You stroll back to your desk from the coffee machine and before taking your seat, you have a stretch and you look around at your colleagues. Life is pretty good, isn’t it? You’re managing a team. People seem to think that you’re doing a great job. Your staff are a talented, happy bunch and you’ve got an interesting project with autonomy to build it in the language and framework of your choice. What could be better?
Something doesn’t feel quite right. You’ve wanted a stable team in a good company ever since you quit the role that will not be named a year ago, and now you’ve got it.
Still a strange feeling. So what gives?
Well, you’re ambitious and you’re not quite sure where to go from here. Is this it for you as a manager in this company? Will you be standing here on a Thursday four years in the future looking at exactly the same people in the same seats?
A sinking feeling develops.
The department’s headcount for the coming year is meant to stay constant, so you’re not going to be able to dramatically expand your team. What about the promotion angle? Unlikely. It’s pretty crowded at the top of the pyramid. Your boss is the CTO and she isn’t going anywhere any time soon. How can you continue to expand your output, influence and value if you’re stuck where you are? What can you aim for?
It’s a common dilemma. We are no longer patient when it comes to career development. Some considered that the architect Zaha Hadid, who passed away in 2016 at age 66, was “mid career”. Architecting buildings requires a lifetime to be considered a senior expert. Architecting software? Maybe not so much. Technology moves fast and so do promotions. Developers are sometimes grasping for Senior titles not many years after they’ve been legal to drink in the US.
How can we continue to apply ourselves in a way that increases our responsibility, interest and satisfaction in our jobs when we can’t rely on organizational change to hand us that sought-after promotion?
Let’s revisit the equation that Andy Grove coined in High Output Management:
A manager’s output = the output of their organization + the output of the neighboring organizations under their influence.
Reflecting on that expression, how can you increase your output if your team isn’t going to change size and you’re not going to be promoted in the near future?
Well, there are a bunch of ways, but you’ll need to think more laterally, both in terms of exactly what your own output is, and in turn, what you consider your organization to be. If you only consider your organization to be your team, then you’ll be limited. You’ll be tied to the current position that you inhabit in the org chart, and there’s only so much predictable impact that you can have on the future size and structure of the company that you work for.
How can you remain where you are, doing the same role, yet begin to measurably increase your impact? You can consider force multipliers.
What do I mean by force multipliers? There are three broad categories:
- Technical: You can make your technical skills go further. You can mentor others and teach them what you know, or you could be a technical advisor on other projects, offering your advice on design and code review.
- Cultural: You can focus on improving the culture of the department by making it a more engaging and fulfilling place to work.
- Procedural: You can focus on making department-wide processes better, such as the amount of time it takes to ship code to the production environment, or working on improving communication between teams.
For all of these force multipliers, you can decide as to whether you would like to work on them as an individual by setting an example of the change that you wish to see, or you can form working groups with your peers, meeting regularly and broadcasting your progress.
If you’re a manager in the Engineering department, then it’s likely that you have a technical background. Within your team you can spend more time on technical mentoring of junior members of staff. You can do this by sitting down and pair programming with them, always offering to be a sounding board for what they are thinking of building, being keen on sketching out approaches together on paper or whiteboards, and making a concerted effort to do thorough and helpful code review. It may require you to do less coding yourself; instead your output is through others.
You can extend this support outside of the team as well, depending on the time that you have available. If you have sufficient experience of the wider architecture of your application(s) then you can offer your help in the design of new parts of infrastructure, and act as a “networker” who can introduce engineers to each other; hooking an engineer who needs help up with a particular problem with the person you know to be the expert in that domain.
Even better, once you have a skilled team of autonomous engineers you can encourage for them to pick up the same technical mentorship culture with others in the company, effectively multiplying your output by having your mentees do their own mentoring.
Technical force multipliers make your department more skilled.
Are there ways in which you can improve the culture of your department? As we’ve written about previously, culture is sometimes difficult to define. However, what would your department be doing if you were to imagine it with an amazing culture? Would it have regular technical talks from external guests? What about a closer link with the commercial side of the business, creating a heightened sense of hustle? Or perhaps it would have a regular video games night, lunchtime meditation sessions or hack days?
Rather than waiting for your wishes to be executed from from higher up in your organization, why not try and organize them yourself? Lobby around for interest, consult those that should have some say in the matter, and just do it. It’s very unlikely to cause harm.
Could you, perhaps, start working groups for broader cultural themes? As an example, at Brandwatch we have a social working group who arrange fun activities such as movie nights, outings and pub quizzes, and a wellness committee who have budget to fill the office with plants, put on regular company lunches and set up classes such as yoga at lunchtime. You could even start a blog in order to broadcast your culture to the world.
Cultural force multipliers make your company an even better place to work.
What processes are bugging you and your team at the moment? Does it take too long to get code into production? Do code reviews take too long? Is it a pain to find documentation or is your hiring process convoluted? You could lobby support to effect positive change. These kinds of decisions should come from the bottom up rather than being mandated from the top down.
In a previous article I wrote about a management bugs initiative which was a method for raising, assigning accountability and fixing these procedural issues. That is a wholesale method for trying to tackle all manner of issues, but you could start off much smaller. What do your team find frustrating? Do any of the other teams or your peers share the same sentiment? If so, could enough of you get together to start making a difference? A concerted effort can snowball into a movement of people who join together to make things better for everyone.
Procedural force multipliers make work smoother and more efficient.
There’s always more that you can do.
Considering how to multiply your output by forming connections with others outside of your team (and even outside your department) makes you more impactful and valuable to your company. You can improve technical skills, culture and efficiency of process. Doing so introduces you to more people, raises your profile, and pushes you outside of your comfort zone so you can grow.
Go on, have a go.