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Every few weeks a team member or colleague asks how to become an SE Leader. The most direct approach would be to answer their question with a list of steps. However, just as with customers we should give the aspiring leader what they need not what they ask for. We must first take a step back to understand the individual’s drivers and motivations. Educate them on what the role of the Leader is. Provide them with tools for self introspection and awareness. Finally, develop a career action plan – that may or may not be a leadership role.
When entering these conversations I can typically tell if the person would make a good leader or not with a very simple question.
“Why do you want to be a leader?”
The answers typically fall into 3 buckets:
- “ME-ME”: the candidate talks about how successful they have been. They feel like they have reached the peak. They have to be a manager to move up in the company. The majority of the time they are complaining about their day job.
- “SUPER SE”: the candidate describes how team members always go to them for help. They want to formally train and mentor the team. They know what SE’s want and how to have their back.
- “LEADER”: the candidate describes interests not only in doing the SE role but has evidence of learning or being involved in ancillary activities such as business, finance, non-profit organizations, interfacing cross functionally. They are the ones who always step up to leading tiger teams, cross functional projects, and tools to help others, even if it doesn’t directly impact their quota. They are seeing exposure to learn and to build.
I find that ME-ME’s reason for being a leader is more about a cry for help than it is a desire for leadership. Focus on transitioning the discussion to a general career discussion. They would not make a good leader – at least not with that current mind set. Leadership is a servant position.
The SUPER SE is a borderline candidate. Your focus with them is to educate on what the SE Leader role really is, i.e. only a small percentage is downward facing to the team itself. Their risk is that they will try to be both an SE and a Leader and do both poorly. Their SE skills will atrophy while never fully having the time to become a leader. These are the managers who are constantly busy doing paper work, micromanaging their team, and being overworked but not producing. These candidates are often best as peer leaders and mentors.\
LEADER’s are those who understand the multi disciplinary part of the SE Leader role. They are ready to leave behind being an SE. They have a build first mentality and have displayed a willingness to do so without personal gain.
What do you love doing?
After the “Why?” you should seek to understand the candidate’s drivers. In any given day, what gives them energy and what takes it away? What activities make the day go by in a flash but by the end of the day they still have energy and a sense of accomplishment. What are 20 things that make you smile? On the flip side, what activities do you dread going to work and doing? What things do you procrastinate at doing?
Do you know what an SE Leader actually does?
Many aspiring leaders don’t actually understand what a leader does. Remember, they only see the parts of the leader role that interacts with them personally. They don’t have visibility to the other 70% when the SE leader works cross functionally or up the chain.
A few key points I make are:
- The role is more than just SE skill development and mentoring. It includes budgeting, territory planning, process development, customer escalations, content development, product management, go to market planning, forecasting, etc.
- The job of an SE leader is moving the entire bell curve of team performance 5-10% higher.
Finally, the most educational tool I have found is to share my calendar. Show the aspiring leader what the week is really like. In the example below (click for full size) you can see red eye flights, staff meetings, enablement meetings, one on ones, customer workshops, recognition, pricing calls, team member assessments, forecast calls, head count planning, fiscal years planning and interviews. You can also observe that there are times for work life balance such as hitting the cross-fit gym, traveling to Paso Robles, going out to dinner with the family, and attending wine tasting events.
Scare Them Away!
The candidate would be crazy to want to be an SE Leader. Do they realize:
- Recognition: They will no longer be the rockstar getting all the attention. An SE Leader has to be OK with only 10% of the credit (or no credit at all). The SE Leader role is one of the hardest and most under appreciated/recognized roles in a tech company. You need to be ok with that. We are servant leaders.
- Adults can be Childish: Adults never really stopped being children. Just because we turned 18 we didn’t mean we magically matured. Adults try to play the “mom said no, lets ask dad game”, don’t know about personal grooming habits, fib, etc.
- Money: an SE Leader’s base salary may be slightly higher but for any given year ~45% of their team will make more money than them. The SE Leader’s quota is the sum of their team’s quota. They will have top performers and low performers. Thus they are the average. Go do the math 😉
- Career Decision: moving into leadership is a completely new discipline than technical fields. The aspiring leader must move from being a rock star individual contributor and start at ground zero on the skill curve. They have to go back to learning. It is not like trying out a different tech for a while and then swapping back.
- Fail and you Leave Company: if the person moves into leadership and fails they end up leaving the company 90% of the time. Sometimes this is the companies decision but more often than not it is the failed leader’s decision. When they made the move into leadership their SE skills atrophied. They also have pride and it is hard for a person to fail and then go back with being a peer again.
Arm and challenge the aspiring leader to do some personal exploration. I often recommend they read a few books. If they are fascinating reads then they are likely on the right path. If they are boring drudgery that is a sign as well.
At the end I explain that any career path they choose whether management or not I will support them and we should make a plan. I am committed to their career whether it is in our current company or if I even have to find them a fit outside the company.
However, the support I offer is not free. I offer an employer 100% 401k match. The amount of effort they put into their career plan and path I will match 100% with my effort. I will join recurring mentoring calls with them, expose them to leadership activities, etc. I warn them that their day job is busy and they will need to find the time to do these things. After all if they can’t find the time now how do they think they can do it when they are a first time manager?
If we have discovered during the course of the conversation that people leadership is not for them then I do my best to find a different role or even create a role for them.
A final recommendation is that they try leadership out in a safe manner without having to go all in and risk failure. Determine ways they can take on some leader responsibilities while still an individual contributor. Setup a leadership training curriculum for them.
If they decide to take the plunge… get ready for a wild ride!