Skip to main content

Supporting professional development in 2020

As a manager, I believe my primary role is to create the conditions for my team to do their best work. I'm a proponent of servant leadership. That's become even more important this year, for obvious reasons: we're in the middle of a pandemic that has also had significant economic effects. We're all working remotely (which I've done for over a decade, but is new for this company); we all have significant extra stresses in our lives.

I've always felt that one of the opportunities for smaller startups is to provide stronger professional development. Whereas other, richer companies can provide eye-watering salaries and kombucha on tap, smaller ventures have the ability to provide more flexibility in support of an employee's personal goals. The result can be a level-up in skills and experience that is far in excess of what might be possible in a more rigid organization of thousands of people. By working at very small startups, I've been able to get my hands dirty working in an interdisciplinary way, and I've developed a mindset of action over discussion; I don't think my career would have been possible without this experience. I want to provide that to the people who I support.

There's no great manual for this, although I consider myself to always be learning. Here are some things I've found useful, which I'm putting out as a request for feedback as much as anything else. I'd love to learn what other managers have found useful, and I'd love for thoughts on the techniques I've been using.

I'm a happy user of Range, which helps us plan our days, check in with each other, and understand each other a little bit better. We've found that it also helps to have live standups every day, and we have a tactical meeting every week, but the Range updates are a low-friction, high-empathy way to keep everyone on the same page about the work going on.

The 1:1 has become the most important way for me to support each member of the team. I make sure that I spend time with every engineer on my team; the space is theirs to bring up anything that's important to them, and I've often found myself helping with external factors that might also be affecting their work. I want to support the whole human, and it's often stretched me as a person.

How you show up in this framework is incredibly important. As a servant leader, it's much more about being a coach than, for example, being a teacher or a micromanager. This year, I found Ed Batista's course The Art of Self-Coaching to be really useful; normally it's a part of Stanford's MBA program, but a version was made available to all because of the pandemic. It's helped me formalize some thoughts around growth vs fixed mindsets in particular, as well as be more self-aware about how my own thoughts and feelings affect my team and my work.

They own the agenda. I always start a 1:1 by asking what's top of mind for them. Sometimes, the resulting discussion can take up the whole meeting; occasionally it'll overflow into follow-ons. I'll sometimes prod with questions like "what are you excited about?" and "what are you worried about?", which will reveal topics that hadn't readily risen to the surface.

A while back, I asked everyone to work on a professional development plan. I've seen a lot of development plans that are just about identifying what someone wants to learn, or how someone can improve, without really touching on the "why" of it. Particularly for younger engineers, that might not be something they've thought too deeply about, so I wanted to create a better framework for figuring that out.

Here's a lightly redacted version of the template I came up with. If it's helpful to you, please feel free to adapt and use it (I'm also very interested in feedback). It asks the owner to think about what their mission at their work is - what do they want to achieve over the course of their career? It specifically offers my own mission, as well as another sample mission, as examples. Following this, it asks about their goals - where do they want to be a few years from now? Again, I offer examples, including for myself. And finally, it asks what the tactical next steps are towards getting there. (This is analogous to the mission, vision and strategy of a company.)

That mission and vision might not involve working at the company forever; the colleague might want to found a startup, for example. That's completely okay. The answers to each of these things might not come readily; that's an opportunity for us to work together to figure it out. But once we have some of those answers, particularly to the tactical next steps, I make sure to refer to them during every 1:1. Are we making progress towards these goals together? What else can I do to help?

Finally, I'll sometimes use a feedback exercise I learned at Matter. This is something that's been harder to reproduce while we've all been remote; I'm planning on building a lightweight web tool to support it. But in person, I've found it to be very useful in a variety of situations. The jist is: on 6 Post-Its, you provide feedback for yourself (3 supportive items, 2 things you'd change, and 1 item that reflects how you're feeling about your work), and then you do the same for the other person. Then you provide that feedback for the other person, who has also provided feedback for themselves and for you. Because everyone is being vulnerable and taking care to be mindful of how they express themselves, the exercise results in a kind of radical honesty that's usually hard to achieve at work. It has the power to clear the air, identify opportunities for real growth, and find wins that you might not realize existed. I love it.

You may have noticed that despite being a product and engineering leader, almost none of this is directly to do with product and engineering. I've certainly got opinions on how to, for example, run brainstorms and retros; I've also got opinions on how to think about building software. We often talk about those things in these conversations. But the core of being a manager is about supporting the people you work with. That's more about the touchy-feely human stuff than anything else.

If you have resources, ideas, or feedback on any of the above, I'd love to hear them. I'm always learning, and I could always do better.


Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash