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How can you broaden your sphere impact across your engineering org?

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Mature tech companies have a growth ladder, highlighting different roles and their expectations. Higher levels are often associated with higher levels of impact.

For example, software engineers might be expected to deliver great software with their sphere of impact limited to their work.

Senior software engineers, the next level up, are expected to have a larger focus area of impact, so not only are they expected to deliver great software, but also help others on their team deliver great work through teaching, mentoring, and coaching.

Tech leads or staff engineers, the next level up, are expected to have an even broader sphere of impact in their teams and beyond, clearing the path to help each team member contribute the most they can, and guiding and mediating conversations to ensure they all remain aligned.

Deciding what you can do to increase your impact on your team is relatively clear, but for many, increasing your impact beyond your team is much less clear. This article will offer advice on what you might do to grow your impact beyond your team.

1. Do good work first

As much as you might want to increase your impact beyond your team, start with the basics and do good work. I’ve seen too many individual contributors who want to get involved with cross-team or department initiatives, but neglect their responsibilities. This situation is bad for their team as it means other team members take on additional work.

Falling into this trap is also bad for you. Even if you’re contributing great work outside of your team, if you fail to complete your team responsibilities, don’t be surprised if your next performance review is, ‘Not meeting expectations,’ because you are literally not fulfilling the expectations of your role and obligations to your team.

Before you look at taking on work or responsibilities outside of your team, make sure you are doing a good job on your team. Only once you are participating as an equal team member should you start looking for other opportunities beyond your team.

2. Keep your eyes and ears open

No organization is perfect. There are always opportunities to contribute or improve something but you might not notice them. Before you decide to pick a topic to work on, take some time over several weeks to build a list of potential work topics outside of your team.

Watch out for volunteering requests that come from cross-team interest groups, senior managers like engineering directors or VPs, or other roles who work across multiple teams such as principal engineers. Monitor department-wide slack channels. Double read emails to the whole department or company looking for help. Listen carefully during announcements that have an open invitation to contribute. Draw on your personal network in your company and tell your closest contacts in other teams you’re seeking opportunities to help and to keep you informed.

Once you have built your list of potential topics beyond your team, prioritize them. Favor topics that are more relevant to the work your team does because then there is more of a reason to justify contributing. Favor topics that align with your strengths, background, and experience so you have the best chances of immediately adding value and demonstrating impact. Of course, you can still choose an interesting topic that is well outside of your team’s work and your experience but don’t expect to have an immediate impact.

3. Get the green light

By this stage, you are meeting your team obligations, you’ve assembled a set of ideas, and you’ve prioritized your preferred topic. Before you invest a lot of time and energy in your chosen topic, consider letting your manager know. If you have a good manager, you shouldn’t need permission to work on topics that add value to your organization, but it’s always better to manage their expectations.

You might have picked a specific cross-team initiative to contribute towards, but your manager may have additional information about an even higher priority and impactful topic you can help out with. You’ll also want to discuss this with your manager to build shared expectations about the amount of time and how you’ll spend time working on those topics. Sometimes you might both agree to plan less work for you so you can spend time on outside topics. Often your manager will expect you to put in additional time to work on the topic as they might see this as volunteer work, which also means volunteering additional time.

Avoid any awkward conversations around your work priorities and get the green light from your manager, who can then work with you to keep your team informed.

4. Apply an agile approach

Working on topics beyond your team can sometimes feel frustratingly slow. Work is often time sliced between ‘normal’ team product/project work. Gathering input and buy-in from many teams for a decision also takes time. For initiatives that span multiple teams, don’t wait until you are ‘done’ to communicate progress.

Take an agile approach by breaking up the work into smaller, valuable steps. Deliver each step using an incremental and iterative approach, communicating progress along the way. Don’t keep other interested parties like your team, your manager, and other teams potentially impacted by the work wondering what you are doing and if you are ‘done.’ Find ways to indicate progress and the impact your effort is having.

More importantly, as you take on your first impactful work beyond your team, reflect (eg. use retrospectives) to see what worked well and less well. As you come to a close and deliver impactful work beyond your team, iterate and incorporate any lessons learned in the process.

5. Gather momentum

Finding and completing work beyond your team might appear difficult, but like with any new experience and skill, the first time is always the hardest. As you deliver great work across teams and your organization, others will recognize your contribution and ask for you in the future, as you have demonstrated leadership and delivered successful results. Do this repeatedly and you might even be invited to work on these topics full-time. Good luck!