Plato Event #1 (part 4/6) — Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things

Four great Engineering Leaders (from Facebook, Kabam, Clever and Medium) share their tips to be great Engineering Leaders during the Plato event #1 hosted on May 15, 2017 in San Francisco

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Christian opened the panel with interesting quotes from Peter Drucker, a famous management consultant, educator, and author:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” 
“With the rise of the knowledge worker, one does not ‘manage people.’ The task is to lead people.”

Christian pointed out that companies today aren’t focused on creating as much of a strong engineering management and leadership as they should. He asked others about their own definition of leadership and the characteristics of a good leader.

What is your definition of the leadership?

For Jean, a good leader is someone that people want to follow, makes you better at what you do, and is excellent at communicating and getting the team to work well together. She added that good leaders should guide people to a common goal.

Nikhil brought up an interesting point — engineers are very opinionated people and notice things other people don’t. There are two types of engineers you might have on a team: non-leaders and leaders. The difference between the two is that non-leaders tend to complain and not take any action to improve a situation, whereas leaders are more proactive about solving the problem.

As a conclusion to this question, Yi cited John Maxwell: “Leadership is influence.” Yi explained that you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader and influence others, you don’t need to be leader in the job, you can influence friends and family.

What is the difference between a manager and a leader?

While Yi agrees the Peter Drucker quote, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things,” he adds that at the end of the day, the leader controls the “what,” direction, and goals, and managers control how you meet those goals.

Richard mentioned a book he read about high-output management where the author pointed out that the output of a manager is the collective output of their team. Leaders are the ones who solve problems.

Nikhil adds that when you are a leader and not a manager, the big difference is that managers have the positional authority they can use to influence their team.

Christian emphasized there’s a difference between being a leader without being a manager and being a manager without being a leader, citing examples like Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

How did you prepare for going from an individual contributor to a manager?

Christian noticed that many people have coaches for things such as sports, music, programming, but that there was much less coaching in leadership, even when it’s needed. Because of this, he was interested to hear about the road that the other panel participants took to becoming a manager.

Jean mentioned that at Medium, she landed a specific role called a group lead. That’s why Jean herself is more oriented toward coaching than the traditional technical leader role.

Nikhil was an employee in an early startup, and they started to hire more people and he began managing them, which he still does to this day. He admits that his path is not something he would advise to other people.

Richard was lucky — he had a great mentor as a manager in 2003 when he was working at LucasArts. He learned a great deal from his mentor. Fast forward few years later, when he was working on a project that needed a manager, and based on his experience from this mentor, he thought he’d be a good candidate. He explained how he went sheepishly to his CTO and said that he wanted to give the manager position a try. His CTO replied, “I think you’re ready.” Richard also said he recognized that there were things he didn’t know, and that recognition helped him to focus and grow by learning those things. He advised leaders to look for what they don’t know, embrace it, and don’t worry about the things you already know. Instead, spend that time and energy learning new information.

Yi’s first management job was at Facebook, and he went through their training program. He said that he became a manager because it was what his manager wanted. When Yi told his manager that he didn’t know what it took to be a manager, his manager replied, “No worries, just keep doing what you’ve been doing.” “Apparently, he lied,” Yi joked. He quickly realized he needed to change a lot and learn new skills to adapt to a new position. The only thing that didn’t change was his commitment to providing value to others.

He also added that there was a lot of training at Facebook, but once that training ended, people were on their own. That’s why he believes in what we do here at Plato.

How do you manage mediocre employees without firing them?

Someone from the audience had a really interesting question: how do you manage mediocre employees whom you don’t want to fire? Nikhil said that you need to set proper expectations and track performance. It’s important to specify what needs to improve and incorporate those items into your action plan.

Yi added that the key is to manage yourself. He thinks there is no team with A players or B players — everyone is either in the team or out. By keeping mediocre players on your team, the entire team will become mediocre. If that’s what you want, then you are a mediocre manager.

Richard disagreed with Yi, saying that Facebook has numerous hiring advantages, including cost-benefit analysis and a budget at least twice the size of a small company’s. He also adds that when he realizes an employee is mediocre, he don’t want to fire that person, because that only creates another problem: finding someone to fill that position, which could take as long as six months counting training. There is no right answer here — you need to base your decision on the organization’s current needs and possibilities.

How do you inspire the team and lead them through rough patches and mundane projects?

Jean has an awkward, yet effective strategy: she asks her team what they want out of their time in the company. This leads to talking about leaving the company, which people don’t like to talk about, but she emphasized that this how you learn how to inspire them. For example, by admitting that you know the person might be working on a less-than-exciting project, you can also point out that it’s also a great way for the person to hone his or her skills for the future.

Nikhil added that it’s good to know what people on your team like and are excited about. You should find something in the project to keep their interest. Even if there is nothing interesting, they’re still getting experience.

“I like to use fear!” Richard joked. His approach is to tell the team what work that needs to be done, and then ask them how they want to do it. This way, he gives them the choice to organize themselves.

“There is only one way to get anybody to do anything. And that is by making the other person want to do it,” Yi quoted Dale Carnegie. Increasing incentive or the penalty won’t work in this case.

“You need to find what motivates them to get the work done,” Christian concluded, closing the panel.

Check-out the full video here (28 min)


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