When you as the manager treat your peers, other managers in the organizations as your first team, it changes your stance. It changes the way you work. It creates intentionally a set of allies you can problem-solve, people problem-solve with, people you can collaborate with. This is a little bit different idea than my first team of the people that work for me. Instead, your first team becomes those other engineering managers, directors, VPs, whatever it is, those peers, those all-important peer relationships that are so, so vital to cross-team, cross-silo and cross-departmental work.
- What is a “first team”?
- I got trained in a cohort of people that went through together, and that became my first team
- Creating a unified management team
- There was also really something special about the way my boss created and improved the relationships with the people that he led through the program.
- If we go back to the past and we see where companies put people through their own leadership development programs
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Speaker 1: Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high-performing software teams.
Marcus: There’s a wonderful article by Jason Wong called Building a First Team Mindset. You can find this in the show notes but if you go to Attack-Gecko.net, you’ll also find it. The article describes Jason’s experience of being a first team member and of building first teams. Now this is really cool because I realized I’ve never had a name for the thing I so often try and describe, and that name is a first team.
The idea is that when you as the manager treat your peers, other managers in the organizations as your first team, it changes your stance. It changes the way you work. It creates intentionally a set of allies you can problem-solve, people problem-solve with, people you can collaborate with. This is a little bit different idea than my first team of the people that work for me. Instead, your first team becomes those other engineering managers, directors, VPs, whatever it is, those peers, those all-important peer relationships that are so, so vital to cross-team, cross-silo and cross-departmental work.
Now the reason I want to talk to you about this is because I realized that the way I recommend training engineering managers also creates first teams, and I didn’t even know it. I had no idea that’s what I was doing until Jason put a name to it. By the way, we’re going to try and have Jason on this show. We’ve reached out on Twitter. Seems like a a wonderful person, it’d be really interesting to talk to him about this.
But today I want to talk to you about training people in such a way that it builds a first team mindset. In my very strong opinionated perspective is quote “the rightest way” I have seen to train engineering leaders and managers. That’s what we’re talking about today.
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When I became a team lead, I was promoted to manage the people that I was already working alongside. This is pretty common I suspect, maybe it’s even happened to you. But what was really wonderful was a few weeks after I became a team lead, my boss told me I would go through Jeld-Wen’s New Manager Training Program. This was at a company called Jeld-Wen, who was the world’s largest manufacturer of residential windows and doors, not a tech company, but a traditional manufacturing company. But they had a year-long management training program for all new managers and for everyone hired into the company as a manager. That important point will be brought out later.
So of course this was very exciting to me. I was a programmer. I was now going to learn to become a manager.Thankfully while it did seem a little sink or swim day to day, there was a structure that I could use to learn. Now, I wasn’t just given a program of videos, given a personalized set of books to read. Instead, I was added to a cohort.
As I recall, there were nine of us. The nine of us were all recent new hires as managers or recent promoted people into the tech lead or software manager position within the engineering department. So every two weeks, my boss would get everybody together and we would go through a learning activity. We were given some books to read. We were given a big Brown notebook. I still have it called the Manager’s Notebook that had articles. The idea was you were assigned something to read in that couple of weeks. You were assigned some things to think about, maybe some questions or an activity to try. Then you would come back together as a team and discuss it. Now this, as I said, was a manufacturing company, but the basics are really the same.
They involve managing yourself, managing time, being clear, learning to delegate, building teamwork, building trust, getting to know people, being transparent, all the stuff we talk about on this show. But yet I never ever thought about this training as something that came out of manufacturing because the articles were industry agnostic and my boss was an engineer. He was the software engineering manager. So all the examples, all the problems we talked about in the group, all of the real world situations that we tackled together for a whole year, the nine of us, were all engineering team problems.
So it could be everything from deploying to dealing with customers, to dealing with other internal departments, to how do you handle hard feedback, to what do you do in one-on-ones, to how do you manage the demands of both some programming and some managing. The list goes on.
What I realized was I got trained in a cohort of people that went through together, and that became my first team. Looking back and it’s only now, and it has been 20 years since I went through that, I can look back and see that the people I went through that program with became my closest allies for the next decade. They were in many reasons, they were in many ways, the reason the department was effective.
It created a unified management team, a management team that knew how to work not just as individual managers and not just as leaders of the people below them, but knew how to work together. There was no competition really, which is shocking now to even imagine. There was no win-lose scenarios, zero sum game. There was no competition between the people in that cohort. Everyone became open and transparent and vulnerable over the next year. That continued as we needed to solve one another’s problems to help one another to go forward.
We were the people that we relied on. Yes, of course we relied on our boss and as new people came in, those people, we created relationships with them. but there was something really special about my relationships with the people who went through the management training program with me. There was also really something special about the way my boss created and improved the relationships with the people that he led through the program.
Now it’s like I said, it’s been about 20 years since I went through that program. I went on actually to then teach that program because as I moved up to become the assistant department manager, I was given responsibility over hiring and promotions and also training. So I found myself facilitating those groups, the year long groups, many times, taking new managers through them which also as you might expect, gave me new opportunities to re-consume the material, think about what it means, think about how it was different from me a few years later than when I had originally taken it.
Of course, anything that you do, you grow over time. So the idea of how do you manage your time in the first six months when you’re a manager, you’re going to have a very different perspective on it three years later or 10 years after that. You also see that there are far fewer absolutes. This is at least what I found. The older I get, the fewer absolutes I found and the more context and situation is key. So many times, younger managers would ask me, what do I do when this happens? Now early on, I would’ve probably said, “You do this,” but now and then even as I took people through it, I would have to say, “Well, it depends.” I created great relationships with my new managers and I saw those first teams gel and thrive right before my eyes.
Yet somewhere things in the industry have really gone away from this idea. My guess is, and I don’t know for sure, but if you’re listening to this, you probably did not receive a formal training program from your company that lasted months, let alone a whole year, that was done and delivered by your manager in your department and alongside of your peers, that formed the first team idea for you, giving you allies and people who are on your side, people who you trusted that weren’t your boss that you could go to for help.
I think there’s a lot of reasons why this doesn’t happen anymore. But what I don’t see is I don’t see any reasons why it shouldn’t. In many ways, I think this is exactly what our industry needs. We need to decide that individualized training has its place, but that simply giving someone a stack of books and saying, “You have six months to read these,” or a bunch of courses to go through or saying, “Hey, why don’t you go find some leadership stuff online. Here’s what people have done before. Go through the stuff that looks interesting to you.”
That is really deficient in both a way to create managers and leaders. And it completely removes the idea that you’re going to create a management team that knows how to work together, collaborate, trust, share, partner together. So here’s what I’d like to suggest, I’d like to suggest that this is a perfect moment in history to bring back this idea to go and say, “Let’s learn something from the manufacturers, from the auto workers, from the companies of the past.”
The uncool companies may still have something to teach us cool kids in 2019. So if we go back to the past and we see where companies put people through their own leadership development programs, where they had manager training, where management training and training in general wasn’t just a responsibility of HR or people ops, but was actually a responsibility of the organization you belong to, where people were trained together by their manager in the context of the work they were actually doing. I think it’s time to come back to this idea. I think frankly, it is so simple to get started. I cannot imagine that if you were to, you would violate any policy if you try this crazy simple idea that I’m going to lay out right now.
All right, here’s the crazy simple idea. Number one, grab one book. If you’re not sure where to start grab Becoming a Technical Leader by Jerry Weinberg, there’s lots of other books. Grab that book and say, grab then the last five to 10 people who have been promoted into a position in your department that smells anything like a leader. They don’t have to be a manager. They don’t have to be a supervisor. Although I think there’s benefit if you can keep like people together. But if you don’t have enough managers throw in an architect, throw in a senior programmer, throw in people who are interested in leadership and say, “Over the next three months you are going to be with me.”
Me being the manager of the department. I the manager of the department, I’m going to take you through and teach you the material in this book. Now the reason, and then we’re going to talk about it every week. We’re going to get together every week or two. We’re going to put a schedule in place. We’re going to talk about it.
I’m going to expect that you’re going to do the homework between our conversations. I’m going to ask that you read the book. I’m going to ask that you do some questions and when you come in, we’re going to have a conversation. We’re going to reflect on how we apply these ideas here in our work at our company. Now, one of the reasons I suggest Jerry’s book, Becoming a Technical Leader, is every chapter has these beautiful reflective questions, so you don’t have to do any work is the person who’s leading the group.
You can literally grab the book, read the chapter and highlight two or three questions. Okay, and then give them those questions in advance or let them know. Chapter one, I want you to read chapter one and then I’d like you to reflect and bring back some written answers prepare to discuss questions one, four, and five, something like that. Then you will also get to practice your facilitation skills.
You’ll get to practice having a group come together and there are so many beautiful ways to facilitate. I’m going to recommend that if you really want to do this, it wouldn’t hurt for you to grab the book, the liberating, no, the Surprising Power of Liberating Structures and use some of the meeting formats like a one to four all so that you get your introverts pulled into the conversations. You let people do a little individual thinking, a little pair discussion, a small group, and then you bring the ideas out to the larger group.
My whole point here is if you were to do this twice a month for a whole year, 24 sessions, about one hour in length, that would be 24 hours of your time, you could probably only do say four books, one a quarter and you would dive deep into each one. You could find books that have reflective questions or frankly, you could write your own reflective questions or if you want to get kind of meta about it, ask people to read a chapter and then create questions for other people to answer.
See, there’s all kinds of ways you can go through this. The point is you’re going to spend time together, you’re going to talk about leadership and management, and you’re going to simply lead the group through the material. By the way, don’t forget the most important part of every session and that may even take it out to 90 minutes, but that’s the Q and A section.
That’s where you in this small group open up yourself and say, “Ask me anything.” Consider it like an AMA. Those are popular on Reddit and other places. This is like an ask me anything. It could be about a situation at work. How would you handle this, boss? It could be, how did you handle not coding? Didn’t you miss it? Did you ever miss it? Am I the only one that misses it or how do you keep everything in your mind that needs to be done at once? What systems do you use to keep track of so many different moving parts?
Be vulnerable, be transparent, don’t pretend you have all the answers. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” When you do an AMA, make sure to reflect it back. You might be the initial target of the question, “Marcus, how do you do this?” But then after you give some ideas, reflect it back to the group. Who else has ideas about how to handle this? Who else has come up with strategies for dealing with difficult customers or too many, too much to do, the lack of time to even think?
The meetings should be a little slower paced than an average day and an average meeting. They should give people time to think. People should have to prepare together and you might even ask people again, I think it’s important you do ask them to do some homework beforehand. But why not ask them to do a couple of projects or a couple of discussions between sessions as pairs. I want you to have lunch and talk about this with someone. When you come to your meeting, the two of y’all present your idea or you’ll present what you talked about and what did you decide to learn from this.
Learning and training does not have to be a guy in a suit at the front. It doesn’t have to be hours of boring videos with lame quizzes between each one. Okay? It could just be you and a book. And the willingness to entertain any question, and to do your very best. By the way, when they stump you and they will, now you have an opportunity to go get your boss and pull them in to have a special speaker like me.
I’d be happy to come in and talk to your group, to come in over video if there is some topic you’re a little uncomfortable with. I think we as an industry need to change the way we train our engineering managers. This is something I intend to work on in the coming years, but I just wanted to plant this idea in your head. That you can create a first team, a management team that works well together, that are allies together. I’m going to bet that if you do this, if you train people that way, not only will they be more capable individual managers, but you’ll build a competent management team, and that will probably eliminate a lot of your problems.
Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at www.ProgrammingLeadership.com in on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next time.