Principles of Engineering Management
This is another adorable constituent!
More than 2 years ago, I decided to try to create a brief, digestible manual on the expectations of management for senior engineers at my company who are considering making the shift. At the time, I had about 3 years of management experience, including two prior companies. Enough to feel like I knew how to do the job, but not enough to feel like I should be some kind of authority on management. After letting this marinate for a couple years, I’m ready to share what I have learned.
I have shared the principles below with people who are making the transition, and it has been received positively. Within the same span of time, my total number of people-months of management has dramatically increased. I have also been managing managers for more than a year, which has added additional dimension to my experience. Additionally, I have had the chance to interact with many more peers in management, who I’ve learned so much from.
I do things differently than managers I have worked for. That has sometimes made me question whether I was doing my job, at all. But I know now, from the successes my teams have achieved, that my approach works well for me, in the teams I’ve run, within the organizations we work within. All of this to say that while I don’t consider myself some kind of guru, I have gained confidence in my thinking.
The management principles below reflect lessons I have learned the hard way. These are things I wish I would have known and internalized when I first became a manager. By keeping this brief, I hope that it will be easily consumed, perhaps at the cost of people being able to fully understand each point. Maybe I will expand upon these over time.
Lastly, before I share my principles, I want to say that management and leadership are personal. Trying to be someone else is inauthentic, and as a leader, this is one of the easiest ways to sabotage yourself. These are the principles that work for me, but hopefully, there is something in here for others to adapt into their personal styles.
Managing comes first
Most managers are strong executors. They may inherit executional responsibilities, have the tendency to fall back on executing to solve problems, or want to let execution take priority. Managing comes first. Management can require large blocks of time, sometimes without warning, which means it’s crucial to stay out of the critical path of execution, wherever possible.
Personal safety, dignity, and wellbeing of every team member are paramount. Team success is only success if team members feel good about it. Be accountable for the culture, while empowering team members to build it. Make sure the quiet voices are heard.
Keep confidential company and personal information in confidence. Be transparent with information you can share. Be transparent about when you cannot do something. Keep your commitments. Own up to your mistakes. The trust you build is the currency you spend when delivering difficult news or feedback. Represent your people to the company and the company to your people; sometimes, this will endear you to neither, but that’s the job.
As an IC, building relationships is useful. As a manager, it is essential. Find ways to connect with your reports. Go the extra mile. Build connections with diverse people outside your chain of command. Serve up connections to other people.
Be the example
Everyone looks to manager behavior to see what is valued by the company, in reality. That includes what you do and what you do not do. Being a manager means having to “be the adult in the room”. Be someone who lowers the temperature of stressful situations and conflict. Be proactive when challenging situations arise, rather than reacting after they’ve grown into fires.
Information is the main tool of the manager and one of the most valuable things they can provide to both their reports and their own management chain. Have the pulse of the people around you. Know what’s happening, what may happen, and why.
Give credit, take blame
Make it safe for individuals to take initiative. When your team succeeds, distribute credit and deflect personal acclaim. Take accountability for failure. Represent your team members in places they can’t represent themselves.
Optimize work distribution
Managers have a portfolio of work that the business needs and people with work preferences. Optimize the dual objectives of delivering value to the organization and giving individuals problems that build their skillset, impact, satisfaction, and/or advancement. Performance is contextual; set people up to shine.
Lead by influence, not fiat
Having to command people to do things is a last resort, and usually indicates a failure to lead by informing and influencing. Be aware that because of power differential, manager suggestions are interpreted as commands. Coach, don’t command.
Distribute problems, not solutions
Managers with excellent execution skills and deep domain knowledge must resist the urge to present solutions to their reports. Reports learn by discovering solutions. Create safe learning opportunities. Create time for learning to occur. Give constraints, and justifications for the constraints.
Work on yourself
Investments in yourself are magnified in how effectively you can help your reports. Self-awareness is critical; your blind spots and rough corners can hurt other people. Always be reflecting. Always be learning.
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