Organic Leadership: Becoming a Manager

Alex Oleinikov

Software Engineering Manager at People.ai



As soon as I joined my current company, I had to step up and take care of a team since a previous lead left the company. Having some experience in the past helped, but the company and all around it was brand new.

One of the principles that we in the company are proud of is organic leadership. That means we don’t hire managers as such, but we hire engineers, and we help them grow. Consequently, you will not become a manager by the authority of your title, but you will have to earn your reputation by steering the team and influencing people.

Actions taken

The first goal of an aspiring leader is to establish authority. When you join as an engineer, it is somewhat implied but never uttered that you would have to lead that team. You will have to look for ways to earn credibility inside and outside the team. The best way to do it is by identifying the team’s pain points or what your team members struggle with and addressing those. Making the lives of your team members easier will certainly help establish your reputation.

When I joined, I encountered a rather flimsy development process. We lacked an understanding of our development capacity, which entailed a lack of predictability of what we could deliver. I doubled down on the processes, automated what I could, and soon our workflow became much more structured and transparent. Suddenly, the life of my teammates became much easier: they didn’t have to worry if they were able to meet the expectations.

We also had a pressing problem on the product side, for which I happened to figure out an elegant solution because of my technical expertise. I had the team sit down, proposed to them to approach the whole problem differently, and they all agreed. All we had to do was to implement it. Solving this problem didn’t get me much credibility within the team, but it was quite noticed outside because it bothered management six months before my arrival. We sorted the problem out in a couple of weeks only.

In addition, we didn’t have a firm commitment for our deliveries. We tended to wander a bit and see what we would come out of it. I took responsibility for those deliveries and put a stake in the ground -- this is where we would be in a quarter time. I made sure to align the team on our new benchmark and motivate everyone to hit those goals. Clear goals and structure made everyone’s life easier. The team knew what to expect; their morale skyrocketed because they started to deliver, and with less uncertainty, they could plan for the future.

Lessons learned

  • Don’t rush things, and don’t try to exercise power before the time has come. The reputation is a fragile thing that takes a lot to earn and is easily eroded.
  • You don’t need to have a title to organize people. That works for both ICs and managers. Your manager will appreciate you taking as much responsibility as possible, even if you don’t have the official title, because it will make their life easier.
  • Not having an official designation won’t close as many doors as you think. It is often a blessing in disguise. Soon as you get the official title, your focus will blur because it will be dispersed over multiple things. Focus on things that bring value to your team. After the transition, that focus becomes a luxury you will not be able to afford.
  • You can’t impose authority on people. You can’t say, “John is going to be your leader, and you will all listen to John.” Instead, John needs to position himself as a de facto leader before the organizational changes are announced. That will minimize friction and will be less risky for the organization.
  • You can’t hire a manager from the outside and expect the team to accept them no matter what. The industry’s rejection rate is around 50 percent, meaning a significant risk is involved. With organic leadership, the rejection rate is not only lower but the overall risk is reduced. If it doesn’t work, you will move one IC outside of the team instead of ending up with a leadership gap affecting all ICs. Also, there is much less envy, friction, restructuring, surprises, etc. When the official decision of my promotion was announced, one of my teammates told me, “I thought you are already a manager.” It is a risk-averse strategy from the company’s perspective, but it is also much less stressful to the people in the trenches.

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Alex Oleinikov

Software Engineering Manager at People.ai

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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