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As engineering managers, we all have to provide feedback for our team members to help them grow in their careers and realize their potential. Many of us share feedback on a regular basis during 1:1s, as well as annually during the performance review cycles. However, if you’re not having regular 1:1s I strongly recommend scheduling these at least on a biweekly cadence, as they’re proven to be a key way to build trust and avoid surprises down the road. 

Each company has their own framework around performance review cycles and there is a debate[1] on the efficacy of the various models in use, ranging from the graduated rating[2] to no performance review at all[3]. Whatever model your company follows, as an engineering manager, managing your direct report’s career growth is part of your job[4]. Understanding your team members’ career aspirations, coaching them with a gentle nudge, and giving specific praise at the right time empowers them and allows you to build high-performing teams. Therefore, in this article I’ll be sharing a framework that I have been using for the past three years for open, honest, and constructive career conversations with my direct reports. 

We all have unique personalities and communication styles. As a manager and coach of your team, it’s essential for you to know what the preferred style of each individual on your team is, and how they respond to critical feedback. It’s equally important to spend the time to build trust with your team members before praising or criticizing their efforts. With sincere and conscious efforts to establish trust, you will improve the odds of employees taking your feedback into consideration and appreciating you for it. 

When you start managing a new person, it’s worthwhile to spend the time during 1:1s to understand their career aspirations, what motivates them, what aspects of the job are exciting for them or not, what they think their strengths are, and what their areas of growth could be. To obtain a well-rounded understanding of their contributions, consider asking their peers for evaluations on the individual's strengths and areas of opportunity. I also encourage reviewing their work directly e.g. by reading their design docs, or push requests. 

I have found it effective to then categorize the information you learn about your direct reports into the following three groups: 

  • Amplify what you are good at
  • Be more effective in what you do 
  • Challenge yourself in new areas

When thinking through these categories, use specific examples for each and encourage individuals to identify goals by themselves. Coach them to set measurable, bite-sized goals that allow for rapid iteration, and give feedback along the way to put the focus on their effort rather than the outcome itself. It’s about the journey and not the destination. 

  1. Amplify what you are good at: “what is going well?” 

Pick at least two specific things that the individual excelled at. These need to be specific and ideally tied to a learning outcome or tangible business impact to maximize the effect on your direct report’s motivation. Sharing what is going well reinforces their achievements, lets them know that their hard work is being noticed, and that the company values their contributions. From understanding this they can engage in these activities with confidence and know they are making a positive difference. 

  1. Be more effective in what you do: “what can be improved?” 

We’re all humans and hence not perfect. Many times when we are doing something for the first time or outside our comfort zone, we might initially fail or take extra time to get the work done. But this is OK. As managers, we need to set the right expectations and support structure, e.g. pairing individuals with more experienced teammates in that domain so they can learn from the experts. We also need to give them enough time to try and fail, praising their effort instead of nitpicking or reminding them of the failures, and sharing actionable advice on how they can continue this learning adventure.

  1. Challenge yourself in new areas: “what’s next?”

As a coach for your team, it’s your responsibility to be the rear-view mirror. Most times a gentle reminder on what is expected from a role is all that is needed to help them achieve their potential. Sometimes presenting a stretch goal at the right time, that matches their personal ambition, helps the individual expand their reach and enables them to grow their impact through increased scope and responsibility. This can then lead to desired career growth and transformation. 

For instance, one of my engineers would always get the job done on time, help other team members when they were stuck, ask clarifying questions on product requirements, and code with proper tests and documentation. However, outside of the team, not many were aware of their contribution. In order for them to increase their influence outside of the team they needed to demonstrate leadership in a bigger circle. Instead of assuming that the engineer would simply take the same approach that I would, I shared that this was an area where they needed to do more. Though I did share how I would approach it, I was very clear that my route might not be suitable for them and that they should approach the problem from their own perspective. They took a few weeks, spoke to mentors and colleagues, and decided to start participating in an org-wide technical review committee. They already had the strong technical foundations needed to become a key contributor on the committee and they were made a co-lead shortly afterwards, highlighting that their technical leadership was appreciated and noticed even outside of their immediate team.

Overall, I believe balanced feedback that is broken down using this framework establishes trust and keeps engineers motivated. It reinforces to your employee that you notice the value of their contribution toward the team and the company, and encourages them to continue to engage with what you have to say. As a result, they will be more open to receive constructive feedback in areas that can be improved, create awareness of the gaps in their understanding of the expectations, and help them go above and beyond in their career.