There has been a lot written about the various ways to structure communication within an engineering team but there is very little written about how to facilitate communication across higher levels of an engineering organization. That is, what types of communication touchpoints should you be building as a Director of Engineering or as a VP of Engineering?
Now, first you might ask why it is important to think about and put together a thoughtful plan for communication within your broader engineering team. Plenty of companies get by just fine without regular and holistic communication from upper level management. The reason why I think this is a mistake is outlined in "5 Bad Habits of Engineering Directors" under "Distant Orbit". In a nutshell, ignoring this aspect of your role can lead to your team members feeling adrift and isolated from you, which means that they will not clearly understand your role within the company. This lack of understanding means that your team members won't know how to ask you for assistance and also won't know what information would be valuable for you to know. In the extreme, this also can lead to a mismatch in expectations around what is important to the company as a whole and how your teams can provide the biggest impact.
In contrast, effective and consistent communication from an executive can create a shared sense of identity, purpose, and cohesiveness within a team. You become more approachable and more trustworthy as a leader. This trust manifests in increased sharing of high-value information to you as well as a reduction in complaints or misunderstandings. Teams will gain a broader understanding of the role they play within the company as a whole, which not only leads to higher job satisfaction but also a higher chance that the team delivers features and products that have a positive impact to the company bottom-line.
When thinking about what communication that you would want to provide for your team, it can be invaluable to first consider the different categories of information you might wish to convey. Here are a few of the highest impact topics for you to consider. Deciding on the topic that you wish to cover can help you determine the right frequency and venue to deliver this content.
This communication topic is likely one of the first to come to mind, however it is very easy to think that the standard company-wide communication from the CEO / President / C-suite is sufficient. This can be a big mistake and can mean that you are missing out on a massive amount of communication leverage. As a Director of Engineering / VP of Engineering, you are in a privileged position of understanding broad company context while at the same time knowing with much more specificity the goals and impact (potential or realized) of the individual teams within your organization. This means that you can provide a more nuanced and targeted version of the company vision to your teams. This will not only increase clarity and focus, but also can bring more energy and excitement to your team as well. You should be regularly repeating and reinforcing the top-level company vision to your team, with a focus on augmenting and highlighting the message to best resonate with your specific teams.
What You Are Working On
Once you move into a manager of managers position, the type of "projects" that you are working on tend to become more and more abstract. You likely aren't working directly to deliver products or features anymore. Instead you might be working on improving the mechanics of the organization or company, ensuring a cohesive and focused near-term strategy, determining priority of projects and tracking mechanisms, among other things. Because many of these tasks are either abstract, ongoing, or both, it can be easy to discount the need to discuss with your team exactly what you are focused on delivering and why those things are important. If your team doesn't know what you are working on, then they won't have to opportunity to know what valuable information they might have to provide to you, and in the case where the deliverables have high emotional importance to some people, they might feel cut out of the decision-making process entirely.
Positive Feedback Loop
With the constant need to build new features, deliver new products, and capture new customers, it is very easy for engineering teams to fall into the "feature factory" trap. That is, engineers feel like they are stuck on the hamster wheel of constant delivery. This can very quickly suck the excitement and drive out of your team. Part of the problem is often that the focus is always on what needs to be done or what isn't finished yet, and very little time is spent on the benefit and positive impact of what was delivered in the past. Carving out regular time to provide information on the positive impact of previously delivered products and features is a perfect way of combining celebration alongside broader context sharing. This can be a key way that you can provide valuable context from teams such as Sales, Customer Support, Marketing and more.
As an executive, it can be easy to discount the value of opening yourself up to questions and feedback from your team. If your communication is always a one-way flow from you to your team, it is likely that you are missing out on valuable context as well as not building a high-trust organization. Creating the space to allow members of your organization to tell you what is on their mind as well as to answer any questions they might have is a wonderful way to show that you value the input of those on your team.
Equally as important as being thoughtful about the topics you wish to communicate is determining the appropriate type of communication venue for each message.
Weekly All Team Meeting
A weekly team or organization meeting is a great way to allow various people to share information with each other. It is likely that you, as the executive, shouldn't be dominating this meeting but this can be a great venue for you to regularly reserve some time to share information. Making your presence as a speaker common but not expected is a great balance.
Weekly Managers Meeting
If you have multiple managers reporting to you, it can be valuable to have a weekly meeting for this management "team". Again, the primary communication should be the managers themselves but this is still a great option for you to spread valuable information at the manager level.
Team "All Hands"
If your organization has grown to the size where information between all of your teams doesn't naturally flow on a weekly basis, you might consider having a monthly or quarterly "All Hands" meeting for your teams specifically. In this type of meeting you should always have something to share with your team, but the teams themselves should also share with everyone else. Picking one or two of the Communication Topics for you to share with your team during this type of meeting would be ideal.
Sometimes it can be challenging to get the right amount of interaction from your team to answer their questions if it's a subset of a larger meeting. If you are hearing that there are people with questions for you or that want to provide feedback to you, then scheduling a specific AMA (Ask Me Anything) meeting and providing a mechanism for people to provide truly anonymous questions can mitigate this issue.
Within Company All Hands
Most companies these days hold Company All Hands meetings on some regular cadence. This can be a great avenue to share information not just to your team but to the broader company as a whole. Depending on the content, this can provide your team extra satisfaction if the information shared is highlighting their work in a positive way. This can be a particularly impactful way to share Positive Feedback Loop information.
As an executive, communication to your team is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal to provide inspiration, direction and overall vision to your teams. The feeling of connection and identity that can be built by thoughtful and respectful communication can be the difference between building a powerhouse team that delivers well vs a set of individually adrift engineers working at odds with the company vision. Hopefully this article provides you with some ideas and inspiration for how you can create effortless and high-impact communication with your teams.