Tackling fears, targets, and complacency in engineering teams
In the first of this two-part series, I set out to define team culture and shine some light on the essential aspects of it. Undoubtedly, to each her own: leaders are entrepreneurs themselves so they would eventually come up with their own style and definition of what makes a great team. The effort lies in capturing the salient features of it and aligning them to the needs of the business context you operate within.
In this post, I would like to deal with instances in a leader’s journey that are not talked about a lot: our worst fears, growth without the right targets, and the art of retaining talent.
In a competitive business environment, leaders come under strain invariably. They need to balance the needs of the business with that of the people on their teams. So, what should engineering leaders running high-performance teams do to keep mental peace (their own and that of their team) intact?
Here’s what keeps me up at night, sometimes:
- Burnout, especially with the ambitious and self-critical ones.
- Complacency, especially the kind that sets in when one compares what one is able to do, either as a team or as an individual, relative to others around them without appreciating the full context of their challenges.
- Keeping your best team members feel challenged enough. Business often requires you to do stuff that is relatively mundane, but these problems are highly valued to be solved by the business. Retaining a balance between business value and challenging your best is often a challenge in itself.
- Loss of focus when one starts chasing multiple goals, each one of them appearing to be equally tempting. Confident teams often take up too many goals, and this quickly leads to being spread too thin, chasing too many finish lines, and eventually to despair and burnout.
Dealing with burnout
With burnout as well, prevention is always better than cure. The most ambitious and consistent top performers on your team are the ones highly likely to suffer from burnout. Given the times we live in, we could probably even dedicate a whole post to understanding and dealing with burnout. For today, let’s just look at a few salient aspects.
Goals: Starting from the point where goals are defined for individuals or teams, leaders would benefit by realizing that a deadline is the cheapest goal one can set. Other less tangible metrics such as quality, reliability, and maintainability are the ones more important. They’re also the ones easily side-lined for timeliness. Reserve enforced deadlines for the rarest occasions where an organization as a whole must align to achieve a critical business outcome. The ideal goal, of course, combines all these attributes, and allows for multiple possible solutions to emerge to what is essentially a multi-dimensional problem. Deadlines, as targets, create undue stress. But, as an aspiration, they can keep team members on their toes, sans the stress.
Monitor: Watch for signs of burnout in the form of disengagement and surprising turns of emotion. Because this is never enough, leaders must also make burnout a topic of discussion for 1-1s on their teams. It also helps leaders to become aware of the personal challenges one might be undergoing, to get a complete picture of one’s professional well-being.
Breaks: It is surprising how often your top performers keep pushing without seeking a decent break. Encourage a culture of openness, without cause for judgment, around these much-needed breaks.
Unfortunately, despite all measures, the combined pressures of business and personal vectors may eventually catch up with your team or a few individuals. Recovering from burnout can often be a long road. There are only a couple of tools in a leader’s toolkit to start to cure this.
Build a temporary dam with support from all stakeholders and request holding the outflow to business critical stuff for a while.
Put an arm around the shoulder, empathize with your team, express gratitude and direct your energies toward refreshing their energy reserves.
What after bullseye?
It is often difficult to even realize that complacency is setting in, let alone address it.
Let’s understand this by supposing you were leading a sports team, and not an engineering team. You might be able to notice the onset of complacency in how hard your team trains, the results of each game, the score lines, the win/loss streaks, and numerous other statistics that can catch a downward trend. Engineering is, unfortunately, no sport.
Your team might be in a mode where they are delivering what is expected of them while simultaneously drifting sideways in the long term.
In today’s fast evolving, highly disruptive business and technology landscape, teams must continually evolve, or wake up one fine day to discover the world has left them behind.
Leaders can protect their teams from this by practising a few things:
- Cultivating a critical outlook internally even while celebrating the team’s achievements.
- Conducting regular retrospectives and encouraging as well as discussing what went well and the missed opportunities.
- Creating the space for your best, and often proudly self-critical, engineers to not only voice their opinions regarding where your team lacks today, but also taking the necessary steps to address them.
- Revisit your North Star metrics regularly, discuss them with your team, and consider evolving them to match your growing maturity as a team. If you feel you have aced some of them, consider adding or replacing some of these metrics.
- Track the emerging demands of your business and the latest trends in engineering efficiency when coming up with metrics. The overall idea is simple: keeping our eyes open as a team, and keeping ourselves on our toes are good ways to stay grounded.
When you have smart, reliable, and ambitious engineers on your team, they are going to be sought after. The first step is to accept and come to terms with this, right from the outset. This is likely to help avoid scrambling, desperate measures, and panic when the eventuality actually occurs. It is also likely to help one work on proactive steps toward retention. What do they care about the most? How do we offer them the opportunities to get what they care about?
When it comes to informing the team, transparency works best. It is very likely that some part of your team already knows it, and in some cases knows more than you do. Pause to celebrate what this outgoing employee helped achieve, and simultaneously look forward, because the team they are leaving behind needs reassurance to continue investing in their careers and a good part of their lives for each other.
Be an enabler
In conclusion, I would say that the shining role of a leader is that of an enabler. The leader empowers her/his team in a way that makes them realize their full potential and do things they thought were beyond them. This the leader does by staying in touch with the prevailing sentiment of the team, appreciating their own roles in defining the culture of the team, and responding to each situation in tune with the emotional state and culture of this team, to the point where the team entrusts their individual energies and futures to each other.
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