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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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:
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.
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