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Finding the strengths and weaknesses of direct reports

Handling Promotion
Career Path
New Manager

22 March, 2018

Heemeng Foo
Heemeng Foo

Head of Quality Engineering at Rocket Lawyer

Heemeng shares his tips on how to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your direct reports when you take over a new team.


Every new manager who is hiring or taking over a new team has to figure the strengths and weaknesses of their direct reports. In my career, I have had to do this a number of times, as I've built teams in Asia, Europe and in the US. The approaches to do it are the same.

Actions taken

1:1s I can't overemphasize the importance of regular 1:1s. For your direct reports, you need to have weekly 1-1s with them, at least. The minimum time for these meetings should be 30 minutes per session. Also, change the setting of the 1;1s regularly - go for a walk, grab a coffee, or go get an ice-cream. It helps your direct report to relax and to be more forthcoming. They need to trust that you are working to help them be the best they can be. It was through 1:1s that I found out that one of my best performers was having an issue with her child that caused her a lot of distress and caused a performance drop. It was also through 1:1s that I figured out how to motivate a mediocre performer to excel. Talk to direct report's stakeholders Your direct report's stakeholders are your customers and they can be your ally when you want to get better performance out of them. Talk to them regularly to get a pulse of how your direct report is doing and what their weaknesses are. Then talk to your report, so that they are made aware of how they are doing. This is very valuable feedback. I once had a direct report who was really not performing. I talked to the stakeholders and realized it was a fit issue. My direct report did not fit in, as he was not as technically biased as the team he was working with - these were folks who were very, very technical. The kind who would be working on a side project in their free time and who would be glad to work on a project during their weekends and holidays. Once I transferred him to another team, they loved him! This was a team that was more product and user focused. While they were still technically strong, they also had kids and valued their weekends. Give your report a small project Just like in the Agile/Lean startup method, nothing beats getting an MVP out the door to understand user requirements. This is the same with direct reports - nothing beats getting them to do something and seeing how they handle it. One way to see if a direct report is ready for leadership is organizing a team lunch or outing. You'll not only be able to see how they organize and lead, but having a team outing will also help to raise team morale. The good ones will organize this type of event fairly naturally, as they have natural leadership. Then there are the ones that want to be leaders but don't know how. These are the ones you have a "what have we learned from this" kind of talk after the outing. Two ways to see if your direct report is ready for more challenging projects are: (a) Hack days and (b) shadowed projects. Hack days are great. By using low criticality projects, you can expose an engineer's strengths. However, for projects that have a bottom-line impact, the risk is that the report is not ready to deal with the additional responsibility and they may not have technical maturity. A way to mitigate that risk is having a more senior engineer shadow them with the knowledge they may have to take over leadership if the junior engineer is incapable of delivering. This is great, as it allows your senior engineers to grow, as this is a good opportunity for them to demonstrate leadership without actually being a manager. Strengths Finder I've found this program which, when run by a facilitator, can be great for junior engineers who wish to discover their strengths - However in order for this to work, the setting needs to be collegial and neutral, and people need to be open. It will help if the leader comes up and says "Like all of you, I too have strengths and weaknesses but I work at my weaknesses". This breaks the ice and helps reports become more forthcoming.

Lessons learned

There are several ways to discover the strengths and weaknesses of your reports. You need to talk to them, seek out feedback from stakeholders and try them out on projects. Some tools help, but nothing beats quality feedback. Also, remember that an engineer may have a weakness now, but they won't necessarily still have that weakness six months down the road. People grow, and encouraging growth is what leaders and coaches are for.

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