November 2, 2020

Mentoring First-Time Managers

Transitioning from a software engineering position to a managerial one can be quite a leap. The roles are drastically different from one another, and without mentors, it can be a daunting task. It's our job as engineering leaders help new managers navigate the change. This article offers a few practical tips you can follow to help new engineering managers succeed.

Whenever I start coaching new managers, the first thing I do is set up a recurring time to meet, talk about progress, and provide feedback. Similar to the 1:1s I do with team members, I keep track of these conversations in a shared document. This gives us a place where we can record our progress and assign action items to each other. During these 1:1s, I tend to focus on the areas detailed below.

Preparing for 1:1s

One of the first tasks a new manager will undertake is to hold regular 1:1s with their team members. For most people it will be the first time they sat on the other side of the table. I believe 1:1s are the most important meetings I have during the week, as they allow me to build connections with team members. I find it essential that we prepare first-time managers for their first 1:1s.

As part of this exercise, we examine what the first few 1:1s might include, and how they can best prepare. I ask them to think about their questions their team members are most likely to ask:

  • What are your expectations for me?
  • What's your vision for the team?

New managers should also prepare a few questions for their team members, on topics like their preferred way to receive praise, or their preferred way to communicate:

  • How do you like to receive recognition? Are you okay with occasional public praise?
  • How do you prefer to receive critical feedback?
  • Do you have any clear career goals I can help you achieve?
  • What's one thing you really liked and disliked about your work relationship with your previous manager?

It helps build an honest relationship between first-time managers and their team members if the manager acknowledges in their first 1:1s that she is new to management, and may need some help growing into the position. This small act contributes to healthy feedback culture within the team.

Start a reading club

"Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself," as the saying goes. I believe reading about management can accelerate one's journey into becoming comfortable at it, especially for understanding how things can go wrong.

I recommend picking a book on management and studying it with your mentee. You can meet when you’ve both had the time to read the next chapter and discuss it in depth. Ask your mentee to summarize the takeaways from that chapter, and bring questions they want to discuss. Also, prepare a few questions about what was most important for you in that chapter.

I usually go with The Manager's Path by Camille Fournier.

Start slowly

If possible, let new managers start with a handful of people.

First, this gives them the opportunity to transition slowly from their role as an individual contributor to a manager, and give them a chance to continue writing code as an engineering manager. However, it's important to emphasize it's no longer their primary role, so it can’t take precedence over their managing responsibilities.

Starting slowly also gives new engineering managers time to learn their duties. They'll have a better sense of how to prioritize their time once they’ve seen a few product planning cycles and performance and promotion seasons.

Be patient

Remember all the mistakes you made as a new manager? I can certainly remember mine. For more seasoned engineering managers, some tasks may appear straightforward. You should always try to put yourself in the first-time manager's shoes, though. They’ll probably need guidance on how to handle performance reviews or engage in hard conversations.

We all make mistakes, especially when we start a new position. It’s okay to cut them some slack in the beginning, provide timely feedback and guidance, and help them grow.

Give them an out

Not everyone finds joy in management, so it's important to give new managers an out if they want to transition back to software engineering. Be clear about this upfront, so first-time managers don't feel pressured to continue in a role that's not a good fit, which would only hurt the team in the long-term or cause them to leave your company altogether.

Instead, let them transition back to an individual contributor role if that’s where they are most effective.

Further reading

This article only scratches the surface of how we can help first-time managers succeed. For more on the topic, check out the books The Manager's Path by Camille Fournier and The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo.

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