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Turning a team around

Managing Expectations
Firing
Productivity
Reorganization
Motivation
New Manager

6 December, 2017

Seth Sakamoto
Seth Sakamoto

VP Engineering at TeamSnap

Seth inherited a team of 60 engineers that lacked motivation and productivity.

Problem

I took over a team of 60 engineers as a VP of Engineering, and I rapidly noticed that there was a general lack of motivation and excellence in the team. People were not excited by challenging projects, deadlines were not being respected, and no one was going the "extra mile".

Actions taken

Over my first month and a half, I observed the interactions between teams and the way they worked. I also had a one-on-one with each engineer and asked them what was going well, and what could be improved. The problem I diagnosed was coming from external factors:

  • Many people were lacking a sense of purpose
  • The team didn't have missions, goals, or measures
  • Engineers were not challenged enough
  • The team was not using modern tools
  • Mediocrity and inaction were accepted
  • There was a very mixed bag of talent and performance
  • The team's organization was not optimal: there were some cross-functional teams and some project teams, which resulted in some overlaps Once I felt that I had a good overall vision of what could be improved, and I had gained the trust of my team, I made changes.
  • We first implemented modern tools, like moving our source code to Github
  • We let go of some people who were not performing and who were pulling the general level of the team down
  • We strengthened our hiring practices to increase candidate quality and quantity, leading to more, stronger people being hired to replace the ones we let go
  • We made sure that we had a clear job bands so that each engineer knew the expectations for their role as well as their potential growth paths
  • Related to job bands, we established associated ranges for compensation and made adjustments to optimize fairness and competitiveness
  • We slightly reorganized the teams to optimize collaboration where needed, e.g., we pulled all customer facing app teams together under one Product Engineering organization
  • We put our strongest people into influential positions
  • We established strategies for adopting best-in-class technologies and practices, and began executing on them (e.g., writing new services in Go vs C#)
  • We implemented the OKR system and made sure that each team had clear objectives

All these changes resulted in a greater motivation and efficiency, and also a better differentiation between A players and good engineers.

Lessons learned

When you take over a team, you need to look for weaknesses and strengths, and then systematically shore up the former and bolster the latter. I would advise these things:

  • Build relationships so you have an easier information flow. Use 1:1s for this.
  • Observe and corroborate the strengths and weaknesses through dialogues with the team.
  • Ensure the team has a sense of purpose, goals, and targets (OKRs)
  • Ensure the team feels challenged and that learning and growing are encouraged. Make expectations and career paths clear, adopt new technologies, and align the team around clear goals.
  • Eliminate motivational "takeaways", like people feeling like they're unfairly compensated.
  • Maximize your talent. Put your strongest people in positions of influence. Work on your hiring process. Let underperformers go.

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