Being a Proactive New Manager
30 April, 2020
I began working at a company as a software engineer. I was on the team for 7 months when the position of engineering manager opened up. I expressed my interest in the position, applied, interviewed, and became the manager of the team.
All of a sudden, I was managing folks who used to be my peers. Not only that, but we had recently gone through a reorganization which transitioned our team’s previous manager to the level above me.
As a result of these factors, I had to work through several different matters. Becoming an engineering manager requires a new set of skills. Managing people doesn’t come easy, and asking them to do something isn’t the same as writing a piece of code. I needed to learn and establish myself as a new engineering manager. I had to set boundaries with the skip-level manager, build trust with the team, and also bring stability and a new mindset of growth to the recently reorged team.
When transitioning from an IC role into management, it’s important to have proactive conversations with each person that you will be managing, before the announcement is made and you actually become their manager. I didn’t want people taken by surprise. This was the time for me to earn individuals’ trust. People appreciated knowing that I was candid enough to come to them directly.
These meetings were also the time for me to understand and address any insecurities that people might have about the change. You can do this in a casual setting, over tea or virtual coffee. Give people the space and opportunity to voice their concerns while being candid about the situation. These individuals were going to support me in growing my vision, so I wanted to gain their trust. This is also the time to start giving them perspective on the behaviors that you would like to build and maintain to make the team successful.
Next, I started having active conversations with my manager on setting boundaries. The fact was he used to manage this team and now he was my manager. The team still shared a candid relationship with him so I believed they would have the tendency to go to him instead of me. Therefore, before this started to reactively happen, in which case I would have lost the trust of the team out of the gate, I faced it head on before the gates even opened. I observed the internal dynamics and relationships as well as communication styles of the individuals. I tried to learn from my manager and observed how he tackled daily challenges.
Mind you, individuals were still scheduled to have monthly skip-level one-on-ones with this person. This gave management visibility and also gave me additional feedback. But for day-to-day operations I needed him to take a step back so that I had the opportunity to come in, take his place, and do the work that they hired me to do.
After having conversations with the team and with my manager, then I needed to understand what it is that everyone actually did. As an IC, I had subject matter expertise on my small stack of what the team delivered. As the leader of the team, though, I now needed to understand the knowledge for a much larger portfolio.
As a manager, you have significantly less time as compared to an IC to not only earn the trust of the team but to also ramp up. As a result, the learning curve is steep. To gain knowledge of the broader spectrum I had to understand process and operations, engineering, development, quality and testing, and much much more.
I started observing the best individual contributors and the resources they used. I asked a lot of questions. The most important question I asked them was how would they like me to support them in the short term. I specifically prioritized learning that information first and relied on the team to provide me with all of the information.
Lastly, I started focusing on missions and objectives. Obviously, since I took over a preexisting group, these things were already in place. However, because there had been a recent reorg I took the opportunity to reevaluate and ensure that these were the right fit for us at that moment.
As I was implementing these specific steps, I also began learning more about previous missions, objectives, and KPIs (key performance indicators) of the team. Once I had a clear grasp of them, I then had to understand the changing business needs and what had to be done in order to be successful. To ensure continued success, I had to scale the team so that they could handle greater loads of work with increasing subject matter expertise and technical depths in certain stacks.
Lastly, apart from developing my own 30-60-90 day plan, every person on my team was also required to create one using the new missions as a baseline. When their plans aligned with the new mission, they felt relevant and re-invigorated to give it their best. Through this method they also had a say in what the new charter would look like and this helped contribute to the stability of the group.
- My management style and skills I learned from working at previous organizations. At one point, I had five managers within 2 years and so I experienced a lot of different management techniques. As a result, I confidently knew what I liked and what I didn’t like in management styles. I also read a lot of books, online articles, and interesting posts on management. More so, I would have candid conversations with other managers on being a first time manager and that really helped me grow into the position.
- Coming in as a new manager, you don’t want to tear everything up and change things all of a sudden. It’s too disruptive for the team. Instead, take incremental steps. After your initial month as the new manager, sit with your directs and your manager, and ask intelligent questions. This is beneficial because as the new person there’s already a bit of ambiguity and you can take advantage of that to figure out what is indeed the right direction to move towards.
- As a new manager it’s best to come in with a 30-60-90 plan. Included in this three-month plan is a mission, a charter. Present this to your team, explain where it is you want to go with the team and what growth opportunities look like.
- Working with former peers can be awkward at first. Even though you go through all of the hiring steps including the interview process, people wonder why you got the role and not them. I found it best to have very honest conversations with my manager about this. Then I took steps to rebuild trust with those former peers.
- More or less, being a new manager is all about gaining the trust of your direct reports.
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