#29: Building the right relationships helps you climb the ladder

Over the last three years, I've realized the importance of relationships. Today, I want to talk about how I failed, how this failure cost me an extra year to get a promotion, and what I've learned.

When I wanted to become an engineering manager, I thought I had enough skills to make the jump, and later I learned I partially had. Yet, I needed an extra year to make them visible to various people. Why has it happened?

I had great relationships with my peers and my manager. I was acting like a leader in the team. At that time, we had one manager acting in both Product Manager (PM) and Engineering Manager (EM) roles. The organization started to separate these responsibilities into two people. While our manager was more focused on the PM role, there was a possibility of me becoming an EM. Many things happened along the way, and once I started pushing more, I failed because I didn't have relationships with people who could vouch for me. I had relationships with my manager, and I thought that should be enough because the team was elevating me to the EM position. It cost me a year to build missing relationships.

Here is what I have learned.

Engineer’s Circle

When working in a team as an engineer, you have your peers, PM, and manager. Your circle is defined well, and you rarely go out of them. You may talk with project stakeholders and other engineers in the organization, but you rarely leave your circle. Your inner circle might know your career plan, what you want to learn, and which promotion you’re looking for. But that’s it.

Leader’s Circle

If you become a manager or staff engineer, your first and essential relationship will be with your team, stakeholders, and your manager. Then with your peers and your manager’s peers. And your success depends on all levels.

If you don’t have good relationships with your team, your team won’t be successful.

If you don’t have a solid relationship with your manager, your team will fail because you won’t find the support your team needs.

If you don’t have good relationships with your peers, it will be difficult for your team to collaborate with other groups. Once you have valuable relationships, they will enable you to run cross-team initiatives and jump to the next level.

Engineer's vs. Leader's Relationship Circle

Why do you need these relationships?

You need the first two layers of relationships for going to the next level. If you stay there, you’ll be missing some big pieces of the puzzle. You need to break out of these circles and slowly create your third inner layer. This is where I failed. I developed great relationships with the most inner layers and thought they would elevate me to leadership. Once I learned that it is not enough alone, I spent a long time working on expanding my circles.

If your organization doesn’t have separate promotion boards, you have to increase your visibility and build relationships with the next levels because these people will decide on your promotion. Although you will still need to develop your promotion case, these relationships will be required.

Having your manager on your side is not enough. Decision-makers might trust your manager’s judgment, but they want to see it themselves. Once they know your thoughts, experiences, and knowledge, they can vouch for you for the next level. You need these people to talk about you when you’re not in the room. Your name should come up often.

How to Make the Jump?

Understanding different circles and creating these relationships take time and effort. You might think that you don’t have the time and energy for all these people. However, you can do a few simple things.

  • Write people on Slack or so and ask them questions. It doesn’t have to be a meeting all the time.
  • Even if you know some of your peers, involve others in discussions. Ask them questions to build relationships.
  • If you have a topic you are passionate about, let everyone know. Your name should be attached to the topic. But don’t get stuck on one topic; regularly add new ones to your repertoire.
  • Increase your visibility by joining cross-team initiatives.
  • Become a host or moderator in a few meetings outside of your team.
  • Have random 1:1s with people in the next level.
  • Have regular but less frequent 1:1s with your skip-level managers.
  • Have sync 1:1s with your peers.

The more touchpoints you have with the outer circle, the easier it will be for you to grow. When you’re a leader, your goal is not to learn everything in the organization; it is to know who to go to when you have a question. These people will eventually elevate you in the long run because you will solve problems faster and learn better. It will be a win for everyone.

Don’t confuse these relationships with friendships. It’s sometimes okay to look for a friendship, but not all the time.

Build trustful and solid relationships with people who will advocate for you and your work when you’re not in the room.


P.S. Career frameworks are never enough.

A Quote I'm Pondering

"Can we listen with an attention in which there is no interpretation, no opposition or acceptance, so that we understand totally what is being said?"
— Jiddu Krishnamurti

Updates From the Last Two Weeks

I published one podcast episode and two articles.

🎙 Problem-Solving Skills & A Strategy for Software Engineers

In the first episode of the new season, I talked about Problem-Solving skills for developers and explained one strategy to solve any problem in five steps. As we all have a common goal of solving problems with software, improving our skills and using various strategies are crucial.

📝 Relationship vs. Task Conflicts

I wrote a short article (<460 words) about conflicts. Some people avoid conflicts thinking that they brake harmony and create problems. Some people create relationship conflicts because relationships are more important than work. And some people create task conflicts while thinking it will also improve their relationships.

📝 Productivity Scam and Perception of Time

I've been thinking about my productivity and how to stay on track. After researching and trying out a few things, I realized that productivity is a scam. It pushes us to work more and deliver more while forgetting that achieving greatness needs time.

I wrote about my thoughts about this scam. It's a short one.

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Newsletter Last Updated: Apr 22, 2022