The best tactics for technical career development are an active area of discussion inside all businesses as well as being a topic Salesforce actively promotes. Salesforce offers parallel career tracks with equal opportunity for advancement for people who would like to remain focused on the technical side of things and for people who would like to move into engineering management. Still, it can sometimes be unclear for individual contributors (ICs) to understand how to make the leap from IC to manager — the skillset is different and the behaviors which have taken them to the top of the technical ladder are not always directly applicable to a managerial position.
In order to help with this transition, I’d like to offer a few pointers about the more neglected areas of study required to become a knowledgeable manager. As my team would probably tell you, it’s an ambition that is never really completed — but it’s always useful to have the tools to do so!
Some skills are useful for everyone and many tech companies, including Salesforce, provide training in many of these: communication, coaching, mentoring, how to have difficult conversations, how to become a multiplier, and project management. Though these skills are essential, I won’t be covering them in this post given they are standard skills everyone should already know they need to learn in order to become successful. The topics we’re interested in are often neglected due to the lack of easily accessible articles and topics on them — topics like motivation, leadership, organizational cultures, employee relations (rights and responsibilities, the law around discrimination) or the selection and assessment of candidates.
I’ll cover the above in this post to give you an idea of the things you probably need to start understanding in order to make the leap and have the skills and knowledge required.
Important topics in management
This is an extensive and widely reviewed topic, essential both for aspiring managers and thought leaders inside an organization. Numerous theories such as House’s path goal theory, leader-member exchange theory or Fiedler’s contingency model provide different ways of approaching management styles, while discussions around the different theories of leadership such as authentic, transformational, or servant leadership styles can expose you to multiple approaches you can choose to leverage when dealing with your own reports.
I’ve been heavily influenced myself by path goal theory as a way of understanding and crafting my own position as manager. Path-goal theory emphasizes that leadership style should be a function of the characteristics of your team and your environment — there is no one true leadership style appropriate for all teams and all situations. Depending on the context, a manager can be directive, supportive, participative or adopt an achievement-oriented style — it’s up to you to evaluate your environment and people in order to decide which approach fits best.
The key here is to go beyond understanding what these theories describe and understanding how you can leverage these models to decide what type of leader you want to be. Consciously adopting a leadership style can also be useful — do you want to focus on being an authentic leader or a transformational leader? Or, as is more likely, an amalgamation of the different attributes of these styles?
Selection and Assessment of candidates
Most people managers are also hiring managers. This is another area where there is a large amount of research backed by empirical evidence. Nonetheless, in practice it’s very rare to see a proper recruitment pipeline in place. This is a large field in itself, with everything from gathering the KSAO (job-related knowledge, skills, aptitudes and other competencies) required for the position you’re filling to understanding how to assess effective workplace performance.
My personal area of interest has been selection and assessment methods. In fact, I spent a whole year researching how candidates react to hiring processes — an area of study known as applicant reactions to selection methods. The way a candidate is treated — everything from the choice of assessment methods, how long it takes to get back to them, the medium (web, paper, phone), the interpersonal warmth of the interviewer — influences whether a candidate will accept an offer as well as the perception they form of the company. This leads to downstream effects such as avoiding the brand entirely in future or not recommending the company to family and friends.
Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of different methods such as personality tests, ability tests, interviews and work samples — and how to effectively implement them (interviews, for example, are a process which are shockingly bad in most companies) — gives you a great competitive advantage in hiring the best people for your team as well as ensuring even rejected candidates have a favorable attitude towards your company.
A key responsibility as a manager is making sure your employees are motivated. There’s an incredible amount of research on the topic, going from expectancy theory to goal-setting theory and ERG theory. Though they sometimes contradict each other, they all bring valuable insights and ideas into how to fulfill this core function.
Though it’s sometimes hard to see, most of this research doesn’t happen in an academic vacuum. Look closely at Salesforce’s V2MOM or Google’s OKRs and you’ll see goal-setting theory in action. It’s often possible to feel that these are just management fads that come and go, but with a bit of research you can unearth the large amounts of evidence for the effectiveness of these organizational initiatives. Even in your team, understanding the different workplaces motivators and demotivators proposed by Herzberg’s Two Factor theory can be invaluable.
A short and simplistic summary of his theory is
that there are certain factors in the workplace that cause job satisfaction, while a separate set of factors cause dissatisfaction.
Herzberg theorized that job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction act independently of each other — therefore, removing demotivators is not enough to increase job satisfaction. As a manager, you need to focus on increasing motivators as well; otherwise, no amount of dealing with complaints and issues will make your team happy. This theory really provided me with insights into issues which I had never clearly articulated or taken the time to investigate.
Managing in a culturally diverse world
Learn about power distance relationships in various cultures, the different communication styles of different personalities and regions of the world, and social expectations such as time-keeping and responsiveness. This is crucial in an international business such as Salesforce with offices and employees around the world.
Being based in the UK myself, I’ve found in the course of writing this post several enjoyable articles outlining cultural differences. As an example, the British would say “I would suggest,” meaning “Do it or be prepared to justify yourself!,” while others might understand “Think about the idea, but do what you like.” My favorite has to be an British person stating “Very interesting,” when in fact they mean “That is clearly nonsense,” and a non-British person would walk away elated thinking they were impressed! Here’s a great article listing out more examples — learn it by heart before working in the UK…
This is a tricky one. It’s a space filled with buzzwords and management fads, yet actually a large amount of rigorous academic research has been done in this area. What is a strong company culture? How do you bring about such a company culture — in fact, is it something you actually want to instill in your organization? Learn about different company structures such as matrix organizations, the value of flat vs hierarchical reporting lines, concepts such as holocracy, and how they pan out in the real world.
At the end of the day, this might be the “fuzziest” of the topics I’m presenting. It’s easy to lose sight of the forest when down amongst the trees but having a good grasp of the principles and main ideas behind how businesses are organized and how large groups of people are bound together in a common endeavor is crucial if you’re operating in such an environment. Though I haven’t really taken any immediately actionable learnings from this topic, it provides a fresh viewpoint when reflecting on your role inside the business.
This last topic covers issues like the psychological contract between an employee and the organization i.e. how you expect to be treated as an employee based on how the organization (embodied in your manager) treats you. Interesting sub-topics include organizational justice and organizational citizenship behavior. It also covers legal matters such as understanding what constitutes discrimination, what types of behavior are illegal and what society expects you as a manager to provide to your employees.
I hope the list above has provided a few insights into the variety of topics managers are expected to know about. Moving from an individual contributor to a managerial role is harder than it sounds. You’ll probably be transferring into a totally different field in which you have little knowledge beyond your own experiences with managers over the course of your career. It’s actually a fascinating field though — having a software engineering background myself, I initially thought I’d find it rather boring. What I found is that, studied carefully, it provides all the complexity and intellectual depth I love in technology — and being halfway decent in both will really make you a more competent technical manager!
This is the second post in a series of resolutions you as an engineer may want to make for the new year. Follow us on Twitter @SalesforceEng to make sure you catch the rest of the installments!