Learning to be a leader to your team, instead of being a boss, can be a challenge. This is true whether you have just transitioned from a product developer to a management position, or you have been a manager (or team leader) for a while. There are things you can do and ways you can behave that will make you a better leader and give better results from your team.

Transitioning into Your New Engineering Management Role

When you as an engineer first make the transition into a leadership role, you may be surprised by the constant interruptions. Your team members will want you to be empathetic to their concerns and you may be bombarded with questions. Most people need to learn to spend more time listening, rather than providing direction.

It is common to have your words and actions misinterpreted, especially if you are stepping into an engineering leadership role with a dysfunctional team (even if it is your former co-workers). Sometimes things you think are obvious are not and they must be clearly communicated to the engineering team. Team members will have different personalities, working styles, and needs, so you need to listen and learn what works best with each individual. Be a helpful resource, but remember that your first priority is leading your team, not taking on their workload. This can be particularly challenging if you have been a co-worker of the people you are now managing.

Your performance is now tied to the results your engineering team delivers, as opposed to your individual accomplishments. You now must learn to delegate and place your trust in your team members. This can lead to a feeling of discouragement in both yourself and your team, especially if you are used to being in control. This article describes how to improve your teams performance without micromanaging or controlling.

Creating Ongoing Success as an Engineering Manager

Team members may not always agree with your decisions and sometimes you will not be able to share all of the factors behind your reasoning. This is one of the responsibilities that comes along with being in a leadership position. That is why it can be beneficial to reach out for assistance from other leaders, whether within or outside of your company. Ideally, if you can find someone to act as your mentor, this can help you learn the most when facing an onslaught of new challenges as a first-time leader. If you listen, ask questions, and seriously consider all opinions, your decisions will be respected, even if people don’t agree with you.

Your engineering team members know how to do their job and it might not be the way that you would do it. However, a leader is a delegator, which means that you ultimately care about the results being achieved and may need to let go of the idea that your method (as a former engineer) is the “right” way. To avoid micromanaging you should make sure you are very clear about what success is. Then tell people how well they have achieved success.

Take every opportunity to praise, but give criticism carefully. It’s easy to neglect to praise success, but it’s very important. When praise and criticism are given in equal amounts it will appear that you are usually criticizing.  A good way to explain to someone how to do their job better is by asking questions and asking what they should have done. This is less threatening than telling someone they did wrong. Often people will tell you they made a mistake when asked questions.

As an engineering leader, it takes time to find the right balance between micromanaging and trusting your team to communicate their progress. Since the team’s performance is tied to results, it is important to help your team members learn when and how to ask for help, instead of staying stuck when they reach an impasse with their task. Studies have shown that it is useful to set a time limit (such as an hour) for being stuck, after which the team member needs to reach out for support.

Similarly, when you are stuck or make mistakes, be sure to acknowledge that to the team as quickly as possible. Being honest and applying to yourself the rules you lay down for others will gain you respect.

One of your major responsibilities as an engineering leader is performance reviews. Ideally, you should try to meet periodically for uninterrupted one-on-one time with each team member. You should also track their ongoing progress with weekly review meetings with the team. Have the team members prepare brief status reports before each meeting then present them verbally. This makes the meetings efficient. It is good for each team member to practice writing and speaking, as communication is a critical skill in any team. If they are not used to good communication, you may face push back and some disgruntlement. However, share upfront how this will help the team and upper management. They will gain your respect when they see that improved communication works. It may also minimize interruptions, since your engineering team will know they have consistent access to communicate with you, especially if you can demonstrate how you will help them through any challenges. Even if formal reviews are given only once a year, keep in mind that the feedback must be more frequent. You should not give praise or criticism in a review that has not been given previously or you are not giving feedback frequently enough.

Although it might seem obvious, be sure to communicate that the team’s results are what is most important, as opposed to the time they spend at the office. Studies have shown that the more people get used to spending overtime at the office, the more their productivity stretches out to fill that time, as they begin doing personal business during office hours. This can happen when there are too many interruptions, including meetings, which prevent work being accomplished during normal business hours. Work with your team to best determine how to minimize those interruptions during the day, so they can also have a personal life outside of work. If their are flaws in your management style, your team members will be very aware of them. They probably won’t tell you what you are doing wrong, but they will make suggestions on how to make improvements if they are given the opportunity and know that you will listen.

To enhance productivity, make sure you understand what type of tasks your team members are most comfortable doing. Do they need detailed or more general instructions on a task? Do they prefer to tackle new problems or like the challenge of resolving old issues? How do they like to be recognized for their contributions? Some may prefer to be acknowledged privately, while others prefer public recognition. While everyone appreciates financial rewards, that is not always possible, so consider other ways you can keep your team motivated.

Whenever new engineering projects or new features are proposed, make a commitment only after you get input from your team. This will empower your team. Do not impose changes without getting their input, as that is very frustrating for the team members. This means that many times you are put in the position of having to say “no”, whether it is to upper management or even your own team members in order to make sure the team delivers on its current commitments. As a manager you should not strive to be liked but to be respected.

As an engineering leader you should be a mentor to your team members. This means that you not only help them achieve results on their current job, but also help them get the training they need to advance professionally in their own careers. Although your budget may not allow for formal training, find creative ways to facilitate this. It might be through mentoring with another technical professional, brown-bag lunch presentations, cross-functional training within the company, or even bringing in outside experts to present. Although it is an added task, it demonstrates that you are committed to your team’s professional development.

For an ongoing reminder of what it takes to be an engineering leader, Sean Murphy of SKMurphy has a great slide to hang above your desk which highlights the differences between being a boss and being a leader.

Be A Leader Not a Boss