Leadership Tips I Wish My Younger Self Knew

A little over 18 months ago, I was given a fantastic opportunity to become a manager for the first time, and the that time I have undoubtedly learned more about myself than in the previous decade as an engineer.

I’ve written this mainly to serve as a “letter to myself”, but if any of the tips here resonate with you in any way, or if you have any advice of your own - as a manager, engineer or tech lead - please feel free to reach out!

Prepare For the Productivity Crash!

With any new role on the career ladder, there is an inherent pressure to continue the successes that got you this far - whether it’s moving from a mid-level to senior role, or from contributor to team lead.

This is even more prevalent in a transition from a technical contributor to a leadership role. Although it still has relevance, the skill-set you relied to propel you into senior technical roles is not front-and-centre and a whole heap of brand new skills are now heading towards you at Warp Factor 10.

The process of learning is messy! Finding and curating a supportive environment and line management relationship is a key element of both becoming a new leader and building all-important confidence in your new skills.

The learning ramp may be shallow, or it may be vertical, but this must unquestionably be based on trust and an understanding that mistakes will happen occasionally, clangers will be dropped from time to time, and on rare occasions, brown stuff will come into contact with fans. As a new leader, support and understanding from your own management and just as importantly, from your management peers, is absolutely paramount.

You’re starting a brand new chapter. Learning will take time, and that’s OK! Ask silly questions, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Take Time For You!

This particular point is an issue which is not strictly limited to leadership roles, however the trait of overwork is prevalent in new managers due to the inherent tendency to over-compensate for lack of knowledge with intensity and desire.

Perhaps due to the core task of supporting others (“you are the manager, therefore the buck stops with you”) or being a point of contact for others outside of the team (“you’re the manager, therefore you must know everything”), new managers are more likely than seasoned leaders to fall into this particular trap.

Often the problems you face as a manager are complex by nature - herding a project to completion across multiple disciplines, coaching a team on navigating a particularly tight deadline, or grappling with planning for the future as if you have your very own crystal ball.

This complexity doesn’t make these problems any more or less taxing than writing project documentation or fixing a code regression, and crucially it doesn’t mean that leaders are any more capable than non-leaders of performing miracles or operating at extremes outside of their comfort zone for any useful period.

Overwork and risk of burnout is one of the most dangerous spirals to fall into and can have disastrous consequences if left unchecked. Stepping into leadership should not mean that you have less need to decompress, take time out or switch off.

Managers are not superheroes, and downtime is precious. Take it, and don’t feel guilty about it.

No Experience != No Confidence

When starting in any new role, there is the inevitable “adjustment phase” of getting your feet wet and being in unfamiliar situations. As an engineer, I have been in that position countless times - learning new technology, experimenting with different approaches, writing new code in unfamiliar environments with their own quirks and oddities.

However the jump into leadership is a different animal, even if you transition inside the same company or even the same team. In the latter scenario, shaking the spectre of your previous role as a technical leader can quickly become problematic.

As a leader, previous technical experience can be less useful in practical terms, and that can quickly become daunting - especially in a melee of “this needs to be done yesterday” projects and the shifting sands of ad-hoc priority changes. All of a sudden, instincts start being doubted and before you know it, you end up being swept along because “you’re a new manager” and “you’re still learning your new role” - your job as a manager is often to structure the unstructured, and chart a course through the fog.

This issue is a particularly sticky one to navigate, and involves understanding, trust and faith from your own leaders, as well as a little retrospecting and self-belief. Confidence develops with experience, and a new manager’s opinion is no less valuable - often fresh eyes are exactly what is required.

Even if you don’t have experience in management, your knowledge is still relevant. If you have an idea, speak up!

Know When To Listen!

As an engineer, I have had many opinions (some may say too many) on how things should be set up, what the structure should be and how the end result should look in order for it to be completed on time and in a sustainable, efficient and performant way.

Moving into a leadership role, your place in that workflow changes, sometimes so subtly that you don’t notice. Not listening, or - worse - not providing an open forum for contributions to be appreciated is going to irk those around you.

Contributors tend to do their best work when they feel that they have enough lateral space to get the work done, so leadership should always strive to make that happen - and that means providing an atmosphere where all have an equal opportunity for expressing opinions, thoughts, concerns or ideas - be it in team meetings, project breakdowns or individual catch-ups.

It’s a difficult balance, and one that I struggle to strike at times, and I apologise to all of my colleagues I have bored to tears with my “long story short …” monologues!

Remember to use the mute button!

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