5 Bad Habits of Engineering Directors

It is (hopefully) general knowledge that the job of an Engineering Manager is wholly different from the job of an Engineer. We lament the unfortunate tendency of companies to take their most experienced engineers and promote them into management with the thinking that the skills that led them to be great engineers will automatically transfer into being great engineering managers. We also do the same thing on the transition from Engineering Manager to a manager of managers - at some companies this is a Director title, sometimes this is a Senior Manager, and at smaller startups this might be the VP of Engineering or CTO. To make this article easier to read, from now on I will call the people in these roles "Directors", but know that this applies to you if you are directly managing Engineering Managers in your role.

1. Micromanagement

When you have spent the time and energy to become really good at something, whether that be engineering or engineering management, it can be really hard to watch others do a job and not do it as well. It is very enticing to continue doing parts of the job that you are best at and feel most strongly about. However, the problem arises when these tasks are the tasks of a Manager and not of a Director. If you are spending your time doing these tasks, that means you likely don’t have time to perform your tasks as a Director. More than that, continuing to micromanage your managers in this way robs them of agency as well as the opportunity to learn and grow. By continuing to be over involved, you are preventing your management team from gaining important skills. Instead, as a Director you need to identify the important problems and potential failure modes, explicitly give your managers the task of solving these problems, and provide touch-points and guidance for them along the way. Will this be slower and more prone to error? Yes. But this is the only way that you will have the time to handle Director-level work AND level up your management team at the same time.

2. Distant Orbit

In the corporate world it is common for leaders at the middle and upper levels to spend less and less face-time with the folks at the leaf-edges of the company hierarchy. Some of this is due to the need to spend more time with your Director peers as well as with upper-level leadership. I also believe that there is a tendency in human society for there to be an air of importance / mysticism / implied power to people in important roles that you see only infrequently. It is easy to leverage your new found power as Director to shirk meetings that seem unimportant, and to reduce or cancel meetings with your direct reports and broader team because you are "so busy". This can lead to your team feeling adrift and isolated if they don’t feel a strong connection to the rest of the company through you. This can also lead people to not truly understand what your role is and how they can and should be asking for your assistance. You should be trusting your managers to handle the majority of issues within their team, but your role is to facilitate inter-organizational communication and cooperation. Keeping a strong connection to your entire team, not just your managers, is important to build the relationships needed to ensure your team feels comfortable bringing the right information and the right problems to you. This also requires a level of constant communication from you around what is important to the company, what tasks and projects you are working on, and more.

3. "Protection", aka Hiding Information

Closely related to the previous point is the bad habit of hiding or withholding information from your team because you want to protect them. To be very clear, there are many times when information might come to you that does need to be kept confidential or private. What I am talking about is the type of information that isn’t a secret per se, but that you might feel will cause your management team or your entire organization stress or worry if discussed outright. Oftentimes this type of information is difficult to convey and might cause you some feelings of discomfort as the messenger. You might therefore rationalize that by not conveying this information you are actually helping by not distracting people. However, this is how we treat children, not skilled adults with agency. By withholding this information you are robbing people of a broader context that could be useful for them in performing their roles, as well as missing an opportunity for building increased trust in you as a leader. Instead, lean in to transparency and practice how to convey challenging information in a way that feels both trustworthy and calming to your team. This is what will elevate your ability as a leader of a broader organization.

4. Disavowing Responsibility

One day one of your team members comes to you with a problem and a request for help. This problem exists outside of your direct sphere of control -- perhaps it involves an issue with a team in a different organization, or perhaps it’s an issue that requires assistance or approval from someone much higher in the leadership chain. One of the quickest ways of destroying trust and connection is to reply "I don’t have the power to fix that." In this moment, someone reporting to you has gathered the courage to bring to your attention a problem they haven’t been able to solve by themselves and is asking you for help and you are denying them help. I hear you saying "but that isn’t something I have the authority to fix!" As a Director you are responsible for the well-being and output of your organization. If that means taking a thorny inter-team problem and bringing it to the attention of your peers or your leadership and working with them on a fix, then that is exactly your responsibility. I’m not saying that you can and should always be successful, and you can be truthful with your team members about the potential outcomes and probability of success. But it is your responsibility to take this request seriously and attempt to do something about it.

5. Focusing on the Engineers

As an Engineering Manager, your focus is on the engineers on your team and ensuring that they have everything they need to deliver on projects. When you become a Director, it can be easy to remain in this mindset – after all, the engineers are the ones writing the code, right? However, as a Director, your focus now needs to be on the Engineering Managers on your team and ensuring that they have everything they need for their team to deliver on projects. This seems like a very minor and simple substitution, but in my own career, and talking to many other Engineering Managers, there are many that have felt a distinct lack of mentorship and support in their career as a manager. One of the key differences between the roles of Engineers and Engineering Managers, and also between the Engineering Managers and Directors, is the leverage you have in that role. As an Engineer there is only so much code you can write yourself, but as an Engineering Manager you can help a whole team of engineers more successfully write code. As a Director, one of your strongest leverage points is your ability to help a whole team of Engineering Managers successfully run teams of engineers that write code. If you remain focused on the engineers and their productivity, you are missing out on an order of magnitude of leverage. What does this mean? As a Director you need to become skilled at coaching and mentoring Engineering Managers.

If you are a manager of managers you may see a little of yourself in some of these bullet points. By specifically naming and outlining these anti-patterns my hope is that when you feel the tug to act in one of these ways you can take a pause, think through the implications, and have a few other new ideas in your toolbox for how you might show up for your team instead. For those of you that aspire to this level of leadership, this can give you insight into the differences in roles between direct management and second-order management, as well as some insight into which skills to foster in order to show you have the ability to thrive in an expanded role.