Effectively leading software development and engineering teams is part art and part science. It’s the art of creating a culture of engaged employees in an environment where they feel psychologically safe— and the science of ensuring projects are on track and aligned with company goals. Getting the balance right is critical, as engineering teams play a vital role in company success and customer satisfaction.
I have had the opportunity and honor to lead a high-performing engineering team over the last several years, and have learned a lot about what it takes to inspire creativity, comradery, and delivery among a diverse team. Here are a few leadership pillars that I have come to rely on to help build thriving engineering teams and inspire the next wave of up-and-coming leaders.
1. Foster a blameless culture that promotes accountability
A culture of blame negatively impacts employee confidence, motivation, and productivity and stifles learning. Blame generates fear of making mistakes which prevent people from learning from them. Where there is no learning, there is no improvement. Blame also creates an atmosphere of distrust and sabotages psychological safety in the workplace.
Moving from blame to promoting a culture of accountability where team members take responsibility for outcomes, whether positive or negative, creates trust and psychological safety. A culture of accountability keeps the focus on performing responsibilities and tasks and views errors and mistakes as opportunities for constructive problem-solving that facilitates learning and growth.
2. Lead with context over control
Effective engineering team leaders lead with context over control. When people are given enough context, they are more likely to learn and become better at what they do, and they are more likely to creatively solve problems to achieve better outcomes.
Leaders need to clearly communicate the linkage between what engineers are doing, what the company wants to achieve, and the impact of the project on meeting customer requirements and needs. The idea is to provide context on the project which creates visibility into the problem customers are experiencing, why it’s important, and the outcomes needed. In this way, engineers achieve a better understanding of what business success and customer success look like and how they align and intersect with what engineers are building.
Providing this context essentially connects engineers back to the purpose of what they are working on and ensures they are not just the people sandwiched in the middle building things but actually part of the solution. This leadership approach also helps engineers feel less isolated and better connected to the company.
Context over control also increases autonomy. When engineers understand company strategy, vision, and mission they are empowered to do their jobs and make better decisions without micromanagement from leadership.
3. Provide transparency in the career ladder
While employees know it is their responsibility to look after their careers, many don’t feel they have visibility into available opportunities and feel that it is their leader’s responsibility to ensure there is transparency when it comes to growth opportunities.
A survey by people management platform Lattice of more than 2,000 employees at mid-to-large companies in the United States, found that 29% of employees surveyed said they didn’t have a clear view of the career progression opportunities within their company, and of that 29%, close to 40% blame that lacks transparency on their company.
Amid trends like the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting, it is critical for engineering team leaders to keep employees engaged by providing clear visibility into the skills, competencies, and experience needed for career progression at the company. Being transparent about growth opportunities and being transparent about how the company can support this growth positively impacts employee satisfaction and retention.
4. Understand the importance of the release process
Understanding the economics of software engineering is about the release process. Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CICD) is the most important part of the process because everything else backs up behind it up.
Leaders need to understand the faster they can get software out there, the faster they can react and learn from it. The tighter and smaller the feedback loop is, the easier it is going to be to react more quickly than the competition.
When the release process goes off track, frustration builds, and an unsettling feeling of holding onto risk without validation sets in. When people are scared and frustrated, this perpetuates the situation and prevents engineering teams from getting feedback from customers so critical for adapting to changing customer requirements and needs.
Leaders can help their engineering teams expedite the release process by establishing agile workflow development practices like Kanban or Scrum. The methodology should be different for every company depending on economic factors, corporate culture, and the way teams are built. The bottom line for leaders is to adopt a process that best works for their company to streamline the development process, deliver software faster, and decrease organizational risk.
5. Make informed decisions
Making informed decisions is a critical part of effective leadership. In decision-making, leaders must achieve a balance between trying to reach a consensus and complete dictatorship. Informed decisions come with knowing that enough information has been gathered and enough members of the team are given the chance to weigh in before a decision is made.
Leaders should understand that decisions are not about everyone agreeing. Consensus can be difficult to reach in small groups and nearly impossible to reach in large groups. Holding off on decision-making until consensus is reached means that decisions are delayed or not made at all. The delayed decision or no decision causes the organization to lose valuable time, negatively impacts productivity, disrupts innovation, and weakens competitive advantage.
Making informed decisions is not about making everyone happy. It’s knowing that enough relevant information has been gathered and diverse thoughts and opinions are heard. This approach to decision-making improves the quality of decisions, drives innovation, and helps the team succeed.
While leading engineering teams isn’t exactly rocket science, it does require the art and science of fostering a culture of accountability, while also supporting your team to grow through the process. This approach helps engineering teams succeed in driving continuous innovation and improvement in software delivery to support your company’s vision, mission, and goals.