Be the Compass for Your Team

Growing up (in Sweden), we had team-based orienteering on the gym class schedule (note: this was way before Google Maps). This cumbersome activity was a frequent item on the agenda during every out-door season (which by the way was calendar based rather than weather based – yeah, gym class was hard). We learned how to read maps and use both nature and a compass to get a sense of direction. We ran in “unknown terrain” of the woods (i.e. a small forest next to the school campus). Every year, in the same forest. I can’t count how many bruises, cuts, and mud-soaked, smelly gym clothes I had to endure. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

Senior years we had learned enough about the forest to know ahead of time approximately where the controls were placed. And of course this enabled us to optimize our strategy. Our teams divided and conquered by sending out scouts to each control separately, and then copying the stamp pattern across all our stamp cards. I’m still not sure it was cheating, as we had advanced our skills. I.e. we had learned the basics the first years, evolved to develop a distributed system over the following years, and optimized for quickest time to results to achieve the goal. Additionally we gained the bonus of hanging out out-of-sight from the goal line and discussing “much more important things” (like boys, fashion, or random emergencies in teenage lives – i.e. creating social networks) than running around in a forest.

Fast forward 10s of years. I’ve realized only a few people (these days) here in the Valley can actually read a (real) map, use a compass, and survive 72 hours in the woods (without phone or without asking “the internet”). I kind of feel proud of my high-school acquired survival skills, in comparison. But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate other aspects of what those gym classes taught me:

  • Don’t lose hope or sense of direction, just because you’ve gotten a bit lost from your original, known path
  • Don’t fret about tiny falls or bumps on the way, instead keep on moving towards the target
  • Be attentive, listen, and look for signs to get hints about what would be a misleading shortcut vs. the best way forward. It’s not always what seems to be the easiest path that leads you to your goal.
  • Stop frequently and course direct along the way.
  • Account for misinformation from your team, but don’t put blame – you’ll be the one making the mistake next time.
  • Struggle through rough patches – as a team!
  • Have clear milestones to enable measuring achievement along the way – to see progress, but also keep team spirit up
  • The minute you realize you are off track, backtrack to the most recent known place and re-plan from there – re-assess information you acquired that took you on the wrong path!
  • Plan a path, and create optional paths A, B, and C, in case of the unknown.
  • Be open to creatively come up with plan D, in case you need to, along the way.
  • Pick people on your team with different skills, to assure success.
  • Try to be the compass for your team when the rest of the team feels lost.
  • Don’t be scared of unknown terrain – with the right tools and a team that communicates, you’ll get through.

Perhaps not all of this wisdom is purely derived from orienteering, but the metaphor helps inspire me at times and to get some perspective on project planning and execution, team management, and utilization of skills to reach a goal.

On a side note, I probably owe my old high-school gym-teacher a proper thank you for the tedious effort of motivating 20-or-so grumpy and freezing teenagers to run in a wet forest, for no obvious immediate reward. In the hindsight I do appreciate some of the endurance practiced and the inspiration to ponder decades later.

Considering Management?

Many aspiring brilliant young engineers are set on a growth path to management, although what they would be much better at is advancing in engineering. There are very few valid and rewarding career paths for pure engineering though, which is a problem in our industry. Most engineers hence feel a need to either go to management. Many of these engineers should have done much better if they were provided a career path where they would rather lead in terms of technology, architectural decisions, design and future technology direction. But those roles are usually few within one and the same company. Many engineers I know dread to deal with day-to-day effort of keeping everyone else on track and projects delivered on time and building stretched resource plans. Not everyone is cut out to lead people and motivate career paths, so why is management even in their career path at all?

My recommendation and wish to any brilliant young engineer out there is that If you at all feel pressured into management, for whatever reason (social pressure, the only option of career growth, cultural expectations, etc.) to try to find another way to growth. Feeling pressured is a sign that you might not want to. Why not try to get deep in a new technology? Why not focus on end-to-end design or some other area that provides growth? Perhaps technology acquisition projects or partner engineering / integration work? To widen your technical horizons, before considering people management and moving “up”. Move sideways? Or perhaps write a book, start a tech blog, become an open source committer, ask HR for more engineering levels and advancements and responsibilities that don’t involve people management? Management is not fun unless you enjoy trying to understand people and their motivation, solving conflicts and handle confrontation, come up with solutions for poor work behavior, building ever challenging career plans for others, accomplishing deliveries with ever less resources (the more successful you are).

Ask yourself: do you find politics a bit of a fun game to win or do you find it draining? Are conflicts exhausting or thrilling? There is a cold side to the people management role, a rational of always representing the business in whatever form it trickles down, and never really be fully part of the team. Unless you are willing to see the reality from both your team’s perspective and the stakeholders’ perspectives (the latter which might be a bit too rational at times), and happily argue both, you might want to reconsider taking on a management promotion.

I don’t suggest you shouldn’t try it if you are curious. Also, I do recommend having the experience. However, always consider there is a way back to engineering. Management mustn’t be the end goal, if it drains you and takes away your work enthusiasm.  I have friends who tried and then went back to engineering. They are very happy engineers today, with more understanding of management. And I do think it is a good experience to know all the heavy weight on your shoulders as a manager, that you need to carry. It might even be fun and challenging sides to management you wouldn’t know unless you tried. I’m just arguing that management is not for everyone, and it isn’t the only option to growth. It shouldn’t be the only option to growth! So don’t take it unless you love people problems as much as engineering problems. Push your organization to provide other growth paths. If you are unhappy in your management role, it will just hurt others around you and their careers.

Don’t imagine you can continue doing things you liked to do as an engineer and don’t imagine for a second you won’t be held to a higher standard on deliverables, with higher pressure, and without the same buffer as you used to have as a fellow engineer. You are at a higher altitude and the winds blow harder the higher you climb. Things will change. And most of the time, you won’t have time for the “other things” anymore. Like coding. I’m saying most of the time, as there are a few exceptions.

Also, ask for coaching or a mentor the first time you enter management, as a lot of things can be overwhelming. You can read my previous blog posts on mentorship to get inspired.

What inspired today’s blog post was a conversation I had the other day with a GREAT engineering manager. I really wish this manager know how great, as there was a bit of distress in our conversation. Management can be heavy sometimes, but also rewarding in the end. The list of this manager’s strengths is long, but I thought I’d post it here for inspiration. This is what I think makes this manager with engineering background GREAT:

  • Patient with people
  • Ability to gently cut bull shit and empty whining, to get to an actionable point – in pretty much any meeting
  • Accountability – hold people responsible, as well as oneself to what one signs up to do
  • Willingness to _solve_ problems over becoming part of them
  • Integrity and speaking well and realistically about others
  • Caring about the well being of the team
  • Always trying to see the rational behind every decision, over reacting selfishly and purely emotionally
  • Transparent, honest, and open with feelings as well as logic behind decisions
  • Emotional intelligence and social skills
  • No ego trying to raise over the value over the team
  • Ability to create action plans with assigned owners in the matter of minutes – even in critical and stressful situations
  • Deep technical knowledge, yet curious to learn new things from others and from new as well as old engineers on the team
  • Not claiming to know best on everything, allowing others to grow on the team and suggesting solutions
  • Clear, respectful, friendly, to the point communication style – never bad-mouthing anyone else (which often happens with insecure managers)
  • Long-term, strategic thinking – without playing games

It is rare you find all these management features in an engineer turned manager. I leave you on this positive note that there are many successful engineer to manager promotions. Just be careful that it is what you would love to do.

Leadership is not a title

I saw this summary slide yesterday and really liked it. I think these points – of which my interpretation is: stop winning, stop forcing your plan, and stop cutting other people’s ideas down – are very important if you want to be a good leader in any position in a company.

I often wonder why new managers often make the mistake of believing people will follow them just by their new title and their power over their employees’ salaries? Leadership does not come that way. Being a leader is different than being a manager. A manager is a title you have either rightfully earned or acquired by other tactical means. Leadership is a skill you either have naturally or work hard on every day. You can be a leader in an individual contributor role, and you can be a follower (or confused on the matter) in a manager role.

You lead by action and initiative and respect towards others. You constantly keep the cross-organization well being and goals in mind in everything that you do. Within or outside your immediate team. You lead by example. Leaders inspire people around them to do better, go further, to work together, to accomplish more that first believed. They do so by believing in you and that you can do it! Leaders don’t cut you down to prove they are better than you, nor do they let their own management insecurities (probably rooting in power and responsibilities they have acquired and not earned) get in the way of you flourishing. Leadership does not come to you through a title. Leaders show respect by letting your ideas flourish too, by listening and asking guiding questions, by envisioning the impossible yet outstanding together with you. 

As a leader you don’t overrun the team with your own agenda, you enable the team to create and fulfill an agenda they can relate to and feel excited about, that aligns with the overall goals of the company. You facilitate every individual of your team to become valuable. You let everyone be a part of the brilliance that can only happen if you work aligned and together. And you give credit where credit is due! Meaning, you sincerely recognize that everyone matters and every step towards the right direction is worth reward, as in the end that is what will take you all there.

Nothing is as rewarding as being recognized for what you do and how it helps the larger goal of the team, the company, or the greater good. Leaders know this, and are generous with encouragement.