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It can be difficult to lead team members who hold higher technical positions than you. Here’s what it means to be an engineering manager for them.

Stepping into a managerial or leadership role can occur at various points in our careers, and not always when we are at the pinnacle of our technical expertise. It is not uncommon to find ourselves managing individuals who possess more advanced technical knowledge, occupying higher positions on the technical ladder. 

As a manager, you guide and support your team members through their day-to-day challenges, help them navigate uncertainty, and assist them in achieving their career objectives. This is no less true when it comes to managing individuals who hold greater technical expertise, higher positions on the technical ladder, or different disciplines.

Make your voice different, not bigger

When communicating with someone who has more technical expertise, it is important to acknowledge and embrace your own knowledge gap instead of attempting to conceal it.

In my early experience as a team lead, I made the mistake of pretending to possess the same expertise as those reporting to me. I would try to tackle their problems independently or immerse myself in technical details, which proved futile as I often lacked the knowledge or understanding to make any real headway. This approach not only failed to provide effective solutions but also caused frustration when my direct reports had to simplify technical concepts for my understanding.

As a manager, your focus shouldn’t lie in finding immediate solutions – which should be your engineers’ remit – but rather in helping technical experts understand the wider business context of their work. Technical experts may excel at finding the right solutions, but your input is valuable in translating the product significance of any given issue. Your role can then be to assist them in uncovering the right context, explain specific requirements, and identify dependencies or correlations between developer work and the ownerships of other teams or departments. While technical individuals excel at building the engine of a car, your different perspective can provide insight into its purpose and how it will be utilized by the tires team or the steering wheel team.

Boost their motivation

In my previous company, I encountered exceptional engineers with unmatched expertise and skills. However, I struggled to sustain their motivation due to a gap in seniority compared to their peers, hindering their career progression and self-improvement efforts. Therefore, I modified my approach, asking them what factors would elevate their drive. This solution may seem obvious, but actively listening to them was immensely beneficial as it allowed me to understand their needs and desires. 

As a manager, it’s beneficial to talk directly to engineers themselves and understand what keeps them motivated and if they're hindered in their career progression by limited opportunities or unclear goals.  

It is important to recognize that you may not always know the best ways to boost the motivation of your team members and it is essential to actively listen to them. However, some individuals may struggle to understand their motivators or to find the necessary drive within themselves. In such cases, leveraging the company's challenges can be an effective approach: engage them in addressing organizational hurdles and make them champions of specific activities. By aligning individual goals and aspirations with the company’s objectives and challenges, developers can feel a sense of purpose and contribution to the overall success, promoting a sense of accomplishment and personal growth, further fueling motivation and drive within the team.

For instance, their technical expertise can play a vital role in introducing innovation through guiding strategic decision-making, and improving internal training by determining the most impactful methods across different seniority layers. Furthermore, they can wield their expertise to establish a strong developer community for knowledge sharing through mentoring and unifying others. 

By motivating these highly skilled individuals to tackle company challenges, you will harness their talent while allowing them to contribute toward organizational goals. 

Encouraging a “team player” mindset

Developing key soft skills can enhance an engineer’s ability to collaborate effectively within the team, ultimately improving overall productivity and expertise while also fostering a sense of personal achievement. Though this is the case, many individuals with strong technical knowledge tend to work on their own solutions because they believe they can accomplish tasks faster and better than others. Even if this may be true from their perspective, it is important to encourage them to share knowledge with their peers

Remember, turning the top player into the team captain can lead to championship victories rather than individual scoring triumphs.

Empathy, respect, delegation, and trust

It is important to emphasize the power technical engineers have to foster a culture of collaboration within the team by harnessing empathy, respect, delegation, and trust. This means they must acknowledge their experiences may differ from their teammates; what worked for them in terms of methods and approaches might not work for junior developers. Encouraging technical experts to respect the challenges of others cultivates empathy by propelling them to understand and relate to their peers' perspectives and experiences.

Technical experts often avoid delegating tasks because they fear team members making mistakes. This accountability for team results may make them lose trust in others. To combat this thought pattern we should help them understand that they need to be the safety net that protects the team from potential severe consequences, while also providing room for mistakes. They should offer guidance and support from a distance, allowing junior engineers the space to understand why certain choices are better, empowering them to make decisions on their own

By encouraging empathy, respect, delegation, and trust, you can help these high-level experts evolve into effective team players. This transformation will promote collaboration, a supportive work environment, and a winning team that can achieve collective goals as a cohesive unit.

Tailor your managing style to the individual

When managing individuals in higher technical positions, it is essential to remember that behind their technical expertise lies a unique personality. While theories and processes can serve as valuable guidance, recognize that not all will apply universally. Each individual has their own strengths and intricacies that should be considered.

As managers, we must take the time to truly understand the people we lead. By embracing their distinct personalities, we can tailor our approach to suit their needs and aspirations. This means being receptive to their feedback, actively listening, and adapting our management style accordingly. For example, leveraging being a mentor for the community can work well for an individual with an extrovert personality, but an introvert may find more value in a collaborative approach with smaller groups, such as the team itself. In this scenario, the introvert may prefer to engage closely with select team members on particular tasks or projects to contribute without assuming a mentorship role. Given their personality traits, they could contribute effectively to documentation, research tasks, or any collaboration that prioritizes asynchronous or written communication.

Final thoughts 

Managing individuals with higher technical positions requires a delicate balance of providing necessary guidance while allowing room for personal growth and development. It is not about erasing their individuality or overshadowing their expertise, but rather fostering an environment that values collaboration and mutual respect.