Back to resources

Organic Leadership: Becoming a Manager

Personal Growth
Leadership
New Manager

25 August, 2021

Alex Oleinikov
Alex Oleinikov

Software Engineering Manager at People.ai

Alex Oleinikov, Software Engineering Manager at People.ai, recalls being promoted to a manager after stepping up to solve problems his team members faced.

Problem

As soon as I joined my current company, I had to step up and take care of a team since a previous lead left the company. Having some experience in the past helped, but the company and all around it was brand new.

One of the principles that we in the company are proud of is organic leadership. That means we don’t hire managers as such, but we hire engineers, and we help them grow. Consequently, you will not become a manager by the authority of your title, but you will have to earn your reputation by steering the team and influencing people.

Actions taken

The first goal of an aspiring leader is to establish authority. When you join as an engineer, it is somewhat implied but never uttered that you would have to lead that team. You will have to look for ways to earn credibility inside and outside the team. The best way to do it is by identifying the team’s pain points or what your team members struggle with and addressing those. Making the lives of your team members easier will certainly help establish your reputation.

When I joined, I encountered a rather flimsy development process. We lacked an understanding of our development capacity, which entailed a lack of predictability of what we could deliver. I doubled down on the processes, automated what I could, and soon our workflow became much more structured and transparent. Suddenly, the life of my teammates became much easier: they didn’t have to worry if they were able to meet the expectations.

We also had a pressing problem on the product side, for which I happened to figure out an elegant solution because of my technical expertise. I had the team sit down, proposed to them to approach the whole problem differently, and they all agreed. All we had to do was to implement it. Solving this problem didn’t get me much credibility within the team, but it was quite noticed outside because it bothered management six months before my arrival. We sorted the problem out in a couple of weeks only.

In addition, we didn’t have a firm commitment for our deliveries. We tended to wander a bit and see what we would come out of it. I took responsibility for those deliveries and put a stake in the ground -- this is where we would be in a quarter time. I made sure to align the team on our new benchmark and motivate everyone to hit those goals. Clear goals and structure made everyone’s life easier. The team knew what to expect; their morale skyrocketed because they started to deliver, and with less uncertainty, they could plan for the future.

Lessons learned

  • Don’t rush things, and don’t try to exercise power before the time has come. The reputation is a fragile thing that takes a lot to earn and is easily eroded.
  • You don’t need to have a title to organize people. That works for both ICs and managers. Your manager will appreciate you taking as much responsibility as possible, even if you don’t have the official title, because it will make their life easier.
  • Not having an official designation won’t close as many doors as you think. It is often a blessing in disguise. Soon as you get the official title, your focus will blur because it will be dispersed over multiple things. Focus on things that bring value to your team. After the transition, that focus becomes a luxury you will not be able to afford.
  • You can’t impose authority on people. You can’t say, “John is going to be your leader, and you will all listen to John.” Instead, John needs to position himself as a de facto leader before the organizational changes are announced. That will minimize friction and will be less risky for the organization.
  • You can’t hire a manager from the outside and expect the team to accept them no matter what. The industry’s rejection rate is around 50 percent, meaning a significant risk is involved. With organic leadership, the rejection rate is not only lower but the overall risk is reduced. If it doesn’t work, you will move one IC outside of the team instead of ending up with a leadership gap affecting all ICs. Also, there is much less envy, friction, restructuring, surprises, etc. When the official decision of my promotion was announced, one of my teammates told me, “I thought you are already a manager.” It is a risk-averse strategy from the company’s perspective, but it is also much less stressful to the people in the trenches.

Discover Plato

Scale your coaching effort for your engineering and product teams
Develop yourself to become a stronger engineering / product leader


Related stories

Leaving Room to Say Things Suck — Leadership Lessons from “Ted Lasso”

17 August

A major sign of trust, comfortability, and vulnerability is for someone you lead to be able to say something sucks.

Building A Team
Company Culture
Leadership
Coaching / Training / Mentorship
John Hartley

John Hartley

Senior Engineering Manager at Curology

How to Maintain Happiness: The Underrated Aspect of Creating Team Dynamic

2 August

Jonathan Ducharme, Engineering Manager at AlleyCorp Nord, encourages the importance of a workplace environment that cultivates mental wellness.

Personal Growth
Company Culture
Leadership
Internal Communication
Psychological Safety
Jonathan Ducharme

Jonathan Ducharme

Engineering Manager at AlleyCorp Nord

Scaling a Team in Two Parts: The Product and Manager

2 August

Viswa Mani Kiran Peddinti, Sr Engineering Manager at Instacart, walks through his experience scaling a team, product and his skills as a leader.

Managing Expectations
Product
Scaling Team
Leadership
Meetings
Viswa Mani Kiran Peddinti

Viswa Mani Kiran Peddinti

Sr Engineering Manager at Instacart

How to Enter QA With a Non-Technical Degree

2 August

Lewis Prescott, QA Lead at Cera Care, explains his journey from a degree in psychology to learning test automation and computer programming.

Handling Promotion
Personal Growth
Coaching / Training / Mentorship
Career Path
Lewis Prescott

Lewis Prescott

QA Lead at CeraCare

Congratulations you're an Engineering Manager! Now What?

29 July

Congratulations, you have just been promoted to an engineering management role. Once you are done celebrating the promotion you have worked hard to earn you might start to ask yourself, now what do I do?

Leadership
New Manager
AJ St. Aubin

AJ St. Aubin

Director Software Engineering at The RepTrak Company