Can engineers change company culture?

November 24, 2020

Over the last three weeks, I had the opportunity to talk with a few dozen senior engineering leaders about the challenges they face in leading people and teams. Of course, we spent time talking about the extra challenges of the pandemic, but our conversations largely focused on struggles that were there before. In short, what all these conversations confirmed is that the pandemic revealed—and accelerated—the leadership trends we’ve been talking about for the last few years.

To lead a team is to develop people: you must do the difficult work of finding what motivates people, encouraging meaningful growth that is connected to a business objective, and being more of a life coach and support system than most managers can imagine.

Here were the most common themes that came up:

“My people are generally pretty good at doing their own work. Where it seems to always fall down is in their ability to see the bigger picture and how their work impacts others along the line. We really struggle with the handoffs.”

Engineers (like most humans) are prone to focus on what’s in front of them. They’re also likely to be thinking a lot more about the perfection of their own work and a lot less about how they talk about that work with others, manage stakeholders, and coach their own team along the way.

“I’m struggling to balance working all the time, especially during COVID-19, with taking breaks. I can feel myself burning out but not sure what to do about it.”

It’s easier than ever to play the superhero to your team, to fill in all the little gaps, and polish up all the work that is good but not great. Each of these superhero actions takes a little bite out of your headspace, making it that much harder for you to turn off your work brain or even free up your work brain for more creative and strategic projects. Each of the leaders I talked with was passionate about their work and projects but wanted more of that headspace for themselves. You can start freeing yourself up by tracking those superhero actions day-to-day.

So let’s start to tackle this in three steps.

Learn to talk about cultural or organizational debt the same way you’d talk about technical debt. Just like with software, we move fast and make choices in the moment that we know will incur a debt we’ll need to pay. In the domain of leadership and culture, those things we skip are the extra conversations, the bit of feedback, the open dialogue to solve a difficult dynamic between people. Think of your team and organization as having a cultural backlog just like your software has a technical one. Put your culture backlog on the board and work through tasks one at a time.

Volunteer to shepherd a leadership development program in your organization. Several of the leaders I spoke with were a notch below the C-Suite. It’s easy to push for change when you’ve got a C in your title and it’s a bit harder when you don’t. Nevertheless, any CEO (let alone Chief People Officer) would tell you that they would be thrilled for an engineering leader to step forward and say: “I’m passionate about leadership development and I see big opportunities for us to improve across the organization; how can I help lead that change here?”

Work on becoming More Yoda, Less Superhero. Open up a Google Doc or get a piece of scratch paper. As you go through your day, make an effort to notice moments where you subtly pick up or redirect the work of others. It could be sitting in on a meeting that someone on your team should be able to facilitate without you. It could be picking up a piece of work and polishing it up to make it customer ready. It could be spending a lot of time talking with two people individually who should be talking with each other about their differences. Don’t worry about changing your behavior yet, start by becoming more aware of your current behavior. That’s the first step. Spoiler alert: underneath each of those things you are picking up is a clue to that person’s most actionable growth theme.

If you want to learn how to embody these concepts, check out Refound Academy. Our 2-week video course focuses on Good Authority’s Accountability Dial, giving you the skills to enable a culture shift that welcomes feedback and growth.

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