The Challenges of Being the Engineering Manager Hired In to Fix Existing Problems
Sr Director, Technology Consulting at Slalom Federal
As a manager new to an organization, you may find yourself having inherited an existing team who aren't (or aren't perceived to be) performing at the level expected by their leadership -- the old "bring someone new in to fix our problems" play. This situation might be exacerbated by a team of employees who have been with the company since its inception, whether that's one year or ten years, and who might think they are exempt from criticism because they are "founders" on the team. These team members may think they're hitting goals, continue working at a leisurely pace, and that everything is fine, while their leadership believes they're not executing, not innovating, and not moving forward. As a new manager, it's tempting to default to the "yes person" mentality because you want to please those who just hired you, and similarly you also want to start out on the right foot with your team, but any situation not rooted wholly in the truth is destined for eventual failure. Let's not do that!
The absolute first step is to listen to what leadership says, both leadership above and in leadership on teams adjacent. Chances are they have a lot of pent up emotions. Listen, but keep an open mind. There might not be a problem; the problem is sometimes with the person expressing it and their dissatisfaction. But, any problem, real or perceived, should still be figured out.
- Listen to leadership, synthesize, and keep an open mind.
- Then meet your direct reports, look them in the eyes, and talk it through. You need to understand their individual perspectives on the truth.
- Make it clear that you're trying to get to the ground truth on something; don't lie and say everything is hunky dory, but don't put fear in them either.
- Be approachable. Try something like this: "Hey, I'm new, I want to make sure that we start on the right foot. Can you tell me about XYZ that I've been hearing about?"
- Then do some independent research; trust but verify. Assume good intent, but be realistic that sometimes it's just not all good.
- If there's a specific incident that people are stuck on, look for the documentation and consult it. Remember that Slack messages and code review and comments on issues and pull requests are all forms of communication.
- Are product managers or delivery managers or whatever your flavor of "go between" translating the work of engineers to leadership such that they understand what's going on but at the level they need to -- and is anything getting lost in translation? It could be that nothing is actually wrong; rather, leadership just isn't hearing the exact words that align with concepts they focus on, like translating work done in a sprint into revenue or social good impact or (insert your focus here).
- Maybe there are no product managers or delivery managers or "go between" other than engineers, and so the team has to try to translate their technical work themselves -- this is a skill that takes time to cultivate, and doesn't come naturally to a lot of people, particularly when it's not a skill they practice every day because it's not a focus in their job.
Things to remember:
- If you feel like you're in the middle of...the best phrase that matches this feeling is the German phrase "Sturm und Drang," or just "turmoil". It's a lot of chatter, stress, and angst, but these situations come down to communication, perception, and people.
- As a manager new to the organization, you're in the best position to find the truth because you don't have any of the baggage that comes with having been mired in a tumultuous environment where trust may be eroded.
- Realize each person's version of the truth is true to them. Try to come up with a statement that clarifies for both sides. For instance, "This is what I, new person, heard, when Joe said X and Jane said Y" or "This is what I, new person, saw Bill struggle with when Anna was explaining this concept."
- But sometimes there is just that one toxic person dragging others down with their poor attitude.
- Maybe the team's less-experienced members are flailing because they need more support, and the more senior people don't understand the best way to give it.
- Maybe leadership just doesn't understand what the work is and how it iteratively leads to a business result.
- Technology is easy, people are hard. A lot of issues boil down to clear(er) communication and just playing a "translator" role for awhile. The work or processes might not change but the perception or outcomes sure might!
There are all sorts of tactical, actionable outcomes you can take after taking some time to gather and synthesize information. The first thing to remember is that it will be difficult, and it will most likely include a lot of different types of emotions, and you will have to take all those in before you can do something with the information. But you have nothing to lose by trying to get to the ground truth ASAP. The worst thing that can happen is your folks will see that you're trying to look out for everyone's best interests and they'll trust you -- and that's not a bad thing.
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Sr Director, Technology Consulting at Slalom Federal
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