I previously worked under a manager who excelled at developing engineering talent. He happily welcomed interns and made it a point to challenge them, celebrate them, and offer constructive feedback along their journey.
Working with him, I went from an enthusiastic intern to a confident controls engineer. To this day, I often reflect on his leadership – both his strengths and his areas of growth. Among his notable qualities was his ability to help me build my confidence as an engineer.
In this article, I’ll outline a simple approach to help you empower the engineers on your team to stand on their feet with confidence.
Understand why you should focus on building your team’s trust.
My favorite leadership podcast is HBR coaches real leaders, hosted by the insightful Muriel Wilkins. In one episode, Muriel worked with a director named “Jay”, who wanted to take on a role as a chief information officer (CIO).
He spoke candidly about how his former manager eroded his confidence by being obnoxiously aggressive, expressing no gratitude for his dedication, and failing to provide him with opportunities for professional growth. The lack of recognition for his tireless efforts left Jay lacking the confidence to take on a new position.
My takeaway: When you focus on building your team’s confidence, they become able to perform at their best, position themselves for future opportunities, and propel their careers to new heights. Additionally, this strategic investment allows you to focus on your core responsibilities, such as understanding your team’s metrics, making informed hiring decisions, and brainstorming strategies to help your team deliver on its promises.
Show unwavering support to your team
When your employees feel like you have their back, they are more willing to take calculated risks, make decisions, and ask for help.
I was able to benefit from the support of a manager when I worked at Schneider Electric. While my main responsibility was testing programs, I wanted to move on to writing them from scratch. One day the software team approached me with the opportunity to own a backlog item. Eager to prove myself, I quickly accepted without really considering the complexity of the task. However, as I got deeper into the project, it became clear that I was overwhelmed, but I wasn’t confident enough to ask for help.
Implementation day arrived and I had to put my program into production, integrate it with a third-party application, and test it with another team. Unfortunately, it was a big failure and I felt embarrassed and anxious, fearing my manager’s reaction.
Instead of scolding me, my manager showed me unwavering support. With his gift of gab, he skillfully distracted the other team and redirected their efforts to another system, giving me the time I needed to resolve the issues in my program.
His support gave me the confidence to solve the problems I encountered. I also felt more able to ask for help when I needed it.
To prove that you support your team, here are some concrete steps:
- Actively listen: Pay special attention to your team members during meetings, showing that their opinions and ideas matter.
- Clarify and guide: Help them clarify their thoughts and ideas, helping them tackle challenges effectively.
- Proactively support: offer help when tasks or projects are not progressing; don’t wait for an invitation to help.
Help them build credibility in the organization
Empowering your team to excel often starts with giving them a sense of autonomy and agency, as recommended by “Radical Candor” author Kim Scott. However, operating independently can be difficult, especially for new engineers.
When onboarding a new engineer, you need to meet with them more often and provide clear guidance. My first manager at Amazon was good at this.
One day, a partner team sent an email to my manager and me. They asked us if we could expand the scope of our project. Instead of reacting quickly himself, my manager opted for a different route. He contacted me privately, recognizing this as a learning opportunity.
We decided it would be best to address their request as a separate project, and he asked me to respond. Even though he could have solved it in 30 seconds, he chose to walk me through the situation. This approach allowed me to start gaining credibility within the organization.
Fast forward to today, I use a similar approach during my 1:1s with team members. I guide them then suggest they get involved directly, leaving them the choice. More often than not, they take care of it themselves, which I respect and mark as something to follow up on in our next conversation.
Other ways to help them build credibility:
- Prepare: Be available to help them prepare for a big conversation or presentation.
- Space: Give them the autonomy to have some freedom of action within their area of responsibility, take calculated risks and learn from their mistakes.
- Feedback: Provide candid feedback to help them improve
Provide learning opportunities for your team so they can enrich their toolbox
My jump level manager once told me that everything you learn becomes a new skill or resource that you can add to your toolbox. I’m a lifelong learner, so he didn’t need to convince me to learn new things, but the toolbox reference was unique and stuck with me.
Something I always wanted to add to my toolbox was the ability to present in front of a group. In college, just the thought of public speaking made my heart race. Anxiety set in and I struggled to deliver my speech. I reached a point where a friend was silently motioning for me to slow down as a gentle reminder to calm down.
This anxiety about public speaking has followed me throughout my professional career. I tried to avoid presenting as much as possible and I succeeded.
But when I took a job as an engineering manager, I had to start feeling comfortable speaking to a group. It started small. I first spoke in front of my team.
Then, in January, a watershed moment occurred. My manager asked me to give presentations to my entire department twice a month. Talking to everyone was intimidating, but I saw it as an opportunity to improve my presentation skills.
Over the next eight months, I encountered quite a few stumbles and setbacks in front of my colleagues (including my employees). Yet with each presentation, I learned something new. I persevered and recently my manager congratulated me on my progress.
Here are the takeaways: Your team’s learning opportunities should be tailored to their interests and the skills required for their current roles or future aspirations. Consider investing in specialized training or setting ambitious goals, such as presenting in front of the department, leading a technical initiative, or taking on a new challenge.
Above all, what really matters is allowing your team to expand their skills. With each skill they learn, their confidence grows, which equates to adding valuable tools to their professional toolbox.
Celebrate when they deliver
As you collaborate with your team, you will gradually learn about their backgrounds, their unique experiences and the formidable challenges they have overcome during their careers. This information becomes invaluable when it recognizes their hard work – a crucial step that many tech leaders overlook.
Luckily, I learned the importance of celebrating hard work in college, thanks to a wise professor who added an eighth step to the traditional seven-step troubleshooting process: be proud.
Yet when I landed a full-time engineering position at Schneider, I focused primarily on proving myself and often forgot to be proud of my accomplishments. Fortunately, my manager recognized the importance of recognizing my successes. Their feedback motivated me to tackle complex problems and think innovatively about my team’s challenges.
As a manager, it’s imperative to remember the power of gratitude when your team successfully solves a problem, supports a customer, or lends a helping hand to a colleague. If your company has an appraisal system, adopt it, as it can contribute to your company’s growth and career advancement.
Use the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) framework when offering positive or constructive feedback. Instead of a generic “good job,” offer specifics like “I recognize that you tackled a difficult problem head-on, digging deep to find a solution for our client. Thank you for being so dedicated. This approach validates their achievements and provides actionable insights for continuous improvement.
By focusing on building your team’s trust, you create a culture of appreciation and support and ultimately lead them to huge success within your organization.