It shouldn’t be a surprise that the outlook for many tech companies in 2023 is not rosy. With layoffs across the industry, we’re all going through a challenging time - whether you’re a dev or not.
The last 14 years have been an unprecedented boom time - but economic conditions will eventually challenge all companies. How do we, as leaders, handle these challenges?
I sat down with Michael Stahkne, VP of platform at Circle CI; Lewis Tuff, VP of engineering at Blockchain.com; Carolyn Vo, partner & head of engineering at Oliver Wyman, for a panel at Dev Interrupted's conference to answer that exact question. Here’s how these leaders described what effective leadership looks like in uncertain times.
Some people will see this as counterintuitive. If times are tough, don’t you need more time to get work done? However, stellar communication is one critical way to lead effectively in both prosperous times and times of crisis.
Michael had a strong viewpoint on this: in an async remote world, he will communicate when he needs to, and he expects his colleagues to share when they need time back. They have tools with settings to mute communications and get notifications as they see fit, and they can choose when to respond.
It’s important to acknowledge that part of communicating well involves meetings (gasp!). It’s common to hear engineers complain about meetings. Yes, it’s good to streamline meeting schedules to reduce synchronous status updates that force context-switching. There are, however, ways to have effective meetings—and some are essential. Many meetings are crucial working sessions where you can collaborate with your colleagues.
Yet not all communication is formal. Informal signaling is also key. For example, Carolyn shared how she jokingly refers to herself as “Jr. Probationary Intern” to break down the artificial separation between you and your teammates as you become more senior. You can’t get rid of the power dynamic completely, but you don’t want your new people to be scared of you, and you need to have their trust to understand people’s motivations. Carolyn chooses to try to lower that separation through humor and direct acknowledgment.
You can't let this happen:
Understanding your team’s motivation is also essential. When things are uncertain, you must determine what motivates each team member. They’ll have questions like “Will I get to write the code I like?” And you have to answer immediately, “Yes, you will,” or “Yes, but you’re going to be reallocated to this new group.”
Michael also noted an often underrated motivating factor: How is your company oriented?
If your company is customer-oriented, if you’re focused on what they’re trying to achieve and are helping them do that—it softens the blows that land on your own company in tough times. Cutting back on your bets and focusing on your high-impact projects can also help with this and is sometimes necessary; sadly, this is often seen in layoffs or “reductions in workforce”.
Once you understand people’s motivations, you can help bring joy by providing space for teams to have fun.
When valuations are going up and to the right, it’s a lot easier to have work feel fun - so in an uncertain period, it’s imperative to get teams excited when you can. It lets people stop focusing on the downturn and instead on things that excite them.
Everyone can define “fun” differently, but knowing your team’s motivation can help you find the right ways to provide some levity and keep everyone aligned. You can bring fun in simple ways, like sharing something interesting you learned at the start of a meeting or, in Michael’s case, by throwing in emojis on Slack and shooting memes at a high rate per day.
For Lewis, teammates can find fun by having space to experiment and try new things with little pressure. Even if you disagree with your direct report’s decisions, part of providing space to experiment is still advocating for them and letting their choices play out—even if what they’re making feels like something you’ve seen before. Even then, the variables can be different, and it could turn out entirely differently. Whatever you do, don’t tell everyone you disagree with your team member’s idea.
One way to understand how much fun a team can have is to understand your tolerance for failure, which can get stricter as things get uncertain. But being transparent about this tolerance will continue to give team members the space to enjoy their work.
There is a myth that you must filter lousy news and hard decisions as a leader. But being transparent helps people understand the context behind why things are happening and helps ensure people aren’t being shocked. If you end up filtering news, you breed rumors and speculations, which can produce resentment.
Another pitfall to avoid with tough communication is blame. One example of blameful leadership is when a team member asks for a raise, and the leader says, “I want to give you one, but my boss won’t let me.” This type of blaming irks leaders like Michael, partly because it comes off as inauthentic. Authenticity is an integral part of being transparent and conducting successful challenging communication. There are a lot of discussions you can have during tough conversations beyond finding someone else to blame. Plus, people who own messaging are more likely to get promoted.
Providing harsh feedback can be challenging, particularly across cultural boundaries where how tough feedback is communicated can vary wildly. Like Carolyn, this is an area of improvement I see for myself as a leader, and somewhere, I’ve made mistakes. One example: I had to communicate critical feedback to a team member and thought I was writing a thorough and fair review by simply writing extensive feedback and including positives and negatives.
However, I didn’t spend enough time thinking about how to communicate that critical feedback: I started by addressing an area of concern and initially shared the feedback in writing vs. having a conversation with them. In some cultures, such as the Netherlands, this might have been perfectly acceptable--but in working with a US-based team member who was seeing layoffs at other companies, it backfired. Instead of helping provide feedback to initiate improvement, I’d caused them to worry that their job was at risk.
In the end, I had to assuage this team member's worries--and acknowledge my own failure in how I communicated the criticism; I lacked context and empathy in my communication. When sharing critical feedback, I needed to remember the old US business adage of two positives to one negative.
While communication is crucial for leadership, particularly in tough times, it isn’t the only thing. It’s also important to buckle down and ask yourself, “How can we as leaders remove roadblocks?”
If we want our team members to direct how they want to progress, we need to figure out how to support that and track it. By tracking this for your reports, you can align how you feel they progressed with how they feel while tailoring things to the individual. For engineering leaders, understanding the health of your team - without being a data-driven tyrant - is a crucial first step.
A helpful next step is to find the individuals who are driving the company's principles and have them mentor teammates. Leadership can come from every seat but often requires effort to foster culturally and enable team members' progression.
Leading in uncertain times hinges on communication, transparency, and understanding motivation. You can’t treat everyone the same, as everyone has different goals and ideas for fun. The more you tailor to your individuals, the more you can help your team thrive in uncertainty.
Watch my whole conversation with Carolyn, Michael, and Lewis on our YouTube 👇