7 Tips for Aspiring Managers in Engineering

February 18, 2016

  • Leadership
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
John F. Kennedy

The above quote by John F. Kennedy has resonated with me over the years. At LinkedIn, I lead a talented team of software engineers and managers in the Test organization who are responsible for LinkedIn's flagship mobile application. Throughout my professional career – both previously at eBay and now at LinkedIn – I have mentored several men and women throughout my leadership journey and learned a lot from each of them. Starting last year, I joined the Apprentice Manager Program, an internal initiative which pairs experienced managers with engineers who are interested in building their leadership skills. 

Leading others is not a trivial task. It requires that managers challenge their team members, allow themselves to be challenged, and actively work to support others – every single day.

So how did we help these employees transition from individual contributors to managers? Instituting and following these principles has transformed both my team and myself. It has also given me an experience which I will cherish for many years to come.

The Takeaways

Based on over a decade of experience and lessons learned as a career coach and leader, below are my seven tips for aspiring managers. 

  1. Shift your focus from "I" to "we": The saying "the sum is always greater than the parts," is vital for aspiring managers, who must shift their perspectives away from being individual contributors. Always put the team first, and take the time to build relationships. As a manager, it's important to understand the needs of the people you work with, advocate for them, and support them so that the whole team can succeed. When the team does succeed, share credit where credit is due, and when a mistake is made, accept responsibility for the challenges, which will create a supportive environment for your team to learn, grow, and take intelligent risks. And finally, work hard and play hard. Take time for you and your team to bond outside of the workplace.
  2. Build your influence as a manager with trust: From the beginning, it's important to set expectations and provide a vision for the projects you and your team are working on. Trust your team to deliver, and respond appropriately if they do not.
  3. Look at the big picture: Mentors and sponsors can help you focus on the larger picture. They have more experience in the industry and can offer advice when you need to make a big decision. You should also watch how the industry is evolving and understand trends that are happening outside of your company, so that you can apply them to your work. Focus on improvements that will influence the big picture, rather than just relative improvements to a small area, and coach people to act like they all have an equal stake in the team's success.
  4. Raise the bar by stepping out of your comfort zone: There is no substitute to developing your own personal expertise. It will help you be confident and persistent and garner the respect and admiration of the right people. But don't be afraid to challenge the status quo, when necessary. You should always demand and deliver excellence by rewarding people who step up to challenges, raising the bar, and taking intelligent risks.
  5. Pave the way for your employees to excel: Show others how they can be proactive and productive despite challenging situations. Teach your team the skills to function effectively in your absence – that's how you can scale and grow the next set of leaders.
  6. Don't settle for ambiguity: The higher you get in an organization, the more choice you have in your work. You may need to make more decisions in a shorter amount of time with less data and certainty. It sounds difficult, but it gets easier with experience. The key is to be clear about the problem that you are going to solve and make sure the key stakeholders are aligned, and make intelligent bets – if the risk is high, the reward should be high too, or else it’s not worth it.
  7. Let your people know what the deliverables are: Establish, communicate, and respond to ground rules. The team should know why they are there and what the consequences are for breaking them. Understand what motivates each member of your team, so you can pair deliverables to the right people and allow for better collaboration. And be flexible, especially with your high-performers, because you want to keep them happy so they'll stay on your team!

Bottom line

The bottom line is to be open to change and be prepared for it – for yourself and for members of your team. 

In order to lead through change, managers and leaders must be likeable, authentic, transparent, compassionate and trustworthy. They should put others in their thoughts, speak clearly of their intentions and follow through on their projects and programs to ultimately deliver tangible results. 

Overall, being a mentor for aspiring engineering managers was a gratifying experience that resonated with the quote by John F. Kennedy from the beginning of this blog post. I learned as much from the apprentice managers as they learned from me. When I was asked to be a coach for the subsequent session, I agreed in a heartbeat!

It has been incredibly fulfilling to give back to the engineering community, as well as a great learning experience. Taking on additional responsibility as a leader to hone and lead a team to success is neither an everyday occurrence nor something that can be easily taught. Being a strong leader and mentor requires passion, motivation, steadfastness, courage, and the ability to teach these skills to one’s team. The experience taught me that transformation depends on the willingness to step into unchartered territory, the passion to make a difference, and a can-do attitude to succeed.