Helping Engineers to Become Successful Managers
17 December, 2020
One of the self-evident challenges of scaling a business is that as a company grows, it will need more managers. To hire externally or promote internally has been an ever-lasting dilemma -- when you hire externally a person will need some time to come up to speed because the context and processes could be different, but when you promote internally, growing an engineer into a manager role will also take some time. For many reasons of all sorts, I prefer the latter.
To promote an engineer is not something a manager should single-handedly decide upon. For starters, a manager should pay close attention to the dynamics within the team. Over time some people will emerge as natural leaders and after talking to people on the team you will be able to assess if the team would accept them as formal leaders. Talking to people on the team not only helps with identifying the people with leadership potential but it helps with securing legitimacy and acceptance by team members. At around the same time, you should initiate the first formal conversations with a person who you think should be promoted to a manager role.
If the person consents, you should outline their future roles and responsibilities and give them enough time to think it through before coming back to you with their final decision.
Preferably, a new manager should receive some formal training that should help them prepare for the role. I would usually wait for a while because the training seems to be much more interesting and purposeful if a person has real-life experience and already has stumbled across some commonplace challenges.
Typically, a new manager would look to you for guidance and support, and most likely, they would make you their role model. They will model their behavior after your actions and you should help them by being transparent and dissecting all tasks step-by-step allowing them to acquire one new skill after another. Key skills to acquire during the first couple of months would be running one-on-ones, delegating, delivering feedback, and having tough conversations while hiring and reviews should come later. I would let new managers be present while I do these for the first couple of times and then I would encourage them to do it by themselves while I would supervise them.
To help them grow I would try to quickly step out of their way and have them do it by themselves. However, I wouldn’t step away too far immediately. I would keep an eye on things, be there to help if needed and collect feedback from people who are their reports. For example, I would inquire from their direct reports about how their one-on-ones went and what was their impression of their new manager.
Throughout their transition to a new role, you should be able to provide them with constant feedback, critical feedback but also signal them if they are doing well. Your feedback should not only help them improve, but also help them build confidence.
The first goal of any manager wouldn’t be to acquire a new skill but to gain respect from their reports. There is no magic recipe, though, how this can be achieved but staying technical and being competent is a prerequisite for it. While I worked with many new managers, it is hard to single out a skill whose acquisition and development troubles them the most. For many, delegation is the one. Reasons can be manifold; some people are struggling to let it go, others are distrustful. Personally, I often felt that I should be doing it because I would do it faster and better. But the truth is, I will never be faster than 1, 2, 10 people and they will handle many subjects better than me.
In general, the whole transition and acquiring of new basic management skills shouldn’t take longer than a couple of months, if the transition was well prepared. Some skills are easier to pick and while it has a lot to do with personal preferences, there are objective factors that are impacting that. For example, becoming good at reviews would take longer because you won’t have that often an opportunity to practice it.
- Deciding to promote someone internally has a hugely positive impact on the team. It shows the team that there are opportunities out there and that their hard work and improved skills won’t go unnoticed.
- Internally promoted managers can ramp-up exceedingly fast with the right support. They are already familiar with the context and processes and if a bit gifted for managing people, their transition can be smooth and swift.
- When you are looking for a prospective manager you should look at their leadership potential and how they are interacting with people. Also, it is important that they align and embrace the company culture and its values because as a manager they will represent the company not only themselves.
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