9 mins

Like many people, you might be thinking – what’s next? What will help me grow?

April 13 – June 22, 2021 Event series
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Tell your team: LeadDev Together is back!

A six part event series addressing engineering leadership's most fundamental challenges.

You’ve considered a leadership role, reflected on the reasons why you’d like to try one, and determined that you have good intentions. But how do you find opportunities to become an engineering leader?

Formal leadership opportunities

A formal leadership opportunity is what most people tend to think of when they think about a leadership role. They often come with a different job title such as an Engineering Manager, Tech Lead, or Community of Practice Lead. The formal titles of these roles might offer a sense of authority, but the flipside of an official role is that you are also ultimately accountable for that role’s responsibilities. For a lot of first-time leaders, seeking a formal leadership opportunity without the right support can create a stressful situation. Stress without support can lead to failure, and some people may never want to retake a leadership role.

An excellent way to seek formal leadership opportunities is to look at your company’s growth framework. Some people also call it a career pathway or ladder. A growth framework outlines a set of recognized roles, responsibilities, and the skills and behaviors necessary to fulfill them. These growth frameworks are useful as a way of creating shared expectations between the company and employees. I’ve found it’s a great way to start a conversation to help people prepare for a new role.  

Think of growth frameworks like a tasting platter. They showcase a little bit about what an organization offers. Growth frameworks can’t remain simple and recognize the diversity of scope of roles that exist in an organization. Today’s organizations are too fluid and dynamic with the roles and opportunities they need. Although growth frameworks are never comprehensive, they offer value by highlighting differences in scope and skill. Knowing what these differences are in advance can be the difference between picking something you may enjoy or something you will hate. Taking the food metaphor further, would you like to choose what you might eat in the future, or take the surprise menu?

If you’ve found a leadership opportunity that sounds appealing to you, here are two pieces of advice:

  • Make sure you talk to your manager about it;
  • Find a person who is already in that role. 

What next? Talk to your manager

Talking to your manager about your goals is essential. If they are an effective manager, they should be interested in your development. If your goal is unrealistic, they should be candid enough to let you know why. As an example, if you want to be a founder and start your own company, your team or department may not be an excellent environment for that. Although never say never, as some companies offer incubator or accelerator programs for precisely this purpose. 

With your goal shared, and a supportive manager, you should now be able to construct a development plan that gets you from where you are now, to where you would like to go. You will have different skills, experiences, and goals from everyone else, so your development play should look highly personal. You might already have the skills and your manager sees you are ready for a new challenge, but you don’t realize it. You might need three to six months before you’re prepared to try a new role. It is critical to talk through these expectations with your manager.

Some companies have a formal leadership development program. These programs highlight the essential skills required for leadership roles and offer simulations, discussions, and insights into these new roles. These are great ways to prepare new leaders. Unfortunately, a lot of companies do not offer these training programs, or not every new leader has the opportunity to join them. Without these programs, a lot of first-time leaders suffer from unnecessary stress and excessive imposter syndrome. Where companies don’t have a formal leadership development program, you can at least work with your manager to build one.

The other tip? Find someone else already in that role

If you are aiming for a formal leadership role, it helps to talk to someone who’s already in the position you’d like to try.  A lot of people transitioning into a leadership role are struck by the ‘unknown unknowns’. These first-time leaders didn’t realize what activities they would be responsible for, how different the role might be from their previous ones, and how their existing skills and experiences do not overlap with what is required. This leads to excessive stress for someone trying to learn multiple skills at the same time.

Most companies will often have more than one person playing the role. Their context might be slightly different from where you may end up, but by connecting and talking to them, you can at least turn the ‘unknown unknowns’ into the ‘known unknowns’. You’ll gain first-hand insights into what is required and advice on transitioning into the role.

Informal leadership opportunities

If you’ve chosen to pursue a leadership role for the right reasons, you’re not limited to formal opportunities. So why take the informal route? Taking an informal approach means you have a safe-to-fail opportunity. If something goes wrong in a more casual situation, you’re less likely to have negative consequences. Contrast this with a manager who is failing to take care of an activity. They will be held accountable.

I love working with people who continually seek informal leadership opportunities; this means when people already demonstrate leadership through their actions. When this happens, it provides a much more powerful case if you want to later pursue a more formal role. When a hiring manager has a choice of two people – one who says they are ready to be a leader, and the other who has already demonstrated the skills, behaviors, and experience, the choice is clearer. The informal acts of leadership give you a headstart on pursuing a formal leadership role down the line. But how?

Ask for more responsibility

A lot of existing leaders are more than happy to hear, ‘What else can I do?’ as it allows them to delegate more, and offers you the opportunity to take on new responsibilities. It’s a win-win situation. When a good leader delegates well, they know how to do so without overwhelming you.

A good model is ‘see one, do one, teach one’. In the ‘see one’ mode, a leader might demonstrate the activity or task they take care of regularly. They show you the ins-and-outs and how they think the task should be carried out. For example, you have agreed to lead the technical integration with a sister product team in the company. During the first couple of meetings, you might shadow the existing lead to understand the relationships, the nature of the meetings, and how to prepare for them. Quite quickly, you now ‘do one’ by leading discussions while your mentor joins as a more silent observer. They act as a safety net in case you need it, or offer feedback after the meeting to help you improve. Over time, you can continue to ‘do one’ without their support. Eventually, you might get so good that you also grow that skill with others; a powerful act of leadership is to ‘teach one’.

There are always opportunities for people to take on these informal leadership opportunities. Classic examples in engineering teams include:

  • Ensuring the team rituals such as planning sessions, stand-ups, and retrospectives are well organized, run regularly, and people are well prepared for them;
  • Organizing team knowledge-sharing sessions to spread lessons learned as people iterate over the product and system;
  • Running team code reviews to improve technical skill in the team and to ensure team members maintain alignment as they grow;
  • Representing the team externally e.g. helping other teams integrate a service or API your team produces, or contributing to a company-wide project by highlighting work, dependencies, or risks from your team’s perspective.

Asking for more responsibility is a great way to informally step toward becoming a leader.

Take ownership of something that seems to be missing

A lot of teams today have far more work to do than they can take care of. Existing leaders need to prioritize where engineers spend their time in order to have the most impact. This means that no team or environment is ever perfect and there are opportunities to improve all elements.

A great opportunity to show some informal leadership is to take ownership of an issue that seems to be affecting your team, but that no one seems to recognize or have time to take care of. It might be as simple as fixing that nagging build issue that everyone seems to complain about, but no one does anything about it. Or it could be a lot more complicated, with team members split over which testing approach to use going forward, leading to different and conflicting approaches.

If you want to take ownership of a topic, explain your intent to your team and the impact you hope to have. For the testing example it might be as simple as, ‘Hey, I noticed we have five different ways of testing our application and it’s really confusing to know where we should head. Maybe we should try to agree on a team approach rather than having so many individual conflicting approaches.’ You’ll likely find that most team members in this example are happy someone (not them) is stepping up to lead the team to an agreement. If you reach a good outcome, others will appreciate you for this act of leadership later on.

Step in to help and grow others

A lot of effective leadership is about growing the potential in others. It’s about the move away from ‘maker mode’, where you’re focused on what you produce, to  ‘multiplier mode’, where you’re focused on helping others bring out their potential. In software teams, there are always opportunities to multiply others to help and support other people’s growth.

If you have built trust with individuals in the team, you might find them coming to you for support and advice. Through asking questions, or offering advice, you might be able to help them solve problems they were stuck on. You might offer feedback to others to help them grow in areas that will multiply their impact. All of these skills and examples have a multiplying effect and will be an invaluable experience to draw on in a formal leadership role later.

Conclusion

Almost every situation offers leadership opportunities. If you’re determined to take on a leadership role, talk to your manager (or others) about what formal leadership roles exist, and build a development plan that will lead you there. Where companies do not predefine or advertise leadership opportunities, you may need to dig deeper. Start by looking for opportunities to take acts of leadership. Ask for more responsibility. Take ownership of a painful area that remains unaddressed. Or step in and help others grow.

You have many opportunities in front of you, but it’s ultimately up to you to take the first step.