In January 2021, we hosted a second successful panel discussion for Engineering Leaders... with Engineering Leaders! Three top leaders from Amazon, Stripe, and Immersive Labs, joined the panel us to discuss various engineering topics such as high-performing teams, how to manager low-performing team members, and healthy ways to sustain motivation & engagement. If you've missed the first part, feel free to check this blog post here.
All the questions asked during the panel discussion came directly from our vibrant community of 250+ Engineering Managers! 🤓
- Nik Gupta, Software Development Manager, Amazon
- Chris Newton, VP of Engineering, Immersive Labs
- Smruti Patel, Head of LEAP and Data platform, Stripe
About high-performing teams and low-performing team members
How do you define high-performing engineering teams in your world? What makes them stand out? And how do you manage low-performing team members?
- High-performance = business success x team success x individual success
- Engineering leadership & high-performing teams
- “Listen, listen well”, a characteristic of successful managers
- Self-assessments can help low-performers and their managers
Panelists' personal feedback
For Smruti Patel, Head of LEAP and Data platform at Stripe, there is far more to the high-performing story than practical considerations such as sprints, story points, OKRs, etc. Smruti shares what her decade of leadership has brought to her:
“When you zoom out and look at what high-performing is actually, three elements stand out to me: 1. business success, 2. team success and 3. individual success!"
- "In terms of business, or users, it's the precision and impact in terms of what you are trying to ship and why."
- "In terms of the team, it's how well your team members actually work together and how effectively they ship their code, with agility and quality.
- And for the atom, the individual, it's about how engaged and motivated each one of your software engineers are, and how well they are growing and stretching themselves in your company!”
This approach is very helpful in understanding the importance of each layer (business, teams, individuals) and how high-performing teams are usually the result of good alignments between the 3 “successes” mentioned. Smruti adds a key element to the above - YOUR job as an Engineering Leader in this system:
“At the heart of all of these 'business', 'team' & 'individual' successes, is how we as leaders create and foster those inclusive environments which are basically based on psychological safety, radical candor, and at the individual level, growth mindset. That's where I've seen most of the high-performing teams sort of nailing it!”
Even in the best tech companies out there, managers are not always able to maintain a high level of performance in their team(s) and sometimes you will have to manage low performers. Engineering Managers need to regularly take the pulse of their team: low-performance often is linked with a lack of motivation + engagement and not a lack of skills!
You are a manager in a thriving business, you make the most in order to hire the best fit - now the trick is to keep managing well. With that in mind, what are the best ways to handle a situation with a low-performing team member?
For Chris Newton, VP of Engineering Immersive Labs - if your career growth framework is comprehensible and you have clearly laid down the set of skills and competencies expected, self-assessments can be very useful.
- “[...] Get your software engineers to do a self-assessment. If they're honest with themselves, and they've taken on board the feedback that you've given them, this would be a nice reflection that will highlight to them through that kind of introspection where they need to focus, where the gaps are, how they can improve. If they see themselves in a very high place compared to the reality, and you've given them the feedback to demonstrate where those gaps are, then that's a different type of conversation that you then need to have with that individual. But overall, it can be eye-opening for the individual to go through the process and actually see on paper where the gaps are and then how you as a manager can help them fill those gaps, get the experience, build the skills, etc.”
As Smruti Patel has observed, “people for the most part want to grow and do their best work and thrive! [...] engineers want to achieve their highest potential, so the onus is on us as managers and leaders to actually manage people and manage them effectively!”
To manage software engineers, good or bad performers, you should try to “explore, align, reflect/reinforce”:
- Explore: “In your 1:1s with your engineers, you want to understand what their strengths are, what their career aspirations are, what their areas of interests are. Then, you club this with what your team needs, what the business needs, etc. Finally, you sort of set up individual plans.”
- Align: “When the software engineer or the engineering manager comes up with their growth plan, you also want to align on expectations and personal goals. For senior engineers and EMs, I also ask a personal charter detailing their objectives for the next 6 to 12, or 12 to 36 months, and even five years and beyond, and what is the impact that you want to drive for the team and org”
- Reinforce: “Reinforcing the above on an ongoing basis: how are they doing in terms of expectations from their role and level here. [...] Aligning expectations for what a certain role or a level expects out of the individual is very important. At the heart of that is giving that constant timely and actionable feedback in terms of what's working well. [...] It comes down to how actionable, how timely and how specific you are in terms of making sure the expectations are understood and then rinse and repeat. Do it once, do it twice, do it thrice; if after that you still see the person not being able to show progress, if you see that they're not improving, then be honest, clear and direct.”
When facing a situation where you need to manage a low performer, Smruti Patel reminds us that:
“Managing low performance is to sort of not get to that state where it is low performing - because as leaders you've done all the pre-work in making sure they're focused on the right stuff, you've set expectations that they're indeed doing the right stuff, and giving them the ability through tighter feedback loops to course correct.”
At the end of the hour-long panel discussion, some of our mangers from the audience also asked a question about how to identify low performers. If you’re interested in what was said, do check Nick’s and Chris’ answers!
- This one was referred by Smruti, must read if you have some trouble connecting the dots between your output and how it impacts the business (aka system)
- Not focused on software engineers, but great approach to the concept of "psychological safety", concept underlying a lot of great teams in our industry - article by Laura Delizonna
Sustaining motivation & engagement while avoiding burnouts
How do you sustain motivation over a long period of time? Is the current pandemic a factor that exacerbates burnouts in high-performing teams?
- Be on top of how your engineers see themselves growing
- “Talk the talk ... walk the walk”
- As a manager, you will help them get to the next level
Panelists' personal feedback
While discussing the importance of maintaining motivation and engagement, Smruti Patel from Stripe highlighted two elements that always need to be present - the first is an understanding of the individual’s career inspiration and the second is to build an environment where they can grow by having a comprehensible career path.
“For sustaining motivation, I believe the key thing for us managers is to be on top of how individuals see themselves growing. If they don't have an idea of what that looks like, ask those probing questions and understand what might set them up for success and then make sure that they actually have a plan to carry that forward.”
Building on that, Nik Gupta, Software Development Manager at Amazon, shared a practical approach:
“Tell me what does the next six to 12 months, 18 to 36 months and/or the next five years and beyond look like for you so you - write those horizontals - and then I, as a manager, will help you fill in the steps you need to take and how I will be helping you to take these steps to meet your career goals.”
For Nick, the key to sustain a healthy engagement and motivation is to “align people's work around their superpowers and what they love and what their idea of growth is”. He adds that you should try to:
“Make sure you've had that conversation with people as to what their superpowers are what do they see as their growth - align their work to that ambition and you would see that you know it happens”
Nik also highlighted a crucial point as to how leaders can and need to avoid situations of potential burnouts when working with high-performers and high-performing teams:
- “As leaders, you ought to lead by example - you must do as you preach. For instance, when I encourage my team to manage their work-life balance, I demonstrate that myself by adhering to a 9-6 working day. When you demonstrate this discipline as a leader, you encourage your team to emulate the same behaviours. You are signaling that it is not OK to be “always-on”. When you do that, you cultivate that culture and avoid potential burnouts. There are exceptions of course when the boundaries blur but as a leader, you coach others to hold a high bar for these exceptional situations.
For Chris Newton, this last point raised by Nik is part of the key ones, especially during the current pandemic:
- “People look up to the leaders to demonstrate the behaviors that they expect to see in the organization. And I think that lockdowns have actually helped in making all of us reevaluate what's important. It certainly has for me, and I certainly do not work the hours that I used to work; I spend way more time with my family and I love not commuting - I'm sure I'm not alone. I think that's such an important point that we do lead by example; you know if you're responding to emails at 1 AM or 2 AM which used to be a very common thing, [...] it's setting a terrible example and it's normally the very high-up people in the organization who would work these crazy hours and it sets that expectation like this is the behavior that if you want to move up in the company you need to exhibit, and that's just incredibly dangerous.”
- Check out: https://www.radicalcandor.com
- Nice small post by Brenda Jin Staff Engineer at Slack: Technical Leadership: Getting Started
- Not so small, but definitely worth glancing through this academic paper by Sarah Beecham: Motivating Software Engineers Working in Virtual Teams Across the Globe
Every four months, we invite Engineering Leaders from around the world to join an online panel discussion for all things related to their software engineering teams, engineering workflows, and even about metaphysical questions that might affect our daily lives!
In these online discussions, you will have the opportunity to ask questions across any of the topics listed during the event. In this blog post, we've written about some of the topics discussed last January 2021.