Being an engineering manager and a coach

TLDR: Listen to people and have good intentions. Read time ~ 6 mins

For anyone who’s spent five minutes trying to understand me, they know that my purpose is to grow myself to grow others. My path in the last few years seems to have been driven by a deep need to understand how to be a better coach, so I’ve captured some of my thoughts from that journey from both successes and failures. I’m not expecting any of this to be ground-breaking, but hopefully it does encourage a few managers particularly in the digital sector to have better coaching conversations with your team (If you want to find out the fundamentals about being a coach as an engineering manager from a better writer than me, check this out).

I’ve written this post from the perspective of an engineering manager, but most of these observations could easily relate to any manager who wants to be more of a coach.

Start with understanding your coachee’s values and purpose

I’m assuming here that you’ve already built up some basic rapport with your team member, the next step is truly understanding their values and purpose. I’ve already written about this in a previous post with a good practical exercise to do this. If you haven’t figured out your own values, do this exercise yourself first. Understanding others’ values and intrinsic motivations leads to empathy, a key skill in coaching. Empathy leads to objectivity, trust, and a quicker path to goal resolution.

I notice that engineers in my experience are reluctant to spend a lot of time digging into themselves like this. This may be because of more common analytical and logical thought processes that go on in engineers. During a team building exercise, I once heard an engineer interrogate the facilitator’s fundamental understanding of neuroscience, missing the irony that the psychometric test proposed that overanalysis was a team weakness.

Whatever the reason, persist with good intentions. Performance, behaviour and beliefs usually stem from these values and builds a solid base for the following points.

Coaching only works if people want to be coached

That’s not an excuse to avoid coaching conversations. If you’ve done the work to discover what people value, most of them can be coached – even if it’s to save their job. But hire for a growth mindset and coachability and it will be so much easier. I’m not a fan of hiring top tech talent if they’re not able to handle feedback.

With those team members that don’t want to be coached, your job then is to actively listen, with compassion, empathy, and consistency, to find out why that is. Do they feel like they’ve peaked and don’t need help? Are they sceptical of the process? Is there not enough trust there in the relationship? 

Dr Ron Westrum categorises organisational cultures into pathological, bureaucratic and generative, made popular in the digital industry by the book Accelerate and the work by DORA which discusses how important this is to create high trust, fast-flow environments. Thankfully I’ve not worked in a pathological culture, but what I can tell you having worked in bureaucratic ones is that engineers seem to be reluctant to accept their manager as a coach. This could be because their managers have climbed through the tech tree and found no other way to progress other than management (you don’t need me to tell you why this doesn’t always end well), or simply that the culture puts more emphasis on managers to favour product over people. Either way, the best way to break down that barrier is a consistent attitude to a coaching approach, trust, and time.

Westrum’s typology of organisational culture, “Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and Devops: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations”, Nicole Forsgren, Jezz Humble

It’s worth mentioning that as a manager, you can’t solve everything with a coaching approach. Knowing when to make something a coaching conversation, and when not to, can be a tricky business.

Know when something is not a coaching conversation

It is a fine balance being both a coach and a manager. A good coaching relationship is based on a sense of equality, and as autonomous as I like to feel my teams are, being a manager means there’s a power dynamic there that makes equality tricky (this article has an interesting take on managing those power dynamics). You may find a scenario where you are helping someone on an improvement plan, which by design does not facilitate impartiality. Coaching techniques should still be used (active listening, empathy, evaluating options with pros and cons, accountability), but be very aware that sometimes the agenda is necessarily yours, not theirs.

There are times when it’s just not a good idea to try a coaching approach. 

  1. When you have the definitive answer, and they don’t. See, “How do I put a support ticket in to IT?”, “Where do we keep the project repositories?”. Trying a coaching approach here gets annoying very quickly.
  2. When they don’t have context, and you do. When I’m coaching someone outside of the work environment, a coachee definitely has more context about their problem than me. But employees will often not be able to come up with good solutions if they don’t have the same business context as you do as a manager. See, “What am I supposed to work on if I don’t know the roadmap?”, “What technology should I learn next?”.

Other than these, try to look everywhere for the opportunity to make interactions with your team a coaching conversation, and provide early and candid feedback as often as possible (see Kim Scott’s excellent book Radical Candor).

Ensure actions and accountability

This goes for any coaching programme, but it’s so easy to slip out of the habit as a manager. Any good coaching conversation, particularly in a structured format (such as a 121 or an appraisal) must result in actions for the employee, accountable to the employee, and preferably set wholly by the employee.

A trigger for me is when someone says “Yeah, I should actually do X about that.” Especially if there’s a strong degree of trust, it’s all too easy for both parties to be satisfied that this is the end of it, both genuinely believing that this will happen at some point in the future when the dust settles and the next big feature’s over the line. Well, there are always more features, and expecting the dust to settle is like expecting a magic supercoding ninja to swoop in and clear all your technical debt for you. 

Try creating a new habit. When you hear the “I should”, instead of assuming it will happen, create accountability by asking questions like “Will you?”, “When will you?”, “Is that all you need to do?”, “How would you feel if you completed that sooner rather than later?”.

Coaching the individual by coaching the team

If coaching an individual isn’t getting the desired outcomes, coaching the team as a whole can encourage a positive attitude in the individual and reach the same outcomes. Human beings are social animals, and desire acceptance and validation from the troop (“The Chimp Paradox” is a really fun book that explores tribe mentality and is essential reading for coaches). If you coach the behaviours in others, eliminating the validation of negative behaviours from the rest of the team, you instantly create an environment where the undesired behaviour is not accepted within this troop and thus seek other forms of acceptance. Or, of course, they find another troop.

Summary

The key in trying the coaching approach as a manager is persistence. Sure – adapt, learn, try new things, ask different questions – but the gold comes only after a long period of truly trying to understand others and genuinely wanting them to be their best self. The proudest stories I have in my career are seeing people excel as a result of the actions they have set themselves from coaching conversations. Sometimes the eureka moment with a coachee just happens, when you least expect it, way down the line when something just clicks. It’s a culmination of the small things, the small iterations of listening, questions and actions, that deliver people to greatness.

Resources:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: