitments amongst major companies to remote work back in 2020, so their employees could begin planning what that would mean for them and their families. 

We like their thinking.  It will mean different things to different teams, but if you ask the question of what could you be doing to provide more stability and certainty for your colleagues, you might find some helpful answers. 

Use More Video

At Kommon, we really like good writing.  But for quickly conveying emotion and meaning, you often can’t beat video.  

Now, the issue with video is that it can seem cumbersome and complex.  Not every company has an in-house broadcast team (like Shopify), or company tv channels (Shopify, Github).  But that’s not to say you can’t create meaningful content as a manager.

Farhan Thawar is a VIP of Engineering at Shopify.  He has a regular event in his calendar to ‘send async video’ to remind him to think about whether he could create anything which would be helpful from his work, to send to other parts of the organisation.  In Farhan’s case, this often means making short clips of meetings he’s recorded.  But screen capture tools like Loom also make it easy to record clips of yourself and what you’re working on to send to others.

As a manager, we think this could be a really meaningful tool for remote communication.  Maybe consider setting that calendar reminder monthly and see what you come up with.   

Video call
Source: Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

Influence Without Exerting Authority

This panel reminded us of a speech given by US General Mark Welsh III in 2011 to US Air Force Academy Cadets.  In it, Welsh makes the point that:

 “Leadership is a gift. It’s given by those who follow. You have to be worthy of it”

In the same way that you’re not just a leader by calling yourself one, you don’t actually have any authority, just because you have a title.  You may be given some power, but if you try to exercise that without influence, it’s probably going to blow up in your face.

As Ellen Wong, Director of Engineering at Calm, said, when you become a manager you’re excited about using authority for ‘one hot minute’ before it becomes clear that it’s more complex than that. Influence is the name of the game.

The tricky part?  Influence doesn’t appear when you need it.  You have to build relationships and trust with those you want to influence before you need to influence them.  

So, what does that mean as a manager?

Take the time to identify the stakeholders who are going to have a meaningful impact on the professional growth of you and your team.  This may be your boss, your boss’s boss, peers, relevant team leads etc.  Then work out how you can make sure you and your team are on their radar, and how you can be most helpful to them.  This may be through accomplishing certain tasks in a certain way, or sharing information and experience.  This builds up the recognition, goodwill and trust which you may need someday.  

Be More Open

‘My door is always open’ is a phrase you hear a lot from leaders.  You may even have said it yourself a couple of times.  But just saying it and creating a path for people to walk through it are two very different things.

Colleagues can often be tentative in approaching managers, particularly if it’s on a subject out of the ordinary.  In times like this, which are very out of the ordinary, managers should be going out of their way to be as accessible and approachable as possible.

None of this is particularly ground-breaking.  But it was interesting to hear some managers change processes in their organisations to ensure this happened.  Both Claudius Mbemba, CTO at Neu, and Elaine Zhou, CTO at Change.org, spoke about how they had explicitly brought employees into their planning sessions for the pandemic, and created new employee forums to discuss their organisation’s response.  

Moreover, as video calls have become accepted as the norm, it has actually made it easier for some employees to make better connections with leaders.  Particularly those in different time zones or departments.  They’re now just a click away, rather than a plane flight, or an awkward walk across the office.

Rather than just opening the door, we can try harder to put employees in the room. 

Tell More Stories

As anyone who has given a presentation or tried to sell something knows, you often get the best reactions from your audience when you tell them a story.   Product features < customer stories.  Details of your new job < office gossip. 

Just being regularly reminded of this is helpful.  But Arquay Harris from Slack also gave a great reminder of some frameworks you can use next time you’re preparing that presentation.  Three things to focus on:

  • Your message:  what is it that you want people to walk away knowing or feeling? 
  • Your audience: who are you talking to and what are their priorities? Don’t be afraid to ask in advance.  Particularly if you’re one in a series of presentations - ask who went before you!  
  • Your tone: how are you going to best get your message across? Funny? Serious? 

Then, she spoke about eight ways you can structure your story to get your audience’s attention.  We won’t go through them all here, but they’re detailed in an article here if you’re interested. 

Eight storytelling techniques
Source: Sparkol


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