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:
Shift your contribution towards asking questions. Asking the right questions helps avoid missteps, but also makes it easier for more folks to contribute
If you see someone in the meeting who isn’t participating, pull them into the discussion. It works best to pull exactly one person at a time into the discussion, it gets confusing when you open it up broadly to everyone or even just try to pull two or three people at once
Be the one to take notes, this helps destigmatize note taking as “low status” and also frees up an alternative would-be notetaker to contribute more instead. It also gives you something to focus on other than speaking!
If you realize someone’s missing from the discussion who should be there, be the person to pull them into the next occurrence of the meeting. Talk with the meeting coordinator to let them know why it’s valuable to include them
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.
Write it down. There’s a well-worn model of genius encapsulated in the Feynman algorithm: “1) Write down a problem. 2) Think very hard. 3) Write down the solution.” This mystical view of genius is both unapproachable and discouraging. It’s also unrealistic, but it’s hard for folks to know it’s unrealistic if we don’t write down our thinking process for others to follow. By writing down the process of finding an answer, as well as the rationale for the answer, folks around us can begin to learn from our decisions rather than simply being directed by them
Circulate early, and do it before you’ve crystalized on a decision. Most folks struggle to walk back from a formed opinion, and by gathering feedback early it’s much easier to incorporate feedback and involve folks in the decision-making process so they can see the trajectory of your thinking in addition to the final output
Separate style from substance, and stop giving style feedback on other folks’ decisions. If a piece of feedback won’t meaningfully change a project’s success then consider not giving it. If it’s useful but not critical, potentially make a private suggestion rather than pulling a meeting into your orbit
Don’t try to show value. Some senior folks feel like they need to weight in on everything to justify their seniority. Others require each decision to exactly mirror a similar decision they once made. Both of these center insecurity over impact, and prevent others from growing as leaders
Change your mind. One of the biggest signs of respect for your coworkers is listening to them and then changing your mind afterwards. If senior leaders don’t change their mind, then soon everyone will correlate bluster with success
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.
What if you don’t?
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.