The one mistake most new engineering leaders make

When I work with engineers who have decided to begin managing people, there are a few opportunity areas I look out for that I see time and again. New managers make mistakes, just like anyone does when they are learning a new skill, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is one mistake that is by far the most common and it can be one of the hardest to learn when you’re new to it.

Ironically, avoiding this mistake is a lot easier than making it, but we make it anyway because it feels psychologically safer and easier than changing our behavior.

What I’m talking about is delegation.

When you’re first asked to manage and to lead, very often your intuitive response is to keep doing what you are already doing and to let the people who report into you do the same. in the vast majority of cases, this is a huge mistake.

You might be thinking, my responsibility is simply to ensure that things are done correctly, and you’re not wrong about that, ensuring that work is done correctly is one responsibility of a manager. But you can’t think of success in management the same way that you think about success as an individual contributor. You have many more responsibilities than just making sure that the team’s output is good.

Ultimately, the team will produce solutions faster and with higher quality if they are happy and engaged with the work. As their manager, you are directly responsible for the team’s happiness and level of engagement.

It follows, then, that you should put the majority of your calories into building a happy and engaged team. How can you do that if you’re neck-deep in active software development all the time?

OK. Time out. I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking that engineering management is a dual role, that you can manage the team and contribute directly, and once again you’re not wrong.

The balance between generating value as a direct contributor and as a leader, motivator, sounding board, architect, shoulder to cry on, and whatever else your team needs at any given moment, is a flexible one. Some leaders contribute more than others, and it may even change day by day.

That said, there is no engineering manager in the world who never has to delegate work.

So, how do you do it?

I call these the Three Rules of Letting Go. Once you internalize these three rules, you’ll be all set to create an ambitious and exciting path forward for your team, give them opportunities to advance their careers, find fulfillment in their jobs, and success for the business.

  1. Assign

  2. Verify

  3. Recognize

The first step (as always tends to be the case) is the hardest. Based on your team’s capacity, priorities, individual goals, and so on, select a task that you would otherwise do, and give it to someone else.

Depending on the circumstances, you may find it necessary to have a brief “kick-off” conversation about the task. As a manager, it’s important that you’re always completely transparent about your expectations. Walk the team member through the objective of the task, and, if necessary, provide some guidance on implementation.

Once the task is complete (or nearly complete), it is time to evaluate the work. This is the verification step. It doesn’t make sense to “toss work over the wall” without a care for how it’s done. Check in to see if it’s going the way you expect, and give concrete feedback. It’s very important for you to focus on whether the work meets the requirements and refrain from critiquing an approach that works just because it isn’t the way you would do it. Different approaches and ideas make teams stronger.

Finally, assuming that everything ended up working out in the end, don’t fail to recognize your team member for stepping up and getting it done. How you do this will depend on your company and team’s culture and your own preferences. It could be as simple as saying “good job” or as dramatic as an announcement in a larger meeting (bear in mind that different people have different preferences for how they like to be recognized, but that’s a topic for another day).

Trust me, the sooner you can adopt and adapt the Three Rules of Letting Go, your team is going to rocket to the next level.