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As a young software engineer, I assumed managers spent every minute of their days running meetings, tracking projects, and talking to people (in other words, sending a lot of emails). I was wrong.

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These presumptions limited my impact as a new manager and I had to unlearn them the hard way. I cringe when I remember some of my missteps and I wish I’d had an instruction manual for navigating this tricky transition. But unfortunately, there’s no such thing.

Here I’m recapping some of my newbie mistakes and highlighting the common pitfalls in the hope that other new or soon-to-be managers find it useful.

1. Not having a strategic long-term vision

At first, I believed my team was executing smoothly. It seemed like everyone had clear tasks and there was evidence we were making progress towards tactical goals. But the group thought otherwise. My reports fretted about the rapidly-evolving disparate tasks, my peers struggled to see the big picture, and my leadership probed about the team’s alignment towards strategic goals.

Fortunately, I received feedback on the lack of clarity and worked hard to establish workstreams, roadmaps, and strategic alignment. The multi-fold benefits were immediate; the workstreams simplified communicating and coordinating disparate efforts, generated tech leadership opportunities for the senior engineers, and seeded a healthy culture of aligned autonomy and delegation.

To make sure your team is aligned around a clear long-term vision, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have clear workstreams for the team?
  • How are the workstreams aligned towards the strategic goal?
  • What synergistic outcomes are possible by combining workstreams?
  • Are the engineers passionate about their assigned workstreams?
  • Are the assigned projects challenging enough to stretch the members?

2. Shying from giving constructive feedback

Fairly soon after I stepped into the manager role, I had to coach a report who was struggling to adapt with a reorg. Their productivity had dipped in the highly challenging environment. Being new to management, I couldn’t summon the courage to have a candid conversation about their performance.

Instead, I hesitated and found ways to skirt around the elephant in the room. My approach eventually backfired when they got less-than-stellar feedback from another manager. The awkward follow-up meeting forced me to confirm some of the concerns I had shied away from.

Around that time I read Radical Candor by Kim Scott, which revealed an unpleasant truth: I was a ruinous empath! By choosing niceness over kindness, I was shielding my reports from the feedback necessary for their growth. I didn’t want to be that kind of leader and I set out to transform my approach. I started having frank, respectful, and empathetic conversations and found I was able to nip concerns in the bud.

Here are some tips on delivering effective feedback:

  • Earn trust: All great relationships are built on trust. Without it, delivering feedback is like pouring water on a rock; nothing will go in. Disagree? When was the last time you accepted input from someone you didn’t trust?
  • Prepare for the feedback session: Always prepare before starting a feedback session. This pre-check should include checking your mental state; the last thing you want is for a session to go sideways because you can’t control yourself. Then you should also check with the recipient that it’s a good time for them to receive feedback, and offer to wait and reschedule if they’d prefer. That way, both of you can be fully ready to have a productive discussion. And remember not to sit on feedback; try to have the conversation as quickly as possible.
  • Discuss concerns jointly: The conversation involves all parties on the same side of the table jointly discussing an issue. It is not a ‘us vs. them" discussion. Avoid situations that portray both parties as opposing sides. I start by admitting my limited perspective, explaining the concern in non-judgmental terms, before asking for their point of view.
  • Discuss the expected outcome: Once you agree on a holistic view of the situation, you can progress to expectations for the future. This should involve exploring mechanisms and actions for long-lasting mitigation, and you should come out with at least one actionable item.
  • Seek feedback on your feedback: Finally, seek genuine feedback on the feedback you shared. How does the recipient feel about it? Was it actionable? Could it have been delivered better? Do they have feedback for you? The goal is to facilitate a two-way dialogue with both parties mutually supporting, learning, and growing.

3. Being unprepared to handle attrition

I was completely blindsided by the first departure on my team. It was a senior engineer who was leading a critical initiative. Their departure triggered my impostor syndrome and I worried about retaining talent. I also fretted about finding an experienced hire.

Shortly after, a massive reorg opened the floodgates and attrition became a bigger problem. I needed to stem the tide of departures, recruit strategically to backfill empty positions, and minimize the disruptive impact of departures on the team.

Going through these turbulent periods taught me one lesson: attrition is inevitable. People outgrow teams, business priorities change, and new opportunities emerge. The leader should craft strategies for achieving team resiliency knowing that engineers will not remain on the same team forever.

Here are some tips for dampening the effects of attrition:

  • Dealing with self-doubt: Making peace with the certainty of attrition will help you to cope with impostor syndrome tendencies. It’s important to help folks find roles they’re passionate about and opportunities to grow, even if that means external positions.
  • Achieving team fit: Sometimes, a team might not have opportunities that match an individual’s aspirations or someone might have outgrown their role. In such scenarios, talented but demotivated employees will struggle to bring their best to the role. Consider partnering with such folks to identify and vet new roles that match their interests.
  • Hiring strategically: Recruiting, interviewing, and selling your team are constant requirements for managers. You want to set the bar high enough to bring in folks that raise the tide, offer new perspectives, and challenge established practices. There are a couple of common pitfalls to avoid:
    • Bait-and-switch: Avoid making unfulfillable promises during hiring. I’ve seen way too many people quit rapidly due to the breach of trust. Don't paint a picture of thornless roses. Be upfront about the challenges, opportunities, and issues on your team. Don't assure what you can't ensure.
    • Not having a clear role for folks: Another pitfall is assuming that you'll figure out the expectations of a role after they join. Before hiring, do your homework to identify the function, gaps, and requirements (a skills matrix can help here).

4. Acting like a tech lead instead of a manager

In my previous role, I had been a domain expert as a tech lead. I’d worked on the codebase from inception and was comfortable poking into the dark innards of our system. But when I became a manager, this knowledge became a problem. It clouded my understanding of my new role. I was barging into discussions, offering unwanted opinions and observations, and explaining the history behind technical decisions and designs.

I had the best intentions and wanted to help the team succeed. But in reality, I was causing more harm than good and slowing the team down. This humbling lesson has become a cornerstone of my leadership philosophy.

There are a couple of key risks when the manager is also the team's technical expert:

  • Talent development: Is the leader dedicated to developing and nurturing talent? Or are they inadvertently taking away opportunities from the team?
  • Scaling: Is the team bottlenecked since the leader has to handle requests? Is the manager able to see the big picture, or are they too deep in the weeds?

And there are a couple of great techniques to mediate this:

  • Giving away your legos: Taking on juicy challenges or holding onto your favorite projects deprives engineers of the same opportunities. Delegating interesting tasks proves your trust in the team. It demonstrates your commitment to building new leaders. Furthermore, this helps you scale by freeing your time to take on more strategic initiatives.
  • Letting go of your ego: It’s okay to not know the innards of some complicated piece of your system; the talented engineers have already mitigated that knowledge gap. Your role is to facilitate conducive work environments, align the team towards strategic goals, and be accountable for successful outcomes.

Reflections

Leading teams is a bit like riding a bike. You can read a lot about it but ultimately, you have to try it yourself, put the lessons to use, and even fall off a few times to learn how to get back up. I hope these anecdotes have helped you to identify some of the common pitfalls and that you might be able to avoid some of my mistakes. If you’re on your journey to becoming a high-impact manager, just remember to focus on four things: define the team’s vision, give clear feedback, establish a resilient team, and play the right role.