Engineering Manager: Beyond Leadership
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This is a follow-up article in the Engineering Manager series, My First Thoughts as an Engineering Manager and Engineering Manager: Do Not Be a Hero. Nowadays, I see more and more the words "leader" and "leadership". Often, I ask myself what these words mean for the people and the companies:
- What is a leader?
- How many kinds of leaders are?
- What are the companies looking for?
- Do we need so many leaders?
- Can we hire leaders?
In this article, I am not going to talk about a leader in deep because I feel there are many articles about it, but how this role is overrated and why an Engineering Manager is not the synonym of a "leader".
- I have not seen many leaders in my professional career but I have seen many bosses and managers, (this is not necessarily a bad thing).
- Having a leader is not the only way to have success.
- A good leader for the team sometimes is not good for the company and the goals.
- We can not hire leaders, probably we can hire potential leaders.
- Many times the leader is not the Engineering Manager, Principal Engineer, Architect, or Tech Lead but a Software Engineer.
The best successes are achieved through teamwork, effort, ownership, and many other soft skills and cultural values.
What Is a Leader? How Many Kinds Are?
It is not easy to define it, because it is a word used in many contexts and we usually idealize it. I have read many articles on what it is to be a leader from the same point of view as “ a democratic good leader” and what people project it to be. When I think of a leader, I think of someone charismatic that is able to:
- Influence people.
- Motivate people.
- Support people to improve.
- Support the team to achieve the goals.
- Provide a vision, the so-called “bigger picture” that unites the team in a common goal.
- Be a mentor.
From my point of view, a leader is chosen by the people in the team. There should not be any direct relationship between leadership and responsibilities. At least, this is the kind of leader that I am interested in.
But there are many other kinds of leaders. When we look for a leader in human history, we always think of people like Nelson Mandela (I would always choose this kind of leader as an example) but there are many others not so democratic or even authoritarian examples. Also, there are people who provide leadership through their technological vision but not are interested in being a mentor or supporting the teams and they are leaders because they motivate people and the people follow them.
What Are the Companies Looking For?
Generalizing is always a problem, but most commonly they are probably looking for people that help achieve goals, provide the best working environment to the teams and promote cultural values.
In other cases, companies have a frontman, people with good communications and social leadership skills to attract talent.
Do We Need so Many Leaders?
I see many open positions in companies looking for leadership roles but when they say leadership they mean managers, the person in charge of a team, or people to provide technical strategy. The reality is that word "manager" has bad a reputation.
Sometimes I see a squad of six or eight members with three or more leaders: Technical Leader, Engineering Manager, Team Lead, QA Leader, etc. Often none of them were chosen by the actual team. From my experience, they are people with specific responsibilities and not leaders.
More than often I think we oversell titles inside of modern companies when in reality it's only a team formed by different capabilities that need to collaborate in order to create adequate synergy.
Can We Hire Leaders?
We can not force people to follow the manager or the new architect but can hire managers or architects with the capabilities to be a leader in the future. The challenge is that these people have to earn the respect and trust of the teams and this takes time.
The ways you can hire a leader are:
- Hiring him together with the full team will ensure you have the relationships formed.
- To hire someone that the team trusts and respects.
Most definitely the best way would be to promote people from inside of the company but not all companies do it.
Cultural Values vs. Leadership
Most of the time, companies talk about leadership instead of management styles. I think that it is more important the cultural values that lead the management and teams dynamics. The culture is the best leader that companies can provide to their teams:
- Ownership & accountability.
- Performance as a journey.
- Shared mission.
- People-Oriented management style.
On top of that, having leaders that increase motivation and provide a vision can be a differential factor. When a society (or a team) is built on values, we are building a successful future. But when a society is built on leaders, we are building a dependent society (or team).
Engineering Manager Being a Leader Is Not Important
The goal of the Engineering Manager is to support the team to achieve the goals providing all their needs. Our goal as Engineering Manager is not to be a leader, we are working to help them.
There are situations in which the leader is not the manager. In these cases, it is important that every team member be aware of their responsibilities towards the team. Questioning every decision the manager takes does not make you a leader but helping the team does, and that includes the engineering manager. Trust and respect for each team member's work are the most important.
The best manager that I have had in my professional career probably was not a leader and many of the best leaders I have known were not in a management position.
The Frustration of Not Become a Leader
Often the misconceptions and marketing of “leadership positions” are generating a negative impact on the teams and organizations. Every day we are getting numerous posts talking about leadership in most social media networks and offering training to become a leader. At the same time, I see many people trying to explain why they are also leaders in their positions although they do not manage people directly. These marketing and social media pressure promote the wrong message.
Many times Engineering Managers, Directors, and other global contributors' roles are more focused on being a leader than doing their jobs. Trying to achieve this goal, instead of helping the team, only generates tensions and frustration inside of the team. Trust, respect, and accountability are what we should be looking for.
The frustration of not achieving personal objectives (status and recognition) is one of the main causes of people leaving companies and underperforming teams.
Great teams and organizations are built on strong cultural values. Professional growth, emotional intelligence, respect, ownership, and collaboration are cultural values not the definition of leaders. We must promote teams having accountability rather than having someone to point the finger at.
Companies and organizations need managers, technical directors, and people in charge of services that help to make decisions and provide a global vision. We don't need leaders on every corner.
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