In our industry, terms like “managing up” and “followership” are often cast in a negative light when contrasted against the ideal backdrop of individualist destiny.
I want to advocate for a change in perspective regarding followership; to show that it is a practice of a strong partnership between manager and report, in order to create the most effective teams and organisation culture possible, and to create clarity on the mission and goals of the company. Despite what some may interpret followership to mean, it is not about doing your manager’s bidding or attempting to posture yourself in a better light than your peers.
What is followership and why should we practice it?
Practicing followership can give us a crucial window into what the expectations are for operating at the next level. It gives our managers greater confidence in our abilities, leading to an increased delegation of responsibilities such as the agency to make more strategic decisions, advocate for change at higher levels of the organisation, and partner closely with leaders of other specialisms. By seeking to understand your manager’s point of view, you can gain a ton of clarity on the mission, goals, and challenges of the organisation. Knowing this will put you in a much stronger position to articulate a compelling technology vision to your own staff.
On inspection, leadership and followership are not so different and many qualities are overlapping. Cultivating the qualities and habits I am going to discuss in this article can have an outsized positive impact on your career development. It can also bolster your manager’s effectiveness tremendously and create the conditions to make your engineering organisation very successful.
i've heard this referred to as 'managing up', and scornfully resisted it for much of my career. that was a mistake -- one that mostly, but by no means exclusively, hurt myself and my career. https://t.co/xZAioRfFvR— Charity Majors (@mipsytipsy) July 22, 2020
Leveraging tools from the field of professional coaching
Over the past 18 months, I have been partnering with an external career coach who works with senior management and executives. The experience has been some of the best career-enhancing development I’ve ever had. I can’t recommend cultivating coaching practices enough.
During our many sessions together, a few themes and truths emerged as I struggled to navigate often tricky situations with my own manager.
- Your manager’s most precious commodity is time, and they are always short of it. I suspect all managers will be nodding along to this statement. Their time will necessarily be carved up into smaller segments to deal with any number of concerns - both planned and unplanned. Being cognizant of these demands, we can use this to our advantage by driving conversations and interactions through preparedness. Formulating a quick agenda or drafting a proposal document can be a powerful lever to get what you need from your manager’s time: a decision, guidance, and information.
- Each manager's preferred communication style and intrinsic motivations will be different. There are methods to develop mutual understanding, and it is important to understand your manager's appetite for risk versus opportunity.
- For more about communication and learning style I recommend How to Spot Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic-Learning Executives
- For intrinsic motivators and core needs, read Lara Hogan’s excellent post on How to Learn About Someone's Core Needs
- Unplanned work is more skewed. Any number of unforeseen demands from staff and stakeholders will crop up and need to be dealt with immediately, therefore pushing you down the priority list.
- They are human and deserve the same empathy and consideration that is given to others. I realise this may not be the most popular advice as many folks have unhealthy relationships with their manager, but it can be easy to slip into a mindset where the manager has blame disproportionately projected onto them. Be kind, be curious.
Continuous feedback as part of a growth mindset
‘I’m glad you raised this to my attention, and offered your suggestions. I had been curious about how this situation was progressing.’ I recall my manager telling me this after a recent situation where I had to deliver difficult feedback to say that our newly-created peer team was having a difficult time performing together. I then explained that to solve this, the manager needed to play a bigger part in improving coherence of shared goals, as they were frequently absent from team meetings.
Giving candid feedback to your manager is necessary but not usually easy. This is one of my favourite leadership topics on which I could easily fill this entire article on, but instead, I will try to summarise the most valuable feedback techniques and tools I have had success with.
Observation → Impact → Requests & Actions a.k.a. the SBI model
One of the best frameworks for giving unbiased feedback (and now my go-to) is the SBI model, or “Situation-Behaviour-Impact”.
Leveraging the SBI model ensures we construct our feedback in an impartial way that clearly outlines the impact of a situation or individual’s behaviour, and the actions we will take afterwards. The idea is to avoid our amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions) springing into action with feelings of fear, blame, or shame that dampen our ability to process feedback and fully engage in the discussion.
For example, recently there was increasing negative tension in my peer group about a particular hiring approach for software engineers. At our next 1:1, I laid out the feedback like this to our manager.
- Situation / Observation. ‘I’m observing that there is a lack of mutual trust and respect in our group. We’ve recently come together as a peer group, and we are still in “transactional” rather than “relationships” mode. If you consider Tuckman’s Theory, we're at the “storming” part of the team formation cycle. You are keen for us to hire and ramp up the teams quickly, but currently we have competing viewpoints about our approach to our technical assessment of engineering candidates.’
- Impact. ‘The impact is that folks are criticizing, arguing and disengaging from constructive conversations. This in turn is holding us back from making decisions together.’
- Request. ‘As the leader, I am asking you to help build strong relationships and also outline your expectations of us as a team.’
This earnest approach shows your manager that you’d like to be a partner in problem-solving tricky issues. You’ll gain their perspective, gratitude and trust.
Circle of influence vs. circle of concern
So true. pic.twitter.com/WWodmlTQBX— Alex Murashko (@alxmurashko) July 28, 2020
Another one of my favourite tools is the “circle of influence vs. circle of concern” model.
The gist is identifying and focusing more energy on what is within your scope of control and influence. I found myself constantly being dragged to the circle of concern e.g. wider reorgs, uncertainty over role changes, external economic factors; which was exhausting and disempowering. My coach was great at steering me back so that I could proactively take charge of what I could change and in turn grow my circle of influence over time.
Laying foundations: what to do when you get a new manager
A new relationship is a chance for a fresh start, and this should be no different when your manager changes. While reporting to a new manager can be filled with anxiety, some preparation can go a long way in mitigating concerns. Here are my tips for getting off to the best start.
The job spec vs. a role charter
Job specs by their nature are written in a more general style in order to cast a wider net in recruitment efforts and to align with internal career ladders. However, a more powerful technique that I’ve discovered and successfully implemented with my manager and my reports is to create a role charter.
Think of job specs as the coarse-grain definition of responsibilities that are expected at your level and experience, whereas a role charter is more fine-grain and specific to your role exclusively. Role charters are meant to be a living document, tailored to your role’s current and future goals. They can be a great tool for defining and delineating accountabilities that are usually vague in cross-functional organisational structures.
An example role charter for an Engineering Manager leading a Commercial Platforms Group:
Engineering Manager, Commercial Platforms
To build high-performing engineering teams to build and operate the Commercial Platforms. Set the technical roadmap for the Commercial Platforms domain, as well as having responsibility for the technical delivery internationally.
- Set out the goals, principles, values and behaviours for the Commercial Platforms' Engineering group
- Define team charters with the intent to align Payments and Subscriptions behind a single technical vision
- For Payments team, determine how and where to integrate vendored vs in-house solutions
- Responsible for the successful international delivery of technology solutions for the group
Partner with Engineering Managers on the following:
- Determine the overarching goals, principles, values and behaviours for the wider Engineering organisation
Partner with Heads of Product on the following:
- Define a Product roadmap that takes into account Engineering considerations such as best practices and available solutions
- Commercial Platforms availability
Creating a career development plan
The role charter mentioned in the previous section can create a solid foundation for a career development plan.
Having spent the last 12 years as a manager, I have frequently encountered reports asking me to define their entire career plan and objectives without having spent much time figuring out what they want to achieve.
The onus is on you to shape your career narrative and trajectory, and your manager will be so grateful if you have a clear vision of this. It will boost your manager’s confidence and allow them to easily coach and sponsor you in the right way. Keep it reasonable (five objectives maximum) and consider personal development goals as part of the plan. This can be especially useful if you are looking to accelerate in a given area or want to make a horizontal move in the org such as to a product management role.
Making 1:1s effective
You might luck out and get an amazing manager who can run brilliant 1:1s. But the truth is, many managers are ill-equipped at running them successfully and it can easily descend into little more than a status update meeting. By coming prepared, it is an obvious nudge to your manager about your expectations of what you want from them. A good manager should take the role of active and empathetic listener, but it’s imperative to articulate what is most necessary to discuss. This can range widely from career development and interpersonal challenges, to technical proposals and status updates.
There are many guides on holding 1:1s, and so here, I will go from personal experience to outline what I have found to be the most successful approach for these meetings.
- First up, ensure you have them regularly! Ideally, 1:1s should be no less frequent than every 2 weeks.
- Come prepared. Remember that your manager is super short on time, so even spending 5-10 minutes writing up a bullet list of topics will be appreciated, and gives you the power to steer the conversation.
- Be curious. What is your manager concerned with? What wider business context can they provide you? Consider opportunities for delegation and offer the support. But only if you have reasonable capacity as falling through on commitments is the shortest route to breaking trust.
- Use the coaching models outlined above to ensure candid feedback is offered at each catch up.
- Collaborate and problem-solve together. What specifically can your manager help you with? Do you have ideas on an approach?
- Remember to track actions. This provides a good framing for follow up 1:1s to clarify their status and clear any blockers. I have used either a Trello board or a Google document depending on what worked best for my manager.
James Stanier has posted a great write-up of structuring effective 1:1s.
Proposals not problems
Of course raising work-related concerns and struggles is necessary and healthy. However, a little preparation is needed.
Proposals can take many forms. Consider what it is that you need to achieve. How can you best communicate it to your manager?
Here are some proposals that I was able to have successfully implemented:
- Diagrams that articulate solution design concepts. Making an investment in even quick-sketch diagrams can save so much time and energy. They have the additional benefit of aligning “mental models” in order to make logically reasoned arguments for, or against, a particular solution design decision. I always take into account what matters to my audience to help them understand the concepts, benefits, and risks. This helps me correctly frame the level of detail, and how much of the domain needs to be rendered.
- 20% of engineering efforts every quarter are spent on “technical and quality improvements”. We often ascribe a lot of internal quality issues to the vague term of “tech debt”, which is difficult to reason about - especially outside of engineering domains. After struggling to gain buy-in, I needed to take a new tact at making this influential. So instead, I requested that engineers raise proposed initiatives around quality improvements, going so far as to tell individual tech leads where I knew their teams were facing particular pain points. I was also keen to flex some coaching muscles and so I provided feedback on how to tie their proposals to business goals, stating not only the “what” but the “why”, and performed some light modelling on cost-benefit analysis. I took a handful of these proposals to functional leaders including the Chief Product Officer and Chief Technology Officer to advocate for commitment, and got the buy-in immediately.
- Drafting written communications. As an example, I did this for an email that I had long-awaited for my boss to send to a senior stakeholder or one of their peers (in HR, Finance, Commercial etc). I was mindful of my boss’s writing style but it meant that I got my message across, as well as decreasing the demands on my manager’s time. Almost always these emails were sent swiftly with few-to-no edits. Result!
Leading these proposals myself had a powerful side effect. My own managers and their reports observed my behaviour and processes with my manager. They witnessed how effective it was, and then their behaviours and processes changed to reflect mine. This precipitated a cascade of effective habits and behaviours throughout the entire department.
We all desire to have a positive impact in the work we do in technical and people leadership, and sometimes the path can be difficult to navigate, especially as we are striving towards our next career move.
My hope is that by equipping you with the tools and techniques that I have used with great degrees of success in various organisations and situations, you can also turn your management relationship into a partnership, achieve greater success, and steer your career in the way you desire.
Jason Wong’s article on Followership is a main source of inspiration for this article
The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organisations by Ronald E. Riggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lipman-Blumen
Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Resilient Management by Lara Hogan
An example of Gitlab’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) per Role