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What Engineering Teams Need From Leaders Right Now



Lena Reinhard reviews skills and tools for engineering managers to help them lead teams successfully, and explore what it means to show up as a leader now.


Lena Reinhard is VP Product Engineering at CircleCI, the leader in continuous integration and delivery for developer teams. In her 15+ year career, she’s been building and scaling high-performing engineering organizations and helping distributed teams succeed, starting with her own startup to corporates and NGOs.

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Reinhard: I want to share with you key lessons that I've learned from building and leading organizations through times of change, uncertainty, and fast growth, and talk about what engineering teams need from leaders right now. Let's talk about right now. Where are you at in this moment? This has been a year for all of us, including for our teams, and many people have gone through difficult times of great hardship. A human core need is choice. We want to have control and autonomy over important parts of our world. We want to be able to make decisions about things that matter to us. The key aim of our brain is survival, and its protective mechanisms keep us alive. They got us to where we are at today. In times like these, what we can control in our environments and lives becomes limited, and with that, one of our core needs is threatened. This leads to increasing unease and stress for many of us and for many people in our teams and organizations. I want to show you frameworks to get out of our brain's desire to focus on what's now, and help you support your teams effectively.

Leadership Horizons

To get us started, I want to look at leadership horizons. The human brain is programmed to narrow its focus in the face of a threat. That's an evolutionary survival mechanism, which is designed for self-protection. The trap is that our field of vision becomes really restricted to the immediate foreground. As leaders, we need to navigate different horizons at all times, though. I want to pull us out of this perspective in the immediate foreground, and think about different operating horizons. Specifically, when I say horizons, I mean different views between the present and the day-to-day, the short-term, midterm, the longer term, and then the vision that's far out. As horizons, I also think they refer to different levels of ambiguity, from the very concrete, to the more blurry, strategic, and visionary view. Especially, in times of change, we need to be able to navigate those different views and layers. We need to actively manage the present while also anticipating what's next week, next month, next year, to prepare our organizations and teams for changes ahead. This requires active work from us in times of change, and is foundational for leading. Like in a landscape, all of those layers are intertwined. Of course, they're not separate. I want to focus on reviewing the foundations, as well as the present and the big picture, and how we lead our teams through all those. I want to give those to you as frameworks to orient yourself around.

Foundations - Managing Yourself

Let's start with foundations. I believe one of the most crucial leadership skills is managing ourselves. It starts with managing our thoughts. Our thoughts have huge impact on the people around us in our teams. Our perspectives, our biases, they influence our decisions, and ultimately, our leadership. Self-reflection is a really crucial skill, also when it comes to managing our brain's responses to change. Another aspect is managing our energy. I think that's even more important than managing our time. Managing our energy means managing what in a day-to-day drains us and energizes us. We can look at our calendars, sit down and identify what are the meetings and conversations that I get excited about, that energize me and others that may drain me. Then use that as a foundation to balance how we structure our work time.

Of course, managing our time is also an important factor. It's really important to ruthlessly prioritize. Always be clear on what the most important thing is that you could be focusing on. Part of that are self-organization skills as well. How you manage priorities. How you stay organized, and have your to-do list under control. I know that the latter part is sometimes really hard. Managing ourselves also means managing our operational horizons. Always making time for strategic thinking, even if it's sometimes really difficult. I sit down every morning for 10 to 15 minutes when I start my workday and think on strategic topics, strategic questions and how they relate to the present work in my organization. It also means always making sure that you understand goals, the bigger picture, the vision, and maintain that connection every single day. Self-management is foundational for our success as leaders. Part of it is also understanding what we need as well as the people around you.

Human Core Needs

This is the BICEPS model of human core needs, which was coined by the performance coach and trainer, Paloma Medina. It's based on research on what motivates and drives human beings, and their behaviors. The core needs are belonging, being close to close-minded people. Improvement, like learning and growing. Also, choice for control or autonomy. We also seek equalities of fairness in decisions, but also want to feel that our ability to contribute is fair. Then there's predictability or certainty, safety, stability. The last part is significance or status, so being appreciated and having our work being visible. When these core needs aren't met, we move into fight or flight mode, which renders us ineffective and means we're not able to do our best work. Our job as leaders is to understand what matters to everyone on our teams, what motivates, drives them and what they need.

High-Performing Team Needs

You may all have heard the research on high performing teams already. These five key factors that make teams high performing. There's psychological safety, believing that we won't be rejected. That we feel free to express work relevant thoughts and feelings to others. There's dependability, so teammates reliably completing quality work on time. Structure and clarity. Also, meaning, finding a sense of purpose in our work or the output. Then feeling that our work has an impact. You've probably heard of this model already. I have great news for you because it's all connected. The research on high-performing teams shows how meeting human core needs has impact at the team level. These needs always need to be balanced, and not everything is equally important to everyone at all times. That means that a key foundation for our work as leaders is understanding the needs of the people around us. Even more so in a time like this when those needs may be changing as people's life circumstances change frequently.

Teams Need Leaders Who Understand Their Needs

The best tool we have as leaders in our toolkit is asking good questions, listening, observing, and taking note of what motivates our teammates. That's the basis for us to do our work well. I can tell you a lot about leadership tools, but I don't know you or your teammates, and what you need in this moment may vary. Your best tool are good questions and genuine curiosity.

Teams Need Strong Relationships

Another foundation are strong relationships, and they have a lot to do with understanding our teammates' needs. Strong and trustful relationships between team members on our teams are the basis of psychological safety and high performance. They make learning, growth, and strong feedback culture possible. I believe that maintaining strong connections is now even more important than it's ever been. For our distributed teams at CircleCI, we've always had structures to help our teammates build those relationships. For example, regular pair programming, but also fireside chats, some standups or standdowns even, engineering talks and engineering book club, department-wide meetings or mentoring program.

Foundations' Review

We talked about managing ourselves. Reflecting and managing our behaviors and thought patterns. Then asking good questions to help us understand core needs in our teammates. With that, also laying the foundation for high performing teams, and helping our teammates build relationships.

The Big Picture

Let's look at the big picture next. Big Picture meaning strategy, vision, direction, higher level context. Team missions are also a part of the big picture, anything that describes the long term view. I want to start there, because the big picture is crucial for anything we do in the present. It needs to be our guidepost, our goal, our lighthouse, and impact our steps that we take and the direction we move in every single day. I believe the big picture also means long term or strategic investments in team and our leadership strategies. I want to start with those at first.

Teams Need Leadership at all Levels

One of our biggest task as leaders is to bring up people with and around us. I've been saying for many years that I believe organizations need leadership at all levels, to carry our organizations forward and help us succeed, especially distributed teams. I think management and leadership are distinct skill sets. A definition that I really like is that management is about coping with complexity. It brings order and predictability. Whereas leadership, by contrast, is about coping with ambiguity and change. This skill, specifically, is really needed at all levels in organizations. The first step we can take to foster leadership at all levels, is when we lead through context instead of control. Focus on sharing direction, vision, and bigger picture, and values with our teams. There's a couple reasons for that. First of all, there's a lot of power in meaning, and knowing where people are having an impact can be a great motivator and also help with alignment. This helps, for example, by helping engineers understand how their work contributes to the bigger picture, to longer term business goals, how it helps users or how it helps other teams. Part of that is also helping teams navigate ambiguity. Making sure they understand the abstract but also the practical implications of a vision on their work. We can help people do that by approaching it deliberately and coaching them through handling different levels of ambiguity.

Leading through context also means empowering people to do the right thing. I believe that context is one of the most important things that we need to do as leaders. It's a crucial part of our jobs. Some examples for how I aim to demonstrate at least the skill in my work right now. I send a weekly email to my management team, with an overview of important context in the organization's topics that are going on and events that are happening around us. I also regularly send summaries of important conversations that I have to my staff. In department-wide meetings, we communicate big picture, longer term vision, and strategy for us.

The second aspect on fostering leadership at all levels is focusing on values, principles, and outcomes, specifically when we're setting expectations. Then entrusting employees with autonomy. Focusing on outcomes and impact instead of micromanaging is a really important way in sharing ownership and distributing responsibilities. One approach that we've been using for a while to do that are OKRs. They are outcome focused, and they encourage teams to think about the best ways to achieve those outcomes instead of prescribing approaches, and entrusting people with achieving those, again, in alignment with values.

Another aspect to foster leadership at all levels is distributing ownership, specifically starting by reducing dependencies and just looking at your own work, and asking yourself, where am I as a single point of failure? What decisions cannot be made if I'm not around? Distributing ownership fosters autonomy. Frameworks like architectural decision records, but also clear roles and responsibilities really help with that. The context setting also fosters distributed decision making and ownership. It means not having everything run through us and having control, but instead sharing key information with people and trusting them to make the best decision based on that context.

Teams Need a Strong Connection to the Big Picture

I also want to talk about maintaining a strong connection to the big picture. First of all, all of us continuously need that. Check in with yourself every day and make sure that you understand the longer term view. I also know that this big picture or strategy isn't always around, especially in fast growing companies or in startups. It's your job to help get to that. If there is no strategy or the big picture isn't clear to you, start with that and work with the other leaders around you to build that big picture. Also, make sure to maintain that connection with the big picture for others. Make sure that the people around you are clear on strategy and vision to help with the autonomy. Be relentless about communicating strategy and vision to others. Set yourself reminders, for example, monthly. Check in with your team. Ask whether they understand, or which aspects of it are unclear to them. I think there's no such thing as too much communication on strategy.

The Big Picture Review

Leadership at all levels is a really important skill. Then, maintaining the connection with vision and strategy for ourselves and our teams at all times.

The Present

Next up, I want to talk about the present. The day-to-day work that we do with our teams in our organizations. Of course, our day-to-day work is deeply intertwined with the big picture, the longer term, as well as the foundations. In this section, I want to give you a few more practical tools for your day-to-day work with your teams.

Teams Need Alignment

First of all, let's talk about alignment and how to maintain it. I think an important part of our work as leaders is to create communication patterns. Making sure that people know what communication to expect and where. All of us face a lot of information, and it's important to know for people what to expect, where it helps them not miss it but also helps them be prepared. Just to give you one example, we have one specific channel, one email where we always communicate new hires to people. A different approach, it's by our Slack channel where we communicate when new job posts are opening internally, or a channel for announcements that people can't miss. Knowing what to expect also helps people navigate the huge amount of information they deal with every day and make sure that they don't miss anything.

Another important part of communication is making sure that we always assume that people don't know. Always assume that people don't know and that they will have to hear something many times. When you're tired of saying it, assume that 60% to 80% of people have actually heard it. There's another rule to say everything seven times across different channels. You don't probably actually have to say everything seven times, but I think it's really good and it's pretty safe guidance, especially in distributed teams. When you say things across different channels, you're also making sure that people actually have a chance to process things or, again, that you're not missing out. Relentlessly communicate vision and strategy. We've covered this but in the spirit of over-communicating intentionally, I'm saying it again to make the point.

Communication also always lands best when it's tailored to what matters to people. People want to know what changes mean for them. We made a few hiring process changes a couple months ago. When conveying those to managers, we focused on increasing our ability to hire faster, more effectively, while also maintaining high standards and inclusivity. When we conveyed those things to the engineers in our team, we said the same things, but we also added how it was going to impact their involvement in interviews and their contributions. Whenever you communicate, always show clear feedback paths. It's really important. We'll talk later a little bit more how it helps with learning on teams.

Then, be a dolphin. This is an example by David Feeny, Emeritus Professor of Information Management at Oxford. Dolphins can only take in very small amounts of air, and as a result, they have to surface very frequently to breathe again, every 15 to 20 minutes. Whales, on the other hand, can take in large amounts of air and therefore stay submerged for up to 90 minutes depending on the whale type. Be a dolphin. It's much better to pop your head out frequently to talk about little change instead of trying to make a big splash all at once and then disappearing back into the ocean again. Being a dolphin also helps avoid surprises, and also helps position you as a constant and a presence in your team, and helps you show up as a leader. Plus, it also means it helps you gather feedback much more frequently and iteratively. Then adapt as you go, leading to much higher quality results.

Teams Need Continuous Learning

Teams also need continuous learning. That's an important pillar of high performance. It starts with embracing failure. When you make mistakes, be open about them and address what you're doing to fix the middle, so what you're putting in place to do better in the future. The way that we talk about failure as leaders has a huge impact on how we shape culture on our teams. That's why blameless incident reviews are so important in treating failure as a learning opportunity. With that, the blamelessness specifically is a cornerstone of high performance in teams. I also like running experiments and basically asking teams to test hypotheses and then test them and see what they come up with and iterate from there again. This approach really helps keep changes small and much more digestible and manageable for teams. It also allows people to take ownership, which helps with leadership aspects.

One approach that I like taking is introducing changes as experiments, then running them for two weeks, four weeks, depending on what it is. Reviewing, doing a retrospective about them as a team, and then repeating. This approach also instills increased resilience on teams and ability to handle change. Then regularly reviewing lessons learned really helps with instilling that learning culture. Retrospectives specifically are a great tool to discuss how we can improve our human and technical systems as a team. Blameless incident reviews are a great tool to help us understand problems and drive towards solutions as a team in a way that fosters learning, and in a way that also helps us embrace failure and learn from it.

Teams Need Tools to Build Resilience

As change is a key aspect of our work as leaders, I think resilience is an important tool for us to focus on. When we support teams in times like these when we grow organizations, especially when they grow really fast, but then also as part of DevOps culture, change is really a key trait of our work as leaders. I want to show you two tools that I've used for helping teams navigate change and build resilience. The context that we talked about earlier, as well as helping teams understand their purpose, big picture connection, and small experiments are also all tools that help with resilience as well. The two ones I want to show you now is focusing on what we can change and treating change as loss.

This framework that you're seeing here is a model adapted from Stephen Covey's, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. A key trait of resilient people is that they accept what they cannot change and focus their energy on what they can change. This model is designed in three circles, between what the team controls at the center, then what the team influences in the middle, and then the soup outside. The idea is to focus the team's action where they can have direct action, or persuasive in recommending action. Instead of the part where their main action is in the response. Change situations I often use to dissect with teams what change I can drive. It's also useful to help teams for how they respond to change, and for team discussions about that.

Another framework I really like is treating change as loss. Any change even when it's clearly the right change to make, triggers feelings of loss: loss of control, pride, status, or loss of visibility and insight. If you ever tell people that they need to move their desk, even on their home office, you can see what changes we're talking about there. The model that you can see here is the Bridges' Transition Model. It's focused on helping people discover, accept, and embrace a new situation. At first, it focuses on acknowledging an ending and helping people understand and deal with losses. The second part is the neutral zone, focused on realignments towards new patterns. Part three is starting something new. You can make successful changes by addressing the transition that people experience during change. Instead of pushing forward, focus on supporting people through the transition towards something new. Don't start at the third part, but go through all changes. This helps tremendously. Don't forget to celebrate wins as you're moving into the new parts, and celebrate those wins early.

Review of the Present

In the present, we just looked at how continuous alignment helps teams stay connected, and how communication patterns that you use will impact the way that your teams are able to do that. We also looked at how learning culture is really useful for teams, especially in how we handle failure and how we talk about it. Then looked at tools to develop resilience, specifically treating change as loss and focusing on what teams can change.


Right now is a defining moment for leaders. We look today at how we can shape our leadership work to help our teams navigate that. We reviewed the foundations, navigating leadership horizons between managing the present but also the bigger picture, and helping people understand those. We also reviewed crucial leadership skills, like this navigation of horizons, and how we can manage our instincts in our brain when it wants to focus on only what's right in front of us. We looked at human core needs and how it helps us to understand them, and how it helps us shape high performing teams by using questions as a leadership tool. We also looked at the present in our day-to-day work, specifically, alignment tools to build communication patterns using clear feedback paths and being a dolphin. Another part of the present is learning and continuously learning with our teams by using quick experiments, and by talking openly about failure without blame. We also looked at tools for resilience, like treating change as loss and focusing on what teams can change. Then, of course, the bigger picture, fostering leadership at all levels in our teams and always maintaining communication about vision and strategy, and making sure people understand those. We looked at what engineering teams need from leaders right now. With that, the question I want to ask you is, how are you going to show up for your teams as a leader right now?


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Recorded at:

Apr 30, 2021

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