And how you can help them as their manager
Being an engineering manager is a completely different career experience for software engineers and being a manager of engineering managers is once again a brand new game.
After almost two decades in my career, where I spent the last decade as an engineering manager, I have met, coached, and mentored many engineering managers, and I can group them into five different categories.
While every engineering manager is unique, it is useful to know what kind of attributes and behaviors they tend to display the most so that you can help them effectively as their manager. And if you’re an engineering manager, knowing which category you are in allows you to understand your strengths and blindspots better.
The five types of engineering managers that you will meet in your career are:
- The Intelligent Challenger
- The Quiet Coach
- The Loud and Loose Leader
- The Ladder Climber
- The Over-Protective Care
1. The Intelligent Challenger
“Why was this decision made?”
“Shouldn’t the new approach be much simpler?”
“How are we going to know when we get there?”
These are the questions you’ll get from engineering managers that belong to this group. They’re no doubt intelligent, but sometimes they can be too much to handle and rub people the wrong way, including their own direct reports.
With these kinds of people, their manager should aim to coach them to be more thoughtful and tactful while recognizing their inquisitive nature is what keeps them engaged in their work.
2. The Quiet, Supportive Coach
The quiet, supportive coaches are dear to my heart because I was often labeled as one in my management career.
As an introverted person who believes in servant leadership, I can totally relate to them because I can easily put myself in their shoes. They are quiet, observant, great listeners, and keen to elevate their team’s success while supporting them behind the scene.
But the downside of having this type of manager is they’re not the first to speak up — even when they notice something isn’t working well immediately. They observe, listen, and understand first. While they are totally capable of being change-makers, they are not ones to make noise. Due to this, their manager might not always notice the good work that they and their team are doing.
If they have a manager who isn’t able to take time to observe and listen as well as themselves and fails to give recognition or opportunities for career growth — then they’ll walk out the door when you least expect them to. And the organization will feel the impact as a result because they had been such a great support to their team and colleagues.
The Loud and Loose leader could easily be mistaken as an Intelligent Challenger on the surface level.
I still remember making that mistake when I joined a new organization as their senior manager early on in my management career where I was managing first-line managers. This manager was always seen everywhere and making their opinions known: on Slack, in Zoom meetings, on tickets, on Intranet pages, and so on. But when it was time to get heads down and deliver (and yes, managers also need to do work, not just talk), they were nowhere to be found. I thought of them as all talk but no action.
But as I’ve grown to understand more and more about people, I see they’re not all that bad. It’s just their energy may be misplaced, and they require special guidance and patience to bring them on a journey of self-awareness. Once they’ve gained self-awareness, they’re like a brand-new person who’s eager to contribute positively and go the extra mile for their teams.
As the name implies, the ladder climber climbs the career ladder proactively and consistently. Give them a challenging project that most people shy away from, and they’ll take it with a smile on their face. Get them to lead the most complex, cross-organisation, multi-year project with a lot of visibility and they will be the happiest. But you have to dangle the carrot in front — a promotion, so to speak.
While having the desire to do well in one’s career can’t be faulted, as their manager, it’s your responsibility to provide a different perspective to them in order to help them avoid disappointment. It’s also important for them to be aware that not everyone has the same level of ambition and stamina as they do, and they need to watch out for feeling burn out not just from themselves but also from their team.
The tell-tale sign of an Over-Protective Carer is that they protect their team from difficulties, and they are unable to accept any negative, even constructive, comments from anyone about their team members.
They’re more common than you might think. Some managers fall into this category because they think this is what it means to be a caring manager. A few managers fall into this category because they are not confident with their own management abilities and are afraid to look incompetent if their team members make any mistake. Some fall into this category because there’s a lack of understanding about their role and responsibilities.
Regardless of why they’re an Over-Protective Carer, they tend to micromanage and become restless when they are responsible for large goals.
As a result, they work long hours, pick up everyone’s slack, and put work above everything else in their lives — all in order to be considered a good manager.
Rather than giving them simple and easy goals for this kind of manager, their manager should challenge them and allow them to grow. Teach them that there is value in making mistakes and taking risks. Coach them through failure, and challenge them beyond their comfort zones. Help them understand how they can be a great manager without needing to shield their team from mistakes.
While the descriptions above may seem a bit harsh, these types of managers are not all bad, and they contribute to the success of the team in one way or the other as long as they’re given the right support. Moreover, just because someone was a loud and loose leader or a ladder climber doesn’t mean they’ll always stay as one throughout their management career.
It’s more about their natural tendencies, and as they get more mature and experienced as managers, they are able to recognise when they may be leaning towards unproductive styles.
I have personally worn the hat of the Quiet, Supportive Coach, the Ladder Climber, and even the Over-Protective Carer when I was new to management. However, with the right support and opportunities, I was able to grow as a manager.