Coaching Engineers into a Leadership Role

Chris Saint-Amant

Director, Product Management at Netflix



"One of my team members at Netflix came to me and told me that he wanted to progress to a point where he could step into a management role. He knew that this might take him a year or two to get to, but he wanted to know what it would take in order for him to be promoted."

Actions taken

"I started by asking him about why he was interested in making this the next step in his career. In my experience, many people see moving into management as the inevitable next step. When people think that, what is often underlying that is a combination of three things - influence and impact, compensation growth, or personal growth."

"I emphasised that individual contributors can continue to get increased impact and compensation, in-line with a management path. He was interested in increased impact, but also in personal growth - he felt that moving into management would give him a new set of challenges, beyond his technical growth."

"When we look at promotions and role changes at Netflix, we do it primarily based on business needs. If there isn't a business need, we're not going to create a role artificially. Everyone here strongly internalizes this - people strive to operate in the best interests of the company, so he understood where I was coming from."

"I encouraged him not to put a hard deadline on a promotion, as that could have potentially set him up for disappointment. I was also candid with him and said that it could be possible that when he is ready, we don't have the business need for that role, or that we have a business need, but I don't think he's ready. I also let him know that another possible outcome is that he may need to go outside the company to find the leadership opportunity that's in line with his professional growth."

"I then gave the engineer opportunities to test out his leadership skills by giving him freedom to lead projects and initiatives. I gave him space so people wouldn't be deferential to me rather than to him. However, at other times I would try to be more of a passive observer and I would give him feedback after the meetings. It's a tricky balance, as I can't be there all the time, and I shouldn't be as he needs space to learn and to be seen as a leader."

"Recently, I did have a need for a manager in my group, but when I looked at the needs for my group, I decided the team needed a more senior engineering leader. In addition, I have gotten subtle clues over the year I have been coaching him that he isn't motivated by selfless goals. He often says 'I want to do this' rather than 'We should do this' and represents his own motivations as an important factor, rather than what's best for the team or the business. I talked to him about my concerns, and was also transparent with him about my decision to look outside the team for the role."

Lessons learned

"The engineer is still working on his leadership skills with the goal of becoming a manager. Transparency around how you evaluate success for the role is key - be upfront. In addition, don't let things drift for too long - have regular conversations to prevent your engineers from feeling frustrated."

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Chris Saint-Amant

Director, Product Management at Netflix

Leadership & StrategyEngineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementTeam & Project Management

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