Going from individual contributor to leader crosses most engineers’ minds at some point. It’s a new responsibility that requires a different skill set. Leading a team is one way of magnifying your impact on a product’s success by taking the helm and enabling others to be their best selves. It can be a change in direction for shaking up your own career growth.
Below I outline the path from engineer to the leader and beyond and cover some common pitfalls to avoid on the journey. The end goal is to keep learning and become a renaissance manager (a leader with broad talents and a strong mixture of technical and managerial expertise).
Leadership can be a bumpy road, and it is not something you should just fall into. You will want to proactively choose your leadership path, and you need to understand what new skills to learn over time to become effective. Communicate your intent to your own manager and their manager, too, to open up opportunities. Management is a steep learning curve and an exciting career choice. It is easy to make a poor fist of it and take years to move from mediocre to good if you don’t actively curate good practice. Just as engineers can have ten years of tenure but only the same one-year growth repeated ten times, leaders are the same.
I recommend you achieve the senior engineer stage before attempting to lead an engineering team. Once you have begun your transition, aim to continuously improve by completing training courses, reading articles and books, listening to podcasts, seeking out feedback, and get different mentors from time to time. Observe your own managers and how they are being effective or could be more effective. This observational practice starts to focus your mind on great people practices and what to avoid.
You can learn some of the skills upfront while you are still a full-time individual contributor. Step away from the keyboard and participate in your company committees for voluntary, sports fun events or organize meet-ups. Being part of a committee of like-minded people serves to broaden your network, exposes you to leading others, and provides an opportunity to communicate in new ways and mediums to diverse audiences about non-technical topics.
You can volunteer to organize your own team’s fun/informational events or take on mentoring assignments of more junior team members. In order to self-motivate and make progress, set achievable goals that you agree on and share with your manager. Repeat this as many times as you require, and if you are not growing new skills, then it’s an indicator you are ready. You will never know it all and definitely will not know everything the first time, so take the plunge.
Moving away from where you are an expert can be a jarring experience, especially if you are expected to handle a new leadership role alongside your old engineering role. This is a common stepping stone, and it can be a difficult transition. The hands-on manager is often the first phase of management experience. A new hands-on manager has to learn that they need to develop the team into a cohesive, highly functioning unit and avoid a common anti-pattern of being the primary implementer. During this phase, you continue to act as technical lead on projects. Still, you also need to look after the team's administration, including budgets, holiday scheduling, reporting status upwards, hiring, salary reviews, performance coaching, 1-2-1s etc… You can flounder for years at this stage because you need to do two roles, the one you know well and the new leadership role.
The trap is that you don’t evolve beyond basic leadership skills. Valuing your technical skills way more than people management as your own technical input allows your team to deliver. Don’t spend all your time learning new technologies. Balance your growth with new management skills.
If you are taking on the leadership of an existing team that you have been an individual contributor to, then have conversations with each of your new direct reports and talk about the change in your role. You must balance the company's priorities with those of your team members to create a harmonious environment. It can take time for colleagues to see you in your new role. You are not the leader until they do, and it’s only when you act as the leader that they will. You may want to change something symbolically, like wear slightly more formal clothes until you fit the new role comfortably (Swap the t-shirt for a plaid shirt, or sneakers for brogues). It’s important that once you are accepted as a teams leader that you lean in. By this statement, I mean that you should converse with the team members as before and still objectively perform your leadership role. It’s like swapping hats. Know when you need to wear your manager hat and when you can take it off. Once you are a manager, the manager hat might have to be put on between breaths, but you must learn how to take it off.
Servant leadership is often a good goal to enable the mental shift from an individual contributor. Encouraging others to input into solutions, nurturing trust, and fostering leadership.
That being said, you need to carve out time to continually uplevel yourself, while supporting the team. Servant leadership does not mean you are the team’s dogsbody; you are its leader. If you are the dogsbody, then you are not delegating sufficiently. Self-care is really important!
The way to progress as a leader is by Increasing your awareness of your own behaviors. Encouraging feedback through surveys and asking for direct feedback on some of the key components of good management practices. Among your first goals as a new manager is to make your team highly effective. Identify processes, people skills, and tooling that may be impacting your team performance and fix those issues first. The below chart outlines a set of skills you will need to build up to be highly effective in your new management role. I have placed kindness at the top, always place people before work deliveries. If a person has a personal crisis, give them the space and support they need to get past it and return to a valuable contributor. Take training courses on the management skills outlined below. Interviewing, 1-2-1s, project management, coaching, conflict resolution, and find one or more mentors to ask questions on these skillsets.
To avoid micromanagement you must learn how to delegate, build trust with your team and let go of control of implementations by providing overall direction. This can be difficult if you are the most expert engineer on the team, but now, more than ever, you need to develop other team members into the best engineers they can be. Ask them questions on their chosen implementation rather than provide direct solutions. You must stop thinking like an individual contributor. It’s no longer about your accomplishments but the teams’ accomplishments.
This is one of the most difficult mental changes most successful engineers taking on a new manager role struggle to make, especially if they still have both feet in the technical implementation. You have to see the team’s success as your reward. Acknowledge their accomplishments often and praise them upwards and outwards. You are the advocate of the teams’ deliveries within and without in most situations.
To be an effective leader, you require good project management and prioritization skills. You should ask your manager and your reports for their inputs on priorities for the deliveries of your team and align the two by adjusting the scope, timelines, or resources on the project and circle the plan back past them. This will allow you to set your team up for success. Take courses on project management and apply the best practices. Ask a more experienced project manager for mentorship to accelerate your learning. You must develop longer-term roadmaps to craft a vision that can be shared and used as a visual motivator. It’s fine to adjust the roadmap as priorities change.
Teams may experience tension between individuals due to project priorities and deadlines, customers, sudden changes in directions, or external team dependencies. You must act to resolve any conflicts as early as possible. Nip them in the bud, and your team will be so much the better for it.
An area that is rarely mentioned is the absence of being “in the zone”. As an engineer, you experience the zen-like experience of “in the zone” caused by uninterrupted deep concentration on a complex task assignment. If you transition into a full leadership position, managing five or more people, then the loss of time in the zone, plus the struggles of being a new leader role may lead to experiencing internal doubts relating to your purpose and self-fulfillment. A new manager needs to find a way to fill that void. It’s up to the individual on what works best for them. Side coding projects are common, especially for the hands-on manager.
When you are leading larger teams, then time for coding projects is few and far between. At this point, explore other non-technical ways that require less time, like meditation, writing, reading, painting, exercise, gaming, etc… These are the path to becoming a renaissance leader. A leader that is great with technology, people and pursues other interests. Improving their own skillset in a complementary manner to enable better coaching of others to success. They seek out work on x-team initiatives to create larger impacts, continuously increasing their own skills in networking, communication, delegation.
In my own experience, I have learned that it’s far better to lead others when you have achieved broad and deep expertise across the software development lifecycle and gained life experience that improves your levels of empathy, humility, and self-awareness. People-focused leadership is key to building high-performance teams that deliver strong business value. Continuously learn and improve your leadership skills before and after is the path to transition from engineer to leadership and beyond. You know when you have achieved leadership in a professional environment is when you lead people. If they had a choice, they would still choose to follow.
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