The Real Difficulty of Engineering Leadership is Not What They Say

For a while, I've been thinking about what makes leadership difficult and why it challenges me—and others—that much. Before becoming a manager, I had a few discussions with some leaders to figure out the difficulties. I asked them what was their biggest challenge after they became a manager. The answers varied: context switching, stakeholder management, lack of focus time, prioritization, leading people to get things done, and a few others. Although I faced these common leadership challenges after becoming a manager, I realized that all of them had one greater difficulty behind: learning to let go.

Before becoming a leader, our life was focused on telling what should be done, giving input on a problem to solve, getting our ideas in public, and applying what we've learned. We got many—small or big—rewards for expressing our thoughts and executing ideas. Until the promotion to management, we were expected to give input on projects, and even we may have received a promotion for our execution work and thus became a manager.

The moment after the promotion, the tables turn. Many managers don't realize this moment or can't quite figure out what to change. The difficulty after the promotion is to alter our behavior which is shaped as a result of what we have been rewarded for years. In most situations, we have to listen, not give input. We have to ask questions, not give answers. Even when we know the solution, we must let others figure it out on their own and reward them when they do. That's what I've been struggling with for a while.

I am known for getting things done. For years, when I had a task, I pursued it to the end. Anyone working with me gave the same feedback: give me the job and forget about it; it will be done. Now, as a leader, it doesn't work as it used to. I can't bring the job to an end, even if I know how to do it. Not only do I have to guide, coach, mentor, or influence people to get things done, I must stay silent, listen, and ask questions instead of giving input when team members are trying to figure out a solution. As an engineer, I've been providing solutions for years, and I developed the behavioral patterns to share what I think is correct, execute work, and get instant rewards. As a leader, staying silent so others can create these behavioral patterns is utterly backbreaking. And this challenge doesn't stop with remaining silent.

Let's take delegating tasks as an example: the formal version of letting others do the job. Until leadership or senior roles, I have got a task that was mine until the end. I implemented, tested, published, followed up, and did more similar things. In a leadership position, it's about creating an initiative, starting the execution, pulling myself back, and giving it to someone so they can grow. In general, this behavior gives the leader time to work on more impactful and strategic work. It sounds simple and effective in theory, but doing it is challenging. Because often, the initiatives we—leaders—kick off easily become our baby, and handing it over to someone else turns out to be not easy. Yet, we somehow have to let it go. We must learn to let it go.

We are rewarded for years because we were great at what we did. Now, accepting the new role and letting others become the best at what we have done for years is challenging. Yet, it is the only way. Effective leadership requires asking questions and not giving answers—especially when there is no question. It demands staying silent—even when we know how to solve a problem—and guiding others to find the right solution without telling them the solution. I'm not saying that we should always stay silent; leaders need or have to know when to stay silent.

One part of letting things go doesn't require staying silent—contrary, it demands to be vocal. When I was a senior engineer, I gave inputs on the projects and explained how complex or easy to implement they were. I asked questions to figure out the priority of a feature or task. Although I was involved in prioritization discussions—and again gave my input—my focus was still on the execution. The prioritization decision was always on the "leadership role" or function of the project or team. After I became a manager, I learned that prioritization skill doesn't develop easily. I tried to implement the same good old friend letting things go strategy—staying silent and asking questions—and failed miserably.

I learned that prioritization demands letting projects/features/tasks go, not giving input. It involves consistently saying no and encouraging to give input as a manager. We can't solve every problem, implement every feature, plan every project, or tackle every organizational challenge. That's why we have to say no to good things to be able to say yes to great things. When we do, we have to explain why we say no and give constructive input about how and when the thing can be done. Simply saying no doesn't work; I tried. Our input as a manager is crucial and has to be clear while we're letting some work go.

The difference between Maker's vs. Manager's Schedule was the actual definition of why I lack focus time. I read that post before I become a manager. So, I knew what I was getting in. During my first few months as a manager, I indeed struggled to find focus time, and I'm still not in a place where I was as a software engineer and will never be. However, when I experimented with delegating work and started lettings things go or saying "No" to various things, my focus time increased. Eventually, letting things go and leading others to do the work improved my focus.

Letting things go is the underlying reason for many other challenges leaders face: lack of focus time, micromanagement, not getting things done, failure to grow others, wrong prioritization, and more. I had managers who always gave input and got their way implemented. I also had managers who stayed silent in the wrong place and failed to say no consistently. Now, I realize they just kept what they have learned over the years as engineers and did not change their behavioral patterns after getting a promotion. They were not bad managers, but also not great ones. They were not effective and couldn't unleash their potential. Now, I'm on the same train, trying to unleash my potential. It's a difficult journey, but worth a try.[1] Will I succeed? I'm not seeking an answer to this question anymore. I had let it go. Time and people will tell, not me.

  1. Recently, I was listening to Marshall Goldsmith on The Knowledge Project podcast, where he talked about the essentials of leadership. He mentioned a simple strategy to overcome leadership challenges, and that's what I will try for a while. Wherever I want to say something, I will take a breath and ask myself: does it worth saying what I'm going to say? If the answer is a no, I will stay silent or only ask questions. If it's a yes, then I'll give my input. ↩︎

Medium Length Last Updated: Sep 12, 2022