This post is the third in a series devoted to four engineering management roles that can boost an engineering team’s velocity and impact. The other roles include The Critic, The Nowist, and The Futurist. These roles are also related to the engineering roles laid out in an earlier post: 6 Unique Engineering Roles Designed to Boost Development Velocity.
As you learn about each of the four roles, hopefully you’ll see things that you can learn from and emulate. Think about how strong or weak you are at each particular role, and who you know that best embodies it.
Role #3: The Cloner
Although the role is called a Cloner, it’s all about giving individuals unique opportunities for leadership and growth. The Cloner is obsessed with giving responsibility to the team, building leadership, and providing real autonomy.
To a Cloner, a great leader is one who builds other leaders. Cloners obsess over clearly defined areas of responsibility and ownership. They can mentally go through each person on their team, and name a key area they’re responsible for. More important, it’s obvious to everyone on the team what those things are.
Cloners know that setting ambitious goals, with real responsibility, is much more powerful than directly applying pressure.
Ambitious goals, if internalized, are intrinsic. They come from within you. You feel like a hero, like you’re doing something great in the world. Pressure is extrinsic. You resent it. It’s not personal, and you aren’t invested in the outcome beyond getting someone off your back.
How Cloners manage
In a meeting run by a Cloner, it’s easy to get hypnotized by the decision-making power of each person in the group. Everyone is reporting on their area of responsibility. Each person owns the output of their area, and has full ownership of it. They are the decision makers in that area.
So when someone comes to a Cloner with a situation, they often will turn the question around. They’ll ask the team member, “What do you recommend?” and then guide that person to think it through carefully. The goal is to get team members to say, “I intend to do X.”
But a good Cloner takes things even further. Cloners train their team members to anticipate potential objections, and express those as they talk about their plan for moving forward.
A Cloner has a clear understanding of each team member’s motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Cloners are conscious of the overlap between company needs and individual needs, and they have a magic talent for making those overlap.
Because of this, Cloners have a plan to strengthen every member of the team (or they’re distraught that they haven’t figured one out yet). Cloners watch the people on their team carefully. They make sure each is succeeding in their area of responsibility, and progressing and getting stronger.
Boss vs. coach
Many engineering managers feel a tension between being the boss and being a coach. The boss is the one who judges you, the one you have to impress. The coach is the one who helps make you better, the one to whom you can reveal your weaknesses because you know they’ll help you overcome them.
Cloners are more coaches than judges. With a Cloner, team members feel like they can share their weaknesses and troubleshoot how to improve things.
One Cloner technique I’ve experimented with is creating character sheets from fantasy role-playing games. Write down a bunch of team member attributes you care about: “architecture,” “communication,” “helpfulness,” etc., and think about how each person on your team ranks in those areas. Think through things like motivations and super powers as well as hidden weaknesses.
I then try to come up with one crucial thing for each person on the team, the one missing piece they should focus on. Test out the idea by talking with other peer managers, and then discuss it with the team member during every 1:1 meeting.
Another approach is to make a list of the problems the team faces. I try to trim the list to a little bigger than the size of the team, and then put my name next to those issues I think I can realistically address in the month ahead. Next, I look at the remaining items on the list. Everyone on the team has one thing they were focusing on. Could they take on another item? I match up the remaining items with team members, according to their strengths and interests.
I then tell the team they are responsible for the solution to this problem. I have them report on it during team meetings, and help them strategize. I’ve seen teams solve large problems this way, problems such as how we interact with other teams, the amount of support we give others for our internal service, and even hiring.
The key to cloning
The key to cloning success is to make sure you really give away true ownership of the problem. Cloning isn’t handing out tasks or projects. It’s real, complete ownership. You need to let team members know that you’re giving them a huge responsibility, and explain why it’s so important. Paint a picture of what it will look like and why it’s amazing.
Team members need to know that it’s completely their responsibility to solve this problem. They own it. But they also need to know that you’re there to help, and there are many other people in the organization dedicated to making sure they succeed.
When cloning goes awry
The best Cloners focus on the intersection between the business and the individual. But some Cloners focus too much on the individual, and don’t pay enough attention to the business needs.
For example, if a team member isn’t performing well, a Cloner might obsess over fixing the situation. Yet if they were to hire for that position, there isn’t any way they would hire that person for that role. So a Cloner has to make sure they keep themselves grounded in reality, and manage the interaction between the business and individual well.
That’s what’s involved in being the Cloner, the manager who creates other leaders in the organization, the person who builds up their teams and shares real responsibilities and ownership with their team members.