#23: The closest you can get into a leading role: hosting a workshop

Hey friend,

When I looked around me, I realized that many growing engineers have few things in common, but we rarely talk about them. Engineers who want to grow still focus on many technical skills, which is correct. As you get these letters, you probably know that you need other skills to grow into Staff+ Engineer or manager roles.

Although people are more aware that they need to improve their human skills to level up after senior engineering, they still focus on themselves more than they need. This focus can become problematic and frustrating because one of the responsibilities of staff+ software engineers or managers is growing people around them. While looking at a bigger picture and solving problems that require multi-team effort, they have to mentor and level up others (usually more than one) around them. Otherwise, they won’t get anything done.

Now the question is, how did staff+ engineers move their focus from themselves and begin to grow other people’s skills? One of the things many senior software engineers do is host events and workshops—one of the best ways of growing people around you.

I’ve done many workshops before I became a manager, and these workshops helped me show my skills to the people I don’t work closely with. Also, I’ve seen many software engineers who host amazing workshops, and it often became one of the things people remember them. Most of them are already in their next level, and some are on the way.

What is the power of workshops?

Workshops are not presentations. Although some of them include small presentations, they are never monologues. Workshops—in their nature—are interactive. That’s where it has the biggest power. When you host a workshop, this nature forces you to wear different jackets in a short time. As a moderator, you have to facilitate it, create a story, coach others in the journey, clarify questions, lead people from beginning till the end and engage everyone—even the most silent ones.

A workshop is like a project: it has a goal, and as a host, you have to plan it, explain the value proposition, estimate the expected time, set a schedule, explain to people why you’re hosting it, what’s the benefit and why do we need it. During the workshop, when someone is not engaging, you have to engage them without being too assertive and coach/mentor right at that moment for the things they struggle with.

If you look closely, you can see that many responsibilities match the expectations from staff engineers, team leads, and managers.

Facilitating a workshop is the closest you can get to being a manager or staff engineer in a short period.

Workshops bring you uniques sets of skills AND additionally visibility. If you’re not working in a big company with all the policies defined to get a promotion, you will need some visibility to level up. Decision-makers often want to be sure that you can manage the next level’s challenges. You can hear phrases like “you have to be doing the job before getting the title.” That is how it usually works in many small to mid-size organizations. These organizations typically have a lot of things on their plates. That’s why they only recognize repeated action. Once you host workshops on your team and extend it to others, you will become visible, and people will remember you with your workshop’s topic.

About what you can host a workshop?

I must admit one thing: technical workshops rarely work. If you’re thinking of hosting one, be mindful and don’t put yourself under a lot of pressure if you don’t get the expected outcome. What works is team building, problem-solving, brainstorming, strategic thinking, or any other workshop engaging all joiners.

You can use books, white papers, mental models, or anything else you’ve come across as a workshop topic. You can convert many things into a workshop. For example, I’ve read a fascinating book, and I had thought about doing an exercise about the book’s content. After some preparations, I started hosting a workshop at work. Later, it became one of the topics people know my name in the company. I’ve been hosting these workshops for more than a year, and I can comfortably say that these sessions helped me a ton in my promotion.

You can also host a short workshop to solve a problem. One of my managers hosted a workshop for 45 minutes to resolve conflicts in our team. They used Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development as a workshop material, and we worked on it and talked about it. It required a minimum preparation. The topic is really up to you. Choose something that interests you and can become an exercise and learning material for everyone.

If you have no topic in mind, try running a retrospective meeting for another team and be a moderator. The key to retrospective moderation is being a facilitator, communicating at different levels, and keeping everybody engaged while you’re staying outside of discussions.

A few tips on successfully running a workshop

  • Run it with a passion: don’t do it for the sake of doing it. It’s not a checklist item for promotion. When you’re not doing it with passion, participants get bored quickly, and the workshop becomes useless. If there are six people in an hour-long workshop, it means six hours will be lost, not one.
  • Choose a topic you enjoy first, then think about others. To run it with passion, you have to choose a topic that interests you.
  • Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse—minimum of five times.
  • Prepare for the worst case. Think about possible failure scenarios and get ready for them. Prepare backups. Prepare backups for backups.
  • Your first few workshops will not be great. Accept it and don’t worry about it. Keep going.
  • Ask for feedback in the end. Ask people to leave a note on a (virtual) post-it. If no one says anything, send a message to a few individuals you value their opinion and ask for feedback.
  • Regularly ask participants during the workshop to see if anyone has any questions or if anything is unclear.
  • Balance the speakers. It is an art and difficult. There is one magical way to do this, and I will discuss it more in my next letters. Until then, give silent ones a nudge to talk and loud people a sign to shut up without saying “shut up.”

I’ve run many workshops over the years, and I absolutely love it. Taking people on a journey and engaging them with the material is challenging, but these workshops honed my various skills. Thanks to them, I know how to give better presentations, lead people on a journey, and easily talk to people I haven’t met before. My friend, please don’t underestimate the power of facilitating a workshop. I know preparation looks difficult, and speaking in front of others is stressful, but it’s actually easy once you give it a try, and I hope you will.

Until next time, take care!


What I Published Over Last Two Weeks

📝 Why Listening with Empathy is an Important Skill for Every Leader?

As a new manager, I've experienced different challenges in my first months. A few of them were building a new team, onboarding new people into the team, and coaching people on the way. All these challenges taught me one thing: the importance of empathy.

While I had new things on my plate, other people were also impacted and changed their roles and teams. I needed to build trust with the team and understand each of them. It's still an ongoing journey, and I wrote about what I learned, practiced, and saw that working.

This post is also another milestone for me. I hired a copy editor to give me feedback on the article. So, this article has a "professional touch."

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Newsletter Last Updated: Jan 26, 2022