How Companies Are Wasting Their People
“I am sick and tired of chaos with no plan. If we cannot come up with plan soon, I am out of here.”
– An engineer at a large financial services company, in conversation with the author
The best part of my job is listening to admins describe their challenges and how they are going to build better systems using our tools. I love this conversation and being a part of it. It is fun to see the future and feel the optimism of getting better every day. Increasingly, that tone of optimism and change is turning into something else.
I am having more and more calls with admins that are more akin to therapy than planning for the future. I can hear the frustration and pain in their voices. I see skilled teams without leaders and organizations that are not setup for success. The above quote is not an unusual sentiment. People are frustrated and looking for leadership to get to a better place, but too often they are not getting it, which leads to burnout and departures. It is an ugly cycle.
What can enterprises do about this disturbing trend? Will enterprises take action?
Why People and Leadership Matter
This should not need to be said, but people are what makes an enterprise successful. People come up with the ideas, build your product and support your customers. People are the core of every great business – forget this truth at your peril. The difference between great companies and the average is the quality of its people.
Engineers want a leader with a vision for something better and a plan to achieve that vision. People will work hard, really hard to achieve a big vision with a clear plan. It is exciting to have a sense of mission that you are working on, something big and something important. Good leaders frame their work around the big picture of what they are trying to achieve, emphasizing how their vision will benefit the business and its people.
For example, a good senior leader will set a direction to build an observability solution, laying out how this solution will drive business results with an emphasis on:
- Lowering customer downtime through faster fault detection
- Results with fewer bridges
- Less work/stress for the on-call team
The stretch goal is to detect incidents before they become outages, and not have bridges at all!
The leader gave a clear direction to his direct reports to support this vision and allocate time to push the vision forward. The leader lets everyone know this is not a project, but a sustained program to push observability forward as part of standard work to support customer-facing applications.
This is leadership! The leader did it right by doing the following:
- Setting a vision: For the organization that combined a powerful business outcome with an even more powerful appeal to its employees.
- Clarifying the vision: Made it clear the vision was not a project, but a fundamental change to the way work is done at the company.
This is how a good leader sets direction for the organization. Giving your people a vision for the future they can achieve provides a kind of motivation that can drive powerful change.
How to Get Better
Enterprises can get better at providing leadership for their employees. Enterprises can foster a sense of direction and vision, but it takes time and investment and a different way of managing people.
The typical engineering manager was once a talented individual contributor (IC) who stood out for their technical skill. From there, management was the only available career path for most, so now someone with no management experience or training is now the team manager. The organization has now put someone with the wrong skill set in a position to fail instead of succeed.
The new manager will most likely struggle with budget planning and managing people. Budgets and HR are something most ICs never have to deal with, and it is a mystery when they see it up close. Enterprises need a career path for ICs with leadership skills to become managers and for ICs who prefer to stay technical. Career paths should suit each person’s skill set. Companies have to stop punishing everyone by putting the wrong people in leadership positions.
When I became a manager, I was lucky to have supervisors who knew the ends and outs of being a manager. My supervisors valued their teams above all else and understood that spending time helping me become a better manager helped their entire organization. I had to learn how to manage people, how to budget and how to plan.
It was all very new and a shock to me. As a manager, I was now the go-to person when someone on my team had trouble at home, was struggling at work or needed advice. I had to figure out HR processes like promotions and comp and then figure out how to take care of my team. It was very stressful, since I wanted to get my team what they needed and deserved, but I knew I did not know the system. I was worried I could not deliver for my team. I was thankful to have managers who could help me through these processes and get the best possible outcome. It was not easy, but I recognize how lucky I was to have help. Not everyone does.
Three keys to building a successful leadership program:
- Identify future managers: Find managers with the right skill set to be successful. Enterprises can no longer promote their best ICs to managers just because it is the only career path to promotion. Becoming a manager should mean this person has the leadership skills to be successful at their new role. You cannot expect someone to just figure it out as they go along.
- Provide ongoing support and training: Support managers with training and support to be successful. Enterprises must provide support to help managers understand all the processes around compensation, promotions, hiring, budget forecasting and submission. This support is not something that happens once a year, but is happening year round with help on demand when the need arises. Managers need help to be successful.
- Set positive examples: An enterprisewide culture of good management sets the expectation that every leader’s primary job is managing their team. Senior leadership should lead management culture in the organization, and their behavior is reflected across the company. Be consistent in your words and actions; your example is closely watched. The vice president with multiple HR complaints that they think no one knows about communicates your company’s true culture to your people. Lead by example.
The Bottom Line
Successful enterprises invest in leadership to help lead their people to success. Failure to invest results in stressed-out employees who are now, more than ever, going to find somewhere else to work. Good leadership can work wonders, but it requires a consistent process and constant support to find and grow good leaders. Companies have to invest in better leaders. This is the way toward long-term success.