Choosing the Right Management Style
28 December, 2020
I joined my current company as a VP of Engineering which is the top technical leadership role reporting directly to the CEO. Within a few months, a number of problems started to surface. There was a lack of trust between me and the team and I felt that I had little influence over them. It all culminated when we published the results of our employee satisfaction survey that came back rather negative for me as the leader of my department.
I am a naturally action-oriented person and so are many other higher-ups - it’s likely what got us here in the first place. So thanks to my manager (the CEO), who pushed me to take the time to process the news and reflect on it before springing into action. It took about a week to do so, discuss my reflections with the CEO, and come up with a plan of action.
After revisiting an old but relevant research study from Harvard Business Review about the 6 leadership styles ([https://www.fastcompany.com/1838481/6-leadership-styles-and-when-you-should-use-them]) it hit me that I came in strong with the wrong choice of my leadership style. Reflecting further, I realized that there were two personal reasons for this.
The last three jobs that I started were all different from the new one. In all three I was starting on tech teams that needed change and I was brought in to help make things better. My previous managers expected me to come in with a strong drive and start making changes quickly. And I felt like I formed a bit of a habit of doing so. However, this was not the case with my new job as it already had a smooth-running team and there were no immediate fires to be extinguished.
The other reason was a bit more prosaic. As a new employee, I wanted to show my strengths and deliver some quick wins. I believe that this is a well-intentioned and commonplace instinct that many people share regardless of their role. But like all instincts, it needs to be interpreted in the specific context you’re in.
Finally, I want to mention company culture as it should also influence your management style. Some of my previous experiences were at companies where leadership was expected to make and drive strong decisions and actions (e.g., authoritative or pace-setting management styles). But my new job was quite different and while I felt the difference subconsciously, I did not “hear” it at the time.
And so what happened is that I started making changes without building trust with my team first and without them necessarily understanding why. The changes themselves weren’t huge - e.g., one of them was migrating from Trello to Jira - it’s more of how I led the change that was important. Looking back at it now, it’s no wonder that I ended up where I did.
Skipping all the back-n-forth of the what-to-do conversations, here is the plan of action we arrived at. I sent an email to my department sharing the results of the survey and some of my reflections. I thanked everyone for their feedback, said that I “heard it”, and shared my resolve to improve and the plan to work with an executive coach. With the help of my company, I started working with a coach on learning the coaching leadership style (you may have also heard it as “servant leadership”). There are a few learnings that I’d like to highlight here:
- Building a coaching vocabulary and learning what to say, how, and when is a great first step. This in itself provided immediate improvement for me.
- Learning to say “I don’t know” rather than trying to grasp for an answer is a powerful tool. As leaders, we sometimes think that we should have all the answers, but the reality is that we don’t.
- Showing empathy while holding people accountable is tricky but a must-learn skill. I always thought of myself as empathetic but how would others tell if they don’t know you well? You have to know how to genuinely show it and this ability doesn’t always come naturally.
- Coaching scales well as you’re not the one doing the work or even the decision making. You’re mostly asking questions while enabling your reports to learn, make their own decisions, and be autonomous.
The four months engagement with the executive coach was super valuable (major thanks to my coach)! I would also highly recommend “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever“ by Michael Bungay Stanier. I feel like I’ve learned so much since the “incident” but I continue to hone my coaching skills and fight an occasional temptation to “just do it”.
P.S. We recently conducted another round of the same employee satisfaction survey and I had a very positive score just over a year after the original survey.
- Take the time to reflect. When we find ourselves in any type of crisis we tend to rush to action. Though we frequently feel that we need to do something (and that we know what to do), it is important to take time and reflect on things before rushing to action. Even in a true emergency, taking a few minutes to recompose may help to avoid creating more problems.
- Assess the overall environment and the particular context. Every company culture is different and the leadership style that worked in the past may not be applicable. Moreover, every situation is different too - what works most of the time may not be the right style in a specific context. E.g., if your production is down it may not be the right time to coach a junior engineer on DevOps.
- Build trust first. It’s hard to lead anything if you haven’t built trust with your team. And even if there are fires to put out, you can start with discussing and agreeing on the problem itself, which is a great first step to building trust.
- Show vulnerability (and apologize). A lot has been said about showing vulnerability and I won’t belabor this point. It helps to share a genuine apology and reset the relationship. But don’t overdo it - for obvious reasons you can only do it so often.
- Executive coaches help. I never had any kind of a career coach before but heard that they can be worth the time and the money. Definitely go for it! But a coach would only be helpful if you know what you want to get out of it, you’re ready to hear some hard feedback, and you are willing to do the homework between sessions.
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