July 26, 2020.
One of the best measures of your long-term success as a Staff-plus engineer is that the organization around you increasingly benefits from, but doesn’t rely upon, your contributions. Because many folks reach their first Staff-plus role by being the “go to” person for the organization, it can be a difficult transition from essential to adjacent.
This transition requires learning to deliberately create space for the team around you, and comes down to actively involving them in discussions, decisions, and ultimately substituting sponsorship for repeating the successes that got you to Staff in the first place.
When you’re focused on maximizing your personal impact, a good discussion is one that ends quickly with a reasonable answer, alignment among the participants, and positive feelings among the participants. When you start thinking about creating space, the definition of a good meeting expands quite a bit!
In this broader definition, a good meeting depends on getting more folks involved and getting to a good set of decisions without much of your own personal contribution. A good meeting is, in this new world, one that it turns out you didn’t need to attend. When you make a key contribution, feel good about it, and then think about what needs to happen for someone else to make that contribution next time.
Along with the shift in mindset, there are a few techniques that I’ve found helpful in creating more space in discussions:
As you follow these more and more faithfully, your experience in meetings will shrink and your impact on the organization will grow.
For so much of your career, success is making the right decision, and it takes a while to realize that at a certain point making the decisions isn’t the work. Ritu Vincent described that transition well,
It was also on that project where my manager helped me understand that my first impulse as a tech lead didn’t scale. Initially I was thinking, “I’ll break it into twenty pieces, assign out eighteen pieces, and keep the two hardest for myself,” and my manager pushed me to delegate the hard pieces to the team to stretch and develop them.
On the other hand, it’s hard to transfer your judgement to someone else, particularly around complex decisions. Fortunately, it’s possible to take an incremental approach to shifting increasingly complex and important decisions to your wider team.
Involving folks in decisions you make and sharing your decision-making approach is a valuable component of growing the team around you, but what about making the decisions theirs?
By including folks in your discussions and decisions, you involve them into your work. This is a great way to grow, involve and learn from those around you, but at some point you have to take the next step.
Instead of involving them in your work, make the work theirs.
This final step is sponsoring others for the kind of work that got you to a Staff-plus role. When critical work comes to you, your first question should become, “Who could be both successful with and grown by this work?” See if you can get them to lead the work, and then work with them to scaffold the project for their success. What would your approach be? What are some initial concerns they might want to think through? Who are stakeholders they should discuss the problem with early?
When you identify new critical work, perhaps identifying a gap in your tooling or process, think about who else could be generating that work and then sit down with them to have them put together the proposal you planned to write. Then build support for their proposal just as you would have for your own.
Importantly, when the work becomes theirs, you have to let it be theirs. Council, give advice, provide context, but ultimately sponsorship includes letting them take an approach that you wouldn’t. It might end up going poorly, and they’ll learn from that – just like you’ve learned from your mistakes over your career. It might end up going very well, and then you’ll learn something instead.
While sponsorship should become your default approach to problems, it shouldn’t be your only tool. Most Staff-plus engineers find it’s important to remain directly involved in some projects to retain their context of how their software, tooling and organization work in practice. If you need a rule of thumb, keep a sponsorship journal and ensure you’re sponsoring others at least a few times a month – if you find yourself sponsoring less frequently than that, dig into what’s stopping you.
Conversely, if you look back and can’t think of anything you’ve worked on directly in the past few months, that’s worth course-correcting too.
If you’ve cemented the final cobblestones to a Staff-plus role by becoming the “go to person” for a key company leader, then you’ve learned that solving an urgent problem for an organizational leader is one of the surest paths to recognition. If you’ve become the technical visionary whose ideas saturate the company’s architecture roadmap, then you’ve learned how powerful it feels to operate the gate to your company’s technical future.
It’s hard to give those up.
However, the best case for this model is a company that thrives temporarily until that individual leaves. The far more common worst case is a company constrained by your personal limitations, and the only company that can tolerate being constrained by you is a company that doesn’t grow.
The only way to remain a long-term leader of a genuinely successful company is to continually create space for others to take the recognition, reward and work that got you to where you’re currently sitting. It can be surprisingly uncomfortable, but don’t worry: there will always be new work for you anyway.