How to Grow at Work
Director of Engineering at Electronic Arts
I became a leader by rising up from an IC role, which is a typical story for the tech industry. The journey started by following my manager’s footsteps, from trying to be proactive as much as I could and helping teammates, encouraging my manager to delegate some work to me, and further delegating to the more junior team members. For instance, I would suggest to my teammates that I would take on the “scary”, unknown work that normally puts people off, while delegating the more predictable and approachable tasks within the team.
After a short time being a leader, I understood that each company has quantitative rules for advancement, like the number of direct reports and impact of the role in the business. Most companies define career paths for their leaders, which are goal-oriented. Achieving one’s targets while helping their managers reach theirs as well, is a great way to move forward on that path.
One component that I found to be critical for moving forward on the leadership path is that my managers needed to be aware at all times of my ambitions and desires, so they could match them with opportunities. The best way I achieved that is by having the career path documented in a plan, agreed upon with the manager and periodically assessed. This is the best way to avoid an “I didn’t know you wanted that” situation from one’s manager.
There’s another aspect of evolving as a leader, which is being able to delegate tasks among team members, and looking out for growing leaders within your team. Especially when transitioning from an IC to a leader role, I found this challenging because I could not let go of my fears of specific tasks that might have gone unfinished. My thought process included: if I don’t do it by myself, it would not be perfect. And, that became the biggest challenge. I found various delegation frameworks very useful (they’re all good because they organize your thought process). Once I became accountable for the career paths of other people, delegation became easier, because I started to grow them towards leaders and identify those skills for their career path, which eventually enabled more delegation opportunities. The other thing would be to get work off your plate and know that there was one thing which is dispensable, not expandable; then they're ready for a promotion. Delegating gave me the space and time to focus on the higher impact activities for the business and on solving more and more complex problems. It enabled me to take a step back and look at the big picture and focus on making those decisions that matter.
Looking upwards helped me be more aware about the flow of money, profit and loss, growth or sizing the business. One important step in leadership is when one is given accountability and autonomy for managing resources and delivering on business objectives with those resources. To reach that point through career advancement, a leader needs to always be proactive but also be sensible — come up with proposals, solutions and suggestions that would deliver higher value for the organization. This leads to trust building and to a vote of confidence from the organization that facilitates the journey to a role of senior management, where oversight is minimal and the value of a leader is measured in the impact of decisions.
I wanted to delegate the individual contributor attributes while getting leadership ones. The way I did that was to make my manager aware of how I could help with and how that would be more valuable for them than my day-to-day activities, which was coding. I was a software engineer, so instead of coding, I could help them organise stuff, organise meetings, plan, and manage ceremonies, all the stuff that goes along with the coding. Eventually, it helped me advance in my career and become a leader of a small team.
Starting as a new leader, as the 1:1s were already in place, I tried to find out what my teammates liked and what they disliked. That helped me understand which path to take and how things were going. I quickly understood that there were expectations of me to solve problems and drive change, and not contribute as an IC anymore.
I found out quickly that most of the team members lacked the bigger picture and understanding how their work fit into the organisation. So, what I did was, I put them in contact with upstream and downstream stakeholders for the project they were working on. Through regular interaction and communication they understood how the company was using their work and how it helped deliver the final product. I also sought to give the team more exposure to marketing and salespeople, for them to better understand customer needs and be more effective in supporting them. Direct access to stakeholders and even customers helped build motivation for the team and a renewed sense of purpose.
To ensure that the team is on an ascending path, besides motivation, what I did was to put a lot of work into managing their career paths. I stepped in to understand what they wanted, what their personal goals and aspirations were, and most importantly, if their work was motivation for them. Following that, we built career plans for each team member which allowed them to have an outlook for the future and rest assured that I would make sure opportunities would not pass them by.
Building motivation and offering a vision for the people’s careers was a great way to get started as a manager. In my case, I was also able to build trust, help them remove barriers, unblock them in their work, and try to get them in contact with the right people who could solve their problems. Not all managers need to solve every problem, but they need to facilitate the event, and that is how you build trust. They will come to you next with the following issue as they will trust you to help them.
- Most managers see the career advancement of their direct reports as an afterthought, especially when those direct reports are managers themselves. This is why it is an excellent idea to initiate career discussions with your manager.
- Most companies nowadays have career plans and career paths formalised, with capabilities and requirements clearly spelled out. However, some companies, especially start-ups, don’t have any formalization in place. Regardless of the processes in place, one piece of advice from my experience would always be to be proactive and share your career plans in interest with your manager. By having such conversations, you can put ideas in their heads and ensure they highlight opportunities to you as they arise. They will also know that you have the advancement interest and will be more forthcoming with delegation. That would help very much to rise from an individual contributor to a leader, as well as growing further as a leader. These rules and advice apply to all levels and can be used from becoming a team leader all the way to a vice president.
- Always create a psychologically safe space for people to share their concerns and aspirations, because you will otherwise be blind to their challenges and problems. Such a disconnect can spiral down into people, eventually making them unproductive. Creating the safe space also builds further trust. A team that feels safe to express themselves and one that trusts their manager is a productive team and a team that is ready to take on more and receptive to delegation.
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Director of Engineering at Electronic Arts
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