With such senior reports, it’s difficult for me to see what I can enhance within the team. What’s more, I know my manager has high expectations of me. What can I do?
I am leading a team of super-smart senior engineers. I think I fall short as their engineering manager, and I would like to know where I can add value for them.
I’d appreciate any advice that goes beyond reaching out to my reports via 1:1s – my manager isn’t looking for that. And I especially feel the need to justify my role given the current climate and need for job safety.
It sounds like you’re stuck trying to figure out where you fit with your team and that you feel limited in what you can contribute while also not really knowing what your role as your team’s manager is. This is especially difficult as you don’t have any outside guidance on what you should do.
Introspect to find areas of your role or skillset you can develop
One sentence caught my eye that I’d ask you to really reflect on before you dive deeper. You mention that you feel like you need to justify your role to your team. What makes you feel like that? I encourage you to employ your preferred tool for thinking or writing and try to get to the bottom of this before anything else.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- What makes me feel like I have to justify my role or prove my worth?
- Why do I feel like I’m not adding value? Is the voice in my head being fueled by imposter syndrome, or have I reached this conclusion as a result of other factors?
- What motivates me to come to work every day and to manage this team?
The goal of this exercise is to help you uncover the hidden forces that are holding you back. Some of these may come from your manager and your team, but more likely, they could be coming from you personally. Before you move on to a more practical approach to understand your role better, it is helpful to get these written out and acknowledged.
Talk to your team to understand their expectations
The second issue to address is where you can add value for them. From a distance, that’s a tricky question to answer, and, to be frank, it’s best to ask your team.
Understanding your team’s expectations by asking about their perspectives can be more than a conversation about yourself and your role. Open up the floor to topics that span what they feel is missing in your team, the department, or the organization. Ask them what regularly gets in their way, what frustrates them, what makes them happy and productive, and what they wish they could spend more or less time on. You may uncover a few projects that you can focus on that truly provide value to your team. For this reason, it’s useful to have regular conversations like this with your team, whether as part of a retrospective or your individual 1:1s.
In tandem, reflect on what your team is telling you through different channels, whether in their chat conversations or in their code reviews. Maybe there’s a sense of frustration with certain activities, a lack of fun in their workday, or open-ended conversations that never seem to come to a conclusion. All these could be pointers that something is missing, that there’s an opportunity for you to bring in a new technique or an experiment to do things differently.
Your value in this particular sense is to pay attention to what’s happening in your team that isn’t being said directly. Are there problems you’re aware of that they’re avoiding? Is feedback focusing solely on the positives or negatives? Do conversations suddenly stop, and everyone goes quiet when a specific subject or project is raised? These can be pointers for you to ask your team to say more in a group setting or to approach your engineers in your next 1:1 to learn more.
Look for guidance from your manager and peers
You write that your manager’s expectation goes beyond you having 1:1s with your team. What are their specific objectives or criteria? Where do they think you can add value? Not every boss may be able to express this in a way that provides you with instant clarity. But you already know they expect more from you, so uncover what that is. What they see as parts of the engineering manager role, how they measure your success in that role, and what they expect from you personally are good starting points.
Your team aside, maybe there are other projects within your part of the organization that you could focus on? In the current climate, those have gotten rarer, but maybe there’s one or two on the horizon. Those could also provide you with an opportunity to learn and grow.
Similarly, you could talk to your peers for more inspiration on what to do. If your rapport with them isn’t strong, this could be a good time to start interacting with them, learning from them, and understanding how they see their own role and their contributions to their team.
Furthermore, you can try to understand their own needs and those of their teams. You may be able to discover responsibilities together, identify projects that would benefit all your respective teams, or discover ways to collaborate. It’s useful to remember that your responsibility isn’t just to your team of engineers. It is to your peers as well, to your boss, and to the organization as a whole.
Cross-reference all the ways you can add value with personal development opportunities
All these conversations are meant to help you discover what expectations other managers have for you or for their respective teams. After coming up with a long list, you'll need to pick the things you think are most valuable for your team and your own growth.
Because what you want to learn and grow is worth reflecting on. You can then spend time reading, researching, learning, and acquiring new skills to work on these new projects. This can help you stretch into new areas which may also help shift your attitude and discover more joy in your work.
Thinking about business needs that you and your team can impact is a great way to get the ball rolling on your personal growth. What priorities are coming up for the business, for your peers, for other folks in the organization that your team is supporting or is in some way beholden to? What are customers saying that affects your team’s work? What’s the current direction of the business telling you to pay more attention to?
Or, you start working on projects related to your team’s direction and culture, like a strategy document, team values, or a team charter. For these things, it’s useful to spend more time observing how your team is or isn’t working, as I described above. You can start looking for patterns in behaviors, in conversations, in decision-making, or in conflicts, reflecting on what you do or don’t want to see in your team. Then you start manifesting those things, discuss them with your team, and put them in place, even if it’s just as a limited experiment.
Next steps for your development
The gist of all the suggestions I’m making above is that you can choose to wait for things to happen to you, for someone to clarify your role for you and help you understand how you can feel valuable as your team’s manager. Or, you can take as much responsibility as is available to you and explore this on your own, charting your own path – exploring where you can contribute the most value. This won’t be achieved in a week; it may take some time. But you may be surprised by all the possibilities you uncover in all these conversations.