What makes a great engineering leader?
Often when we ask this question we hear the same answers: having a great vision of the future; disagreeing and committing; delegating; or some variation of the Amazon leadership principles.
None of these tips are wrong, necessarily. They successfully guide some of the largest companies in the world. But I want to argue that there's one tip often left out of the conversation: being available.
Is being available the same as networking?
In a way, it is. It's not so much about building new connections (all the time), but about strengthening the ones you already have. Being there for people is about building relationships with your team and your community.
The chairman of AT&T, Theodore Vail, pointed out back in 1908 that, 'a telephone – without a connection at the other end of the line – is not even a toy or a scientific instrument. It is one of the most useless things in the world.' A telephone network with even two users is more valuable than a single telephone on its own.
In this world of collaboration and our peer-driven economy, we have to think of ourselves as something like telephones. We need to build connections with each other in order to sustain ourselves, and our communities.
'If you want to have a successful career, it's important that you give back into the industry that you are passionate about.'
– Jennifer Johnson Scalzi, CEO of Calibrate Legal (full interview here)
The power of being there for others
Whether you're running a community or a team, or doing some good old-fashioned networking, just 'being there' can make a huge impact on the culture and how people work and act. Especially in the times of COVID and folks working from home, the people around you are more isolated than ever.
In a study by Queen's University, 27% of people said they were suffering from loneliness. Research has also suggested the link between social support and lower rates of burnout and higher rates of productivity.
‘What are the little things you can start doing every day to strengthen, reignite, and warm up relationships? It can be as simple as letting someone know you are thinking about them — think about how you can just proactively do little touchpoints and outreach.’
– J. Kelly Hoey, Build Your Dream Network
In addition to the research-backed, positive results of being there for others, it's also just a kind thing to do. Reaching out to others, whether it's a simple email or DM or a public shout-out, helps promote a culture of inclusion and empathy for others. Building that psychological safety is invaluable to individuals, and to the health of a team or community.
Human interactions can be hard
These types of interactions can be awkward at times. Being there for someone isn’t always about giving a positive, 'way to go!'. Your team or community members might be upset or frustrated about something. They might be approaching you for a second opinion or to ask for resources. You might not always be able to provide what they need. You might be having a rough time yourself, and being available might feel particularly challenging.
Human problems can't be solved like technical ones. There's often not a black-and-white solution. There will be gray areas, and there will be roundabout answers. Humans aren’t formulas to crack. We're flawed. We can't manage to mentor everyone who comes our way. We can't always learn the fastest. We can't always avoid disappointing people.
I can't tell you how many times I've disappointed others because I wasn't able to meet a schedule they wanted, or I misunderstood how they were feeling in a community situation, or I simply misspoke or didn't act how they expected. These sorts of things make networking, team management, and community building hard – harder than any coding problem or security issue. Recognizing that in yourself, and in others, will not only make you a better networker but encourage empathy for the community around you.
Relationships take time. They can't be hacked. Being available takes a lot of work, which might seem daunting. But all the effort will be completely worth it for the sake of your team, your community, and yourself. This is how we can make this industry better for everyone.