How Some of the World’s Engineering Leaders Motivate Their Teams

The best performers deliver the best work. A McKinsey and Co study found that a high performer is 400% more productive than average ones. In highly complex roles, such as software development and engineering, that jumps to 800%.

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How do you build high-performing teams?

Little wonder then that building, managing, and motivating teams of software engineers is a much-debated topic. It was the first question asked of the panel in a recent Engineering Leaders panel discussion, with Smruti Patel, Head of LEAP and Data Platform at Stripe, talking about how she has built high-performing teams over the course of her career.

She pointed out that the old idea of high-performing teams was “seeing a bunch of developers burning the midnight oil, shipping faster, shipping more.” However, what she has come to realise is that “engineers are here to do their best stuff, so then how do we as leaders create those environments where they can come together and sort of work their magic?”

For Smruti, this means building high-performing teams around three points – business success, team success and personal success.

Business success is how what you ship impacts the business, team success is how processes work and how efficient and collaborative people are, while individual success is based on how motivated people are. For this to be possible requires engineering leaders to develop and support inclusive environments that are “based on psychological safety, radical candor and, at the individual level, growth mindset.”

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Understanding career aspirations

The point about individual success and personal motivation led to a follow-on question – how do you sustain motivation over a long period of time? “Firstly, you need to understand individual career aspirations,” said Smruti. “Secondly, systemically is the set upright so that they can grow?”

That means understanding where engineers (or indeed any employee) are with their lives. Do they want to learn and progress rapidly and spend all their time on their career, or, as Smruti pointed out, in the wake of the pandemic do they want to take a step back from work? These are conversations that need to happen on a one-to-one basis so that leaders can work out what individuals want from their professional lives and help create specific career growth plans.

So, it might be they want to get a promotion in the next year or improve specific skill sets. Sometimes this process can reveal that the individual does not actually know what they want, as Nik Gupta, Software Development Manager at Amazon said. “One of the key things I see managers miss, especially early managers, is when you sit with an engineer and you say ‘right, let’s see what growth means for you’. That’s when people get to thinking ‘ok, what do I want to do, what does growth mean for me?’.”

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Nik spends time with his team and gets them to tell him what the next six to twelve months look like for them, then what 18 to 36 months out looks like, and then finally what five years looks like. With that process, employees plot out their goals, allowing Nik to “fill in the steps to take and how will I help [his engineers] take those steps to meet that goal.” By doing this, engineering leaders can start to unlock what their people want, and then start to align it with projects.

But what happens if the right projects aren’t available? When that happens at Stripe, Smruti is active in what she refers to as “internal mobility, where we want engineers to take what they learned from one area and take it to another team.”

This only comes about through talking to team members and challenging them on what they want their careers to be.

That theme of communication was something that Chris Newton, Vice President of Engineering at Immersive Labs, picked up on. A veteran of high-growth businesses such as Just-Eat, he is well versed in keeping teams motivated as companies rapidly scale, with communications at the heart of those efforts. “One of the things that’s challenging is communication as you grow. The complexity of communication becomes harder and harder, and outward communication from the teams becomes more important. Communication of progress, specifically so other teams know transparently how you’re progressing with the piece of work that you’re doing.”

Aligning teams across the business

This communication is vital when it comes to the alignment of teams and prioritization, which plays a role in motivating individuals by allowing them to see how their individual work directly impacts business performance. A good driver of this behavior are Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), something Chris is keen on when properly executed. “It’s really hard to do OKRs well. Many companies try them for two or three quarters then give up, when they need to continue iterating, trying them again, maybe getting outside support in.”

For Chris, OKRs work when they are company-wide, and cascade down through departments to teams and then individuals. To get these right takes hard work, and learning, he said. “You have to practice, you have to do it a few times to get it.”

It is an approach that, according to Nik, Amazon is “insanely passionate” about. “We spend about two months getting our metrics right.” Why? Because “it is absolutely essential to get that framework built before you start delivering into what are we going to do and why.”

Embodying the right behaviors

Having a common purpose is clearly important, but what about leaders as role models? “People look up to the leaders to demonstrate the behaviors that they expect to see in the organization,” said Chris. At one of his previous employers, “someone would send an email at one o’clock, someone would respond at half one,” behavior that was set by “very high up people in the organization that would work crazy, crazy hours.”

He pointed out how dangerous and damaging this was to employees, as it set “that expectation that this is the behavior that if you want to move up in the company you need to exhibit.” It is a working pattern that is not sustainable and can lead to burnout, disengagement and demotivated employees.

The key to sustaining motivation

Ultimately, Smruti said, managers that want to sustain motivation need to know that “the key thing is to keep on top of how teams see themselves growing, and if they don’t have an idea of what that looks like, asking those probing questions and understanding what might set them up for success and then making sure they have a plan to take that forward.”

Objectives and Key ResultsPeople Managementteam participation
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