Leadership Reserves

I’ve discussed in the past the problem of having too many contenders for every new managerial position. At some companies, it can feel like every single person is just waiting to get into management, to the point where managers are afraid of asking their employees about their wishes so as not to trigger another person being “added to the queue.” Other companies seem to suffer from the complete opposite: there are no suitable candidates for promotion. Some might be interested, but leadership finds them not ready yet or incompatible.

When it comes to leading an engineering organization, especially one that is actively growing, one of your most important long-term objectives is to ensure that you have a solid and capable management team that grows along with the rest of the team. What should you do if that is not the case?

Let’s say that you have been managing your organization for a couple of years and some (or all) of these are true:

  • Virtually none of your engineers are a good fit to promote to management (or you do not believe your team leaders are capable of leveling up and managing managers).
  • Your existing managers are average or worse. Some might go so far as to request lowering the amount of managerial work they do or go back to being engineers altogether.
  • The move to management requires quite a leap in responsibility and leadership, so much that it seems like there’s a chasm that essentially no one can cross.

These are not my descriptions, but words I hear over and over from clients. If you can relate, I will say a harsh truth: your organization is unique, but just as you can find engineers like any other company, so should you be able to have more “managerial material” like others. Trying to debug this, there’s a common pattern that I come across. If dozens of engineers are not good enough, what do they all have in common? Often, the answer is their managers (i.e., you).

Your Role in Cultivating Leaders

If your management bench is weak or inexistent, whose fault is it really? Who hired the team? Who has been coaching them since they were brought on? Who is motivating them and acting as their role model?

Merely expecting that the right people will appear out of thin air as if your offices were the primordial soup of management, is wishful thinking. Promoting people to management without due process, only to later be disappointed, is a bad case of spontaneous human induction.

Even if you initially became a manager without a lot of pomp and circumstance, it does not mean that you should be expecting the same to happen for you. First, you should actively work to set up your new managers to succeed. However, when it comes to creating your bench, you should accept that you will be far more likely to have capable candidates if you invest in creating them.

It is hard to go into management in an environment that previously limited autonomy and freedom. Create the space for individual contributors to step up and take responsibility right now, so they won’t have to go through it later. You and all your managers should engage in coaching a considerable amount of your time. A rule of thumb is that you should spend about 25% of your time in one-on-ones, and those are primarily about coaching and helping your employees grow, not about work syncs (or you’re doing it wrong).

If your bench is empty, perhaps make it more welcoming and accessible, and a little less like the iron throne.

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