In this post, I am going to unfold what I have learnt in the last few years about the role of an engineering manager in creating and nurturing a high performing team [HPT].
Actually, this is the first time I am writing about high performing teams, leadership and the role of the manager. This is a sincere attempt to put across my two cents on the basics of creating a high performing team.
Success for an engineering manager is to create an HPT which strives to improve every day. A manager wanting to create an HPT has to critically focus on People, Process and Product (3Ps). These three are the important building blocks of an HPT but of course not everything.
As there is always a priority order to everything, over the years I learnt that for an engineering manager the order of focus should be People > Process > Product (Or in other words who > how > what). Not because the product or technology is any less important but when it comes to prioritisation, we have to solve for the people then create the right processes and spend minimum effort on the product as it will just happen.
In the next few paragraphs, I would briefly cover these 3Ps and why after all they are so important.
People — Let’s start with people. This is the most important building block in our knowledge industry. Two things that a leader should do — first, create the right work culture and second, placement of the team members.
Going deeper into the culture aspect, at the core, all employees need three things to perform the best of their lives — Respect, Trust and Recognition (This is considering the hygiene factors are taken care already like pay, project, title, etc). While it is easier said than done, when it comes to people it is important to create a bond with all your team members. Projects/products will come and go, there is nothing more important than a human connection. I found that the best way to keep your team motivated and engaged is to understand and support them in what they want from the project or the organisation more than what the organisation wants from them. The day you start prioritising the individual's needs, they will do everything they can to not let you down.
Placement of the team members is the second thing that a leader must focus on in this area. For us, the team always comes before an individual. Having the team with the right balance of different skills and competencies will just help the team flourish and perform better. Good team organisation along with the right culture will make sure the ingredients are there for an HPT.
A principle I apply when it comes to managing teams and engineers is to hire/coach -> empower -> get out of the way.
Process — Though some experts suggest prioritising What over How. As a front line leader (leading or managing engineers directly) it is important that you focus on how more than what. To solve this “HOW” the process will come to your rescue. For setting the processes, Agile is our best friend.
There are two reasons to set the processes — 1. having discipline while you are building the software and 2. processes will help you easily scale up with speed.
Agile, when done right, will make your teams disciplined and adaptable. It is important to understand that we all want to have the freedom and the way to achieve that is by being disciplined.
Process leads to Discipline; Discipline leads to Freedom
Watch-out: This doesn’t mean you add process for everything. Having a process around everything will kill creativity and innovation.
Product — Product or technology comes the last in the 3Ps, but understand this is only the third most important thing to focus on. At the bare minimum knowing the domain/technology that your team is working on will help you talk the same language as your team members. Apart from this basic advantage, it will help you make the right decisions to unblock your team if needed (ideally team should be empowered to make the decisions and unblock themselves), represent the team and complexity of the work in the larger forums, last but not the least setting vision and purpose for your team looking further ahead in the future.
Prioritise people and process, understand what your team is solving. The product will be built as a result of it.
At an individual level, it is at paramount importance for an engineering manager is to be comfortable with not knowing and ambiguity. As you grow and scale-up, it is impractical (and could be harmful) to be aware of everything that the team is working on. At the same time ambiguity is inevitable in the rapidly changing world. It is better to be able to ask questions as needed.
My journey towards building the high-performance team continues and I wish you all the best for yours.
PS: This is the first post in my series of posts about HPT. Here is the second post focusing on people.