As a manager or team lead, one of the main parts of your job is running your part of the fractal box. Another major responsibility is growing the people on your team.

Growing people is harder to do than running the team, because there aren’t as many measurable milestones. There are no product releases, no launch dates, and typically no deliverables related to people development. And yet, growing people is something that can pay off richly. People like developing themselves, and they remember (and are loyal to) managers who help them grow — so growing your people improves morale, reduces attrition, and helps you better achieve product goals. It’s also the right thing to do.

Here are some techniques I’ve found that are useful to grow the people on your team, with something of a slant toward growing engineers:

  1. Be religious about regular 1-on-1s. Meet at least weekly for 30 minutes; more often, or longer, if people need it (and you have the time). 1-on-1s are one of the most important ways in which you keep your finger on the pulse of the team, and the best way to really understand each person you manage. Even without a specific agenda, the metronomic regularity of a scheduled weekly conversation will help you develop a rich understanding of each person on your team over time.
  2. Find each person’s intrinsic motivators. In your weekly 1-on-1s and in other conversations, try to understand what makes each person tick — the key drivers that keep each employee engaged and happy. People have different things that motivate them: some people like digging into technical problems, some like getting their fingers into lots of different areas, some like executing projects by leading others, and some simply want a paycheck. (Hopefully there are fewer people in the last category than the others.) Whatever the underlying intrinsic motivators, make sure you understand them clearly for each person.
  3. Try to give people work that aligns with their intrinsic motivators. This is easier said than done, but it’s one of the key skills of any good manager to keep their team engaged by giving each person work that is aligned with their intrinsic motivators. For example, if an engineer is motivated by understanding the full stack of your product end to end, have them work on tasks that span many different areas of the technology. This doesn’t mean that everything that a person does will be aligned with their interests; but you should be constantly looking out for opportunities that are aligned to those interests. Don’t be afraid to move people between projects, and to justify those decisions to others outside your team, if it means giving people the opportunities that keep them at peak engagement and productivity.
  4. Find the next stretch goal for each person. As you understand what drives each person, and give them work that aligns with those key interests, you’ll build a mental model of where each person is professionally, and their level of skill and maturity. This should enable you determine the next capability that they should develop in order to grow. For example, engineers often progress along the following curve: from needing regular intervention with anything but the simplest tasks, to being able to execute small single-person projects, to working competently as part of a team, to leading teams, and then to communicating within and outside the team about technology choices. Based on this understanding of skill progression, your development objective for a junior engineer might be to have them independently develop a small feature that takes a week of effort. A more experienced engineer might be given opportunities to develop the skill of working in small teams on longer projects, once they have mastered the skill of competently executing single-person projects. For each person, you should have a clear idea of their “next step”: the skill that stretches them, but is still achievable with some effort.
  5. Hold people to high standards, and tell them when they are falling short. Have a clear idea what success means for each stretch goal that you give someone, and let them know — in as much detail as you can — when they fail to live up to your expectations. You may want to take notes during the week when you see an action or event that can be used to provide feedback, and use that to provide specific, detailed feedback at your next 1-on-1. If it is important enough, pull the person into a room for a quick conversation. I generally hesitate to do this, since it may be disruptive to the person’s schedule if they’re in flow, and may also be seen as a power exhibition. But if the feedback needs to be provided urgently enough, do it.
  6. Conversely, tell people in great detail, and loudly, when they are doing a good job. As Jack Welch says in “Winning,” his hugely insightful book on management, “Good leaders celebrate.” Don’t be afraid to praise people in public when they exceed expectations. This can be in the form of an email to the team, or a verbal call-out at a team meeting. I find it effective to simply cc the relevant team on an email thread that contains a description of a problem resolution. You can include a summary of the problem in your reply, and then thank the person who helped with resolving it. A few lines of praise goes a long way in helping people feel appreciated, and it helps others on the team understand what it takes to be a stand-out member of the team.
  7. Have written OKRs or development plans. OKRs are a type of development plan that focuses on measurable outcomes for large goals in a time-bound fashion. If your company doesn’t use OKRs, use another type of development plan, but make sure it is (a) written down; (b) measurable; and (c) time-bound. I’ve found it useful to ask people to think of their Objectives as falling into one of three key categories: (1) things that help the company or department; (2) things that help the team, and (3) things that help themselves. Make sure that the stretch goals you’ve identified for each person are listed in the OKRs, and that they are written in a way that you can look at them later and easily answer the question of whether the goal was reached. Development plans should generally be reviewed every few months; once a quarter is usually often enough.

Growing people takes time, effort, and attention to detail, but the results are rewarding and worth aiming for.

Current: Hippo Insurance. Previous: Google Assistant, Trulia Rentals, EA, startups. Engineering leadership and navigating ambiguity. Build, learn, repeat.

Current: Hippo Insurance. Previous: Google Assistant, Trulia Rentals, EA, startups. Engineering leadership and navigating ambiguity. Build, learn, repeat.