Starting as an engineering manager
As an engineering manager you already have a lot of responsibilities. At an early stage in your engineering manager career, you could even feel overwhelmed by the amount of things you have to know.
Some of them include
- Mentoring and coaching your direct reports who are individual contributors
- Setting strategic objectives for the team and the individuals
- Performance management - performance improvement programs
- Recruiting the right engineers for your team, squad and organisation
- Preparing promotion packs for your engineers
- Liaising with the people team to ensure benefits and compensation are attractive enough for bringing in new talent
- Working with Product and Peers to ensure delivery is smooth and dependencies are communicated and coordinated
It doesn’t end there and the list goes on.
Switching from a technical role?
If you switched from a technical career path to a managerial role, you will most likely feel lost. You might be wondering some of the following:
- How am I adding value?
- Am I going to lose my technical skills?
- Would I become that person who mostly talks but does nothing?
- How do I keep up with the latest tech?
This is normal. And it comes with every role change. Every time you switch a role, a role that takes you along a different career path from what you were doing earlier, you start to have these questions.
These are great questions and if you are asking them, they show that you are being self-aware, and you are seeking answers to help you better settle into the new role.
So give yourself a pat on the back for that and take every opportunity to learn more.
As you lead teams and bring about positive change for the team and the organisation, you will want to take the next step in your career.
After managing teams of engineers, the natural next step is managing other managers.
Managing other managers
I consider myself a senior engineering manager. You would ask: Why? What does Senior even mean? Is that the Spanish Senor?
I have had many amazing opportunities to build new teams, take over existing teams from other managers, hire, set technical strategy and vision and collaborate with excellent managers in driving initiatives, manage performance issues in teams, handle conflicts, promote engineers, deliver fantastic outcomes.
Does that qualify to be a senior engineering manager? Well, the title could be different in different organisations! So maybe Senior Engineering manager in your organisation means someone who manages other managers. I haven’t embarked on that challenge yet.
Managing managers is a very different game to managing individual contributors. The closest I have got to this is by leading technical leaders who are individual contributors but there is an aspect of people influencing in their job description.
The moment you step into managing managers, you end up asking yourselves similar questions to what you asked when you took on engineering management in the first place.
A recently promoted Engineering Manager, who is now the Head of Engineering (the title of one who manages managers in my current org), shared their thoughts with me:
- It is a very different world
- Moving away from the teams, means less depth of involvement, context is fuzzier
- I miss the vibe of the teams
- the engineering discussions, the debates, the complains about tech debt
- a bit too high level
I see that the person is warming up to the new role. Trying to understand the context change. It is a bit like zooming out from the map, you start to see boundaries of countries now, earlier you were looking at the city.
That’s where the difference starts.
What are the big differences?
Let’s look at what are the things that are different as a manager of managers.
More thinking than doing
If you work in a company where you are not only managing people but also doing some of the front line work, then you probably don’t have much time to do the strategic thinking. As a manager of managers this is the biggest shift in your work.
Your work is no longer concrete pieces of deliverables. It is often abstract. Things like facilitating the creation of a new initiative, process or policy or hiring practices, improving efficiency, new ways of delivery etc.
People who have just stepped up into the role can really struggle with this if they weren’t expecting the change similar to those who might have just switched their role from individual contributor to being an engineering manager. They might have a lot of moments where they feel like they don’t understand their purpose. This is when you speak to your manager about your confusion. They should be able to clarify your role and your purpose. What really helps at this point, in order to bring some clarity, is a well developed career framework that sets expectations clearly at every level of one’s career at the organisation. If you don’t have one at your organisation then as a manager of managers, it is your responsibility to help create one working with the people team.
Remind yourself that the value that you deliver is NOT doing the job of those you have hired. It is to ensure that they have good coaching and space to learn from their mistakes for course correction on time. It takes a huge amount of trust in your team and yourself and that is the first step.
It helps to identify your Zone of Genius.
Some questions that can help you realise what you must focus on:
- What are the things that only you can do in your role?
- What’s your highest most important work that you can do in your work?
Always remember: you are going from doing and deciding to coaching.
That should help calm down the urge to do.
Wait! So what exactly should you be doing then?
It all comes down to three things:
- Driving outcomes
- Cultivating great leadership in the organisation by coaching your reports who are managers
- Creating excellent clarifying guidelines
Setting objectives and goals in order to align to a strategy is a big part of the job. Bringing alignment among teams to ensure timely delivery is one of the most important things you can help do. Minimizing the blame game and reminding that teams have to work together to achieve organisational objectives is an important aspect of this.
Not all your reports would be experienced managers. Hence create sufficient checkpoints to enable course correction and coaching. This is absolutely essential. When I say course correction, please don’t take it as telling someone what to do. It is to be done through coaching. If you have very little experience coaching, then you probably need to read, learn and practice it at work before you take on the challenge of managing managers.
Cultivating great leadership
The most important aspect of being a manager of managers is to ensure that the right organisational culture gets passed on. Your managers are the ones interacting with the teams. You want to make sure that you set an example for your managers to use when managing their reports. That’s how you ensure the right culture is cultivated in the organisation. You must be the great coach that you want your managers to be. So highlight your values and your managers will start appreciating those values too.
Of course there will be differences in opinions but the important thing is to help everyone understand the value of disagree and commit to achieve an outcome. In this case the outcome is to have a great company culture. Be the coach that your managers will aspire to be.
Use your 1-1s to be the best coach you never had, or maybe you had a great one, which is why you are where you are. These are necessary. You should enable your 1-1s to let your reports vent and discuss issues with you. You may not have all the answers and you don’t have to. The point is to help them find the answers by being a good sounding board for their issues. That’s the best thing a coach can do. LISTEN. BE PRESENT for your report. If it is a 30 minute session, ensure all your distractions are turned off - by that I mean, your team’s instant messaging software and emails too. This simple act of being there for your report, helps develop a stronger relationship with them, it will also help them learn how to do better 1-1s.
Older and more experienced managers
As a manager of managers, you might often get to manage people who are more senior to you in terms of age. This is not because they aren’t capable. They might have taken the management path later in their engineering career. But the important thing is to ensure that you aren’t telling them what to do. Always give them room to try things out and learn on their own.
It is important to wear your coaching hat more often when you are a manager of managers as you’ll find very capable people reporting to you.
What about feedback?
As an engineer and an engineering manager, I have been a practitioner of Radical Candor, since I read the book back in 2018. The idea behind showing that you care personally for someone’s development to give them timely candid constructive feedback for their development and also seeking similar feedback from your reports and others around you for your own development is what I love about the book.
As a manager of managers, you need to be able to give constructive feedback to your reports who manage teams. Now the best way to gather such feedback is to have skip-level 1-1s with tech leads in the team or product managers who collaborate closely with your reports. That way you get a full 360 degree view of their performance. This must be done transparently, make sure your reports are aware that you are going to be meeting their reports too, so that they don’t feel like you are spying on them.
By 360 feedback, all we mean here is getting feedback from peers, direct reports and managers of an employee.
Be sure to analyse the feedback and share the most valuable ones. Encourage direct feedback wherever possible, however, do allow people to give anonymous feedback too, in order to get feedback from even the quietest person in the team.
When giving feedback, ensure that you give actionable feedback. Saying “be more assertive” is not actionable. It is a vague statement. Ensure you give enough examples to demonstrate exactly what is being looked for.
Model the right behaviours
It is extremely important to set the right example for your reports to follow. I stress this here again because this is how culture evolves in an organisation. Organisational values have to be upheld at all times and I’m hoping that your organisation has some values that they hold everyone accountable to.
Repeating organisation values, is never enough. Organisations keep growing and people change, they move around, so new comers need to be aware of the values that are important. Thus bring it up in annual reviews, in regular manager meetings, etc.
Creating boundaries and clarifying guidelines
There are situations where sometimes people in an organisation confuse what needs approval from what level. It is important to ensure that everyone in the organisation knows their level of autonomy and what needs involvement of their managers or senior managers. Thus ensure that there are guidelines on what type of decisions would need your input vs what are decisions that can be made better by those closer to work. Setting these guidelines can help avoid wasting effort in your organisation.
I hope that gave you an insight into the differences in managing managers compared to managing individual contributors. It surely will not make you an expert senior manager.
I have been running a Community of Practice for Software Engineering Managers at Kaluza. In my attempt to help inspire future leaders at the organisation, I started a new format of meetups, which involves interviewing Heads of Engineering at the organisation. This gave me some insight into some of the differences in the roles and also some excellent lessons to be learned. Happy to share the questions in another post.