This is the eighth in an ongoing series of posts that address how New Relic does engineering management in the real world, written by various New Relic software engineers and managers. Look for more posts in the series in the coming weeks, or see them all here.
Can you keep a secret? Well, don’t—at least not if you’re an engineering manager.
The best managers—and naturally I include New Relic’s engineering managers in that category—know transparency is key. My philosophy: 95% of what I know isn’t a secret, and there’s no reason for it to be. Why? Because managing without secrets helps you empower your team and yourself.
Anyone who’s ever worked at an organization that doesn’t value transparency knows the kind of atmosphere that can result. When knowledge and expertise is hoarded instead of shared, you can wind up with a “me versus them” mentality—less concentric circles, more warring tribes. And that’s never good.
Here are four ways managers can achieve better transparency:
1. Share the how and why
Management is really all about managing change. Guiding people through that change transparently can be the difference between a happy team and a miserable one. In times of transition or upheaval, it can be tempting for managers to simply say, “The decision has been made, it impacts you, deal with it.”
But teams do best when they understand how and why things are happening the way they are. Plus, engineers are professional problem solvers, and their first instinct will be to suggest potential alternatives. If you can show the decision wasn’t made in a vacuum—that multiple options were considered, multiple outcomes weighed and assessed—its impact will be more positive and your team will trust you more.
2. Empower people to make decisions without you
Everyone likes to feel indispensable. Until they go on vacation, that is. By consistently sharing information with your team, you enable them to understand and anticipate how you weigh options and think about trade-offs. That ability helps them make decisions in your absence, which means you can actually kick back and relax on that beach in Tulum. Meanwhile, the sense of autonomy you have fostered makes your team stronger.
3. Help people understand your expectations
Engineers are usually extremely bright, but most of them still can’t read minds. As a manager, you can’t blame someone for continuing to work in a certain way if you haven’t let them know that you’d like to see a change. If you can educate your engineers about your expectations in a way that helps them out in the long term, you’re improving things for both of you. Most important, make sure your feedback comes from a solid, caring foundation. No one responds well to idle complaints.
The most rewarding conversations I’ve had with direct reports are the ones in which I can identify something that, with a little work, is going to unlock the next door in their career. Those can be tough conversations. But when the trade-off is seeing someone really grow in their career, it’s worth it.
4. Build future managers by “showing your work”
I consider it part of my job as a manager to educate others about what I do. Be open about your decision-making process. Be honest about your problems. Be generous in your successes and humble in your struggles. In other words, just like your algebra teacher used to insist, show your work. The more insight you can offer into the world of management, the more you help your engineers figure out whether it’s something they’d like to pursue.
I’ve had some great experiences like that at work and local meetups. For many engineers, especially women, the thought of management hasn’t even crossed their minds. Until, that is, they meet a manager willing to show them what it’s all about.
Finding the sweet spot
I wouldn’t be totally transparent myself if I didn’t admit there are some exceptions. Remember I said 95% of what I know isn’t a secret? Well, the other 5% is—and for good reason. Sharing other peoples’ personal or embarrassing information should be avoided.
And when it comes to sharing sensitive work stuff, timing is everything. In every situation, there’s a sweet spot right between too soon and too late. If you share big changes before decisions are finalized, it can cause unnecessary angst, but if you wait too long it can cause ill feeling. Find the sweet spot, and you’ll be in the clear.
Be sure to read the other posts in this series:
- New Relic Engineers Have Two Jobs
- How We Hire and Develop Great Engineers at New Relic
- Peer Groups Help Our Engineering Managers Build Great Teams
- Project Leadership Teams: How We Deliver Fantastic Features
- At New Relic, Management Isn’t a Promotion—It’s a Different Job
- Designed for Collaboration: Helping Engineers Be Awesome Together
- Meet Our Invisible Managers, Working Behind the Scenes to Spotlight Their Teams
- How Our Agile Review Process Builds Better Engineers Faster
- Completed Staff Work: The Secret Management Technique to Empower Your Team
- The 5 Habits of Awesome Engineering Managers