Are you considering taking the leap from Engineering lead to a management position? Managing people is indeed a dramatic change in career path and requires a different set of skills than needed for a technical lead role. When I recall some of the hardest management experiences I ever had early on in my career it was always the people aspect that challenged me the most and this is one area where you just can’t have enough experience.
As an engineer, you are responsible for technology: for your features’ design, execution, and delivery. In a management role, you are responsible for people and your prime job is to empower and enable your team, set strategy for the team, unblock folks, communicate with stakeholders, enable sales, pre-sales, and proofs of concept, support technical services and customer-facing teams, and––above all else––manage people’s careers.
As a leader, you are the star performer, stepping up and helping the team put out fires, but as a manager, your job is to put others in your team in the spotlight. You are in a coaching role and that comes with a lot more responsibility. As they do well, you will get credit for leading them well, and this will shift your focus from coding to the most time-consuming aspect of being a manager—people management.
After a decade I continue to learn and grow, with new experiences every day dealing with situations that feel unique, yet morphed from situations I’ve seen before. Though I have been blessed with great mentors throughout my career, there have been occasions where I fumbled. One thing I quickly learned was to own up to my mistakes, study them, and learn from them.
As a new manager you are eager to succeed, and when a person in your team doesn’t pull their weight or messes up, it is very tempting to make an example of them, make them the martyr, and let them face the consequences in the name of accountability.
Learning to avoid this dynamic was a turning point in my career, and helped me to be a leader and not a boss. This is not a one-time opportunity and this will happen way too often as you become a manager. It will be hard to take the bullet for the team in front of your own manager, especially for folks that you can clearly see could have been proactive and prevented a fire or worse procrastinated in putting it out and let more damage happen.
You owe it to everyone on your team (not just your friends) to be a neutral, unbiased, trusted resource. For the rest of the organization, accountability stops at you. Your job is to guard your team’s back. Something no one told you: from time to time, you will need to not only take a bullet for your team but make tough unpopular calls and—an unfortunate fact of life—it is lonely as you move up the ladder.
Why do it?
Simply put, you have more influence, and you can enable people in their pursuit of a meaningful career! It’s a truism that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. How well your direct reports perform is a reflection of your own effectiveness as a leader. Your scope of influence increases dramatically when you move from individual contributions to the head of an entire team.
Sure, as a star performer in the team you make significant contributions to the team’s wins, but as a coach how the team plays—its camaraderie, unity, coordination, strategy and execution rest on your shoulders. In The Power of Small Wins, a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, the authors recount the famous exchange between Steve Jobs and John Sculley over Sculley’s future with Apple:
In 1983, Steve Jobs was trying to entice John Sculley to leave a wildly successful career at PepsiCo to become Apple’s new CEO. Jobs reportedly asked him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” In making his pitch, Jobs leveraged a potent psychological force: the deep-seated human desire to do meaningful work.
As a manager you are being entrusted to enable, empower, and lead others to do more meaningful work than you could as an individual contributor.
Tips to help you succeed in a managing role
As anyone with administrative privileges knows, with greater power comes greater responsibility. You will be in situations to make tough decisions, controversial ones—you may even have to fire an employee reporting to you. Build trust by being honest and sharing professionally what you can. Moving to a management position will affect your friendships with your colleagues. As I said before, it’s lonely as you move up the ladder.
It is very important to be emotionally intelligent. Practice self-awareness and being aware of your emotions and how they affect your handling conflict or viewpoints you don’t agree with. Practice self-regulation: what works to calm you down when you’re angry and what helps motivate you when you’re down and depressed. Practice empathy with your family and close friends, which will improve your social networking, communication and leadership skills. As a manager, you will have access to a lot more vital information and you must stay professional and respect boundaries. You will need a support structure and for that you need to anchor with your family and friends and not take them for granted.
Over the years I have learned that the simplest way to establish mutual trust and respect between me and my team was by being as honest as I could be. I had to be conscious to not complain and whine about my own issues to my old teammates anymore.
Being promoted to management is a huge milestone that directly acknowledges the faith of your senior management in your ability to lead. In my own case, as an early manager, I was very conscious of not reaching out to upper management with the fear of being judged as incompetent, not ready for the job. If I told my manager I can’t figure something out, would he start getting second doubts that he shouldn’t have promoted me in the first place? Imposter syndrome was there to stay until I figured it out.
You will have moments of self-doubt and some self-doubt is a good thing. Self-doubt enables us not only to reflect but also to look for validation and to be open to feedback. In the right measure, self-questioning keeps you learning and growing and also keeps you humble. Humility, in turn, makes it easier for you to listen and learn.
Embrace opportunity when it comes your way and build trust with senior management. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice, insights, and scenario discussions with experienced leaders in your network and company. Your management believes in you enough to offer you this opportunity, and your managers may well know better than you what you’re capable of achieving.