7 Attributes of a Great Manager

Kah Seng Tay

VP of Engineering at Airtable



"I spent 6 years working for a company while it grew from 20 to over 200 employees. During that time, I moved from engineering to management and directorship. I was happy to learn that despite my somewhat limited experience with leadership in the tech industry, my reports across various teams were consistently scoring me highly as a manager. It was pleasing to receive these positive assessments, but I wanted to know what exactly I had done that impressed them this way; as this was a success I hoped to replicate in future management positions."

Actions taken

"I spoke individually and in group settings with my former reports to ask them for specific feedback about which attributes of my management they found to be positive. I recorded this feedback and reviewed it to identify any trends. I wanted to be able to take it with me and be a great manager wherever I go. I came away from this experience with 7 areas of my management style that were generally well-received."

Lessons learned

  1. "I got to know people personally. I wanted to understand their lives, what they did outside of work, and who they were as people. This helped me establish rapport and build trust with my reports. For example, I dedicated significant amount of our time during 1-on-1s to getting to know my reports. We'd chat about their families and what they did over the weekend first, before going into project progress and status updates. Occasionally we wouldn't get to the technical information at all, but I was okay with that because I could find that out easily later."
  2. "I overshared information. It's important to identify what information you receive as a manager that is sensitive or confidential. Of course, this is not to be shared. However, there is plenty of information that is discussed among management that isn't typically shared with reports due to the inconvenience of cascading it down or simply forgetting to pass it on. Many managers don't realize they should be forcefully (in the engineering sense) updating their reports with whatever has been shared with them. It is a worthwhile effort which helped establish trust, because when people realize I trust them with that information, they are more comfortable sharing things with me as well."
  3. "I knew about the pain points my reports were experiencing, and they had the sense that I could actually have an impact and help deal with them. I tried to be empathetic to whatever troubles they were facing either in development workflow, in projects, or even peer-to-peer relationship conflicts. By actively listening and looking for ways to be understanding, I was able to provide helpful tips in the moment; and prevent similar situations from occurring in the future."
  4. "When managing more experienced engineers, I didn't go too deep into the details of their projects. This goes beyond avoiding micromanagement, because it expressed the deep trust I had for them. I actually did not want them to feel managed. I didn't need to know everything, and I trusted them to tell me what I did need to know. Of course when things went poorly, I, as the manager, had to sometimes reassign a project or provide them with high-level directional feedback."
  5. "This is similar to point #1, but worth emphasizing on its own: I genuinely cared about the people working on my projects, not just the technical details or day-to-day progress, which contrasted with what they saw in other managers. People can sense when you care about them, and that goes a long way. When they knew I cared, then when it got to communication about projects, they could expect any progress blockers wouldn't be misinterpreted negatively."
  6. "I happened to have the technical knowledge and strength to be hands-on if needed. Some engineers respect their managers more when they can talk the talk and walk the walk. This doesn't mean that you can't be a good manager if you don't understand the tech details, but to be GREAT, you need to have that knowledge. This gives you credibility as you set direction, request changes or propose other courses of action."
  7. "People felt that I 'had their backs.' This manifested in various different ways that they shared: I tried to be fair with my reports - it's important to understand the difference between equality and equity. I also stood up for them and fought for their perspectives. I was careful to take on only what the team could handle. In conclusion, these were 7 attributes that I was able to learn about my management style in general that I'm happy to share with others."

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Kah Seng Tay

VP of Engineering at Airtable

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance ReviewsFeedback Techniques

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