How leaders can support high-performing engineering teams

Consider this real-world advice on supporting your team, building support for organizational change – and growing as a leader
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The foundation of being a good engineering manager is getting to know your teammates and understanding what is important to them. As we explored in part one of this article, you can use several strategies to build trust on engineering teams, from asking questions to career sponsorship. 

How do you go further and build support for organizational change?

High-performing teams need three essential elements:

  • Psychological safety: Team members must feel confident and free to express work-related thoughts and feelings without fear of rejection. They should also not be afraid to make mistakes or ask for help.
  • Structure and clarity: Everyone on the team should understand expectations, goals, and accountability.
  • Meaning and impact: High-performing teams find a sense of purpose in their work, and they know that their work has an impact.

Fortunately, these needs align neatly with what performance coach and trainer Paloma Medina calls the BICEPS model - representing six core needs of human beings: Belonging, improvement, choice, equality, predictability, and significance.

5 ways leaders can set the stage 

All six of those core human needs have an impact at the team level as well. Understanding and responding to your team members’ motivations creates the basis for them to express themselves – and provides the structure, meaning, and impact they need.

1. Build trust. The first step in creating structure is building relationships. At CircleCI, for example, we’ve built structures such as regular pair programming rotations and engineering talks to help our distributed teams do that.

2. Structure around how you collaborate. As our engineering department has expanded, we’ve moved to a more streamlined engineering delivery process. But each team decides how to implement day-to-day processes such as daily standup meetings, planning sessions, or collaboration. Every team has specific needs, and they know how to best address them.

3. Remove blockers. We all know how frustrating it is to be stuck. Building pathways – for example, setting up regular pair programming rotations, investing in self-serve information access, supporting each other across teams, and establishing knowledge-sharing – can help keep things moving forward.

4. Continuously improve. Use retrospectives to discuss and improve how your teams work together. Blameless postmortems are also a great tool to help understand problems and drive solutions. Code reviews, mentoring, and knowledge-sharing can help team members learn from each other.

How you talk about learning – especially the way you discuss mistakes – matters. These decisions will fundamentally shape the culture of your teams and determine whether people feel safe or threatened in their core needs.

5. Drive toward alignment. Communicate strategy, direction, and relevant tactical details to your teams – and remember that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate these details. Always repeat what’s important.

How to support organizational change

By creating an environment in which engineers can thrive, you are also supporting your organization. Use your power as a manager to drive organizational change, no matter the size of your businesses.

To be effective as a manager, you must constantly strive to improve the larger structure.

Advocate for change. To be effective as a manager, you must constantly strive to improve the larger structure. For example, you may need to advocate for more clarity around the engineering manager role by having conversations about what engineering management should look like in your company, and determining clear requirements for hiring engineering managers.

Manage up. Managing your own manager can be difficult, but it’s a useful skill. Driving organizational change also means making sure that your engineers have a voice and that their concerns are heard at the highest levels.

Build frameworks and standards. It is always important to make room for individual needs, but these structures and frameworks also help keep managers accountable. They also help level the playing field and encourage equality for the people on our teams.

Every quarter my team picks some high-priority projects to improve how we work as an organization. Most recently, we’ve worked on our hiring process and incident remediation, for example, and last year we developed an internal career growth framework for engineers.

Growing as a leader

Becoming a great engineering manager isn’t necessarily a straight path. It also depends on where you are in your career and where you are looking to go; the growth stage, size, and needs of your organization; and other factors.

An overarching theme in my engineering management career has been growth and improvement. We rarely deal with greenfield projects, nor are we able to build teams or departments from scratch. I believe our role primarily involves supporting engineers as they grow and learn and helping organizations become better.

Engineering managers frequently face questions that don’t have clear answers. Many years ago, my leadership coach encouraged me to use these uncertain situations to ask myself, “What kind of leader do I want to be?”

Work on shaping your approach to engineering management. Get to know the people you work with and use feedback to help them course-correct as needed. Build teams that are psychologically safe and that offer members a shared purpose.

Finally, use your power and privilege to drive change in your organization. Make people the center and focus of your work and build on that foundation to create an environment in which they can thrive. Always push to continuously improve. Lead with humbleness, empathy, and lots of curiosity.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Lena Reinhard is the VP of Product Engineering at CircleCI, the leader in continuous integration and delivery for developer teams. After a career in finance, arts, and media, Lena found herself working in tech, and at age 26 cofounded her first software company and became a CEO.