6 mins

As an engineering manager, it’s time for me to guide my tech lead to bolster their communication skills.

Hi Maria,

I’m a senior engineering manager with a tech lead on my team who could use help with organizing their thoughts when presenting. They are extremely good technically and excellent at mentoring the team through their work.  However, their thought process reads as disorganized during design discussions, where they often haphazardly jump from one layer to another.

The team has gotten used to their style without much issue, except occasionally when the quality engineers show some confusion. But this manner of communication will be a challenge as we scale. Our team is bringing in new people who do not know the domain and I need my tech lead to onboard them, which could create issues. Outside of this, their communication style is also a problem when I take them to present to upper management. Can you help?



Hi Chitleen,

Your insight around the tech lead’s communication is a great point to bring up with them. 

To address how to tackle this issue with them we’ll explore two aspects:

  • Motivating them to invest in the skill of communicating 
  • Giving them support and resources to lean on

Motivating them to invest in bettering their communication

The point of this step is to establish why communication should matter to them. It’s not clear whether the tech lead is aware that they would stand to grow their communication skills. If not, that’s the best place to start in your next 1:1. It seems as though you’ve already captured good quality feedback by mentioning different situations/contexts in which you’ve noticed them communicate either with teammates, QE, or upper management. Mention these observations of a disorganized thought process to them and explain the impact i.e., some confusion from peers, but also a reluctance on your part to bring them to higher visibility opportunities. 
Make it clear that your feedback aims to foster their growth rather than highlight shortcomings. Explain that it’s part of team expansion and reflects how much you depend on them for that growth.

Get their input on your observations too. Do they feel they have a skill gap when it comes to communication as well? This is useful because you might want to approach feedback slightly differently if they don’t see there’s a gap, or likewise, if they aren’t able to see the value in developing this skill. Depending on the specifics, you’ll want to understand how they perceive their role. What are their future personal aspirations? If it’s anything like founding a company or getting promoted to own an even larger scope, clarify that this skill will be integral to that progress. 

Next, work with them on building effective technical communication. We’ll break this down into three components: clarity of thought, empathy with the audience, and delivery tactics.

Clarity of thought

Your tech lead’s seemingly disorganized thinking could be a sign that there are some gaps in their knowledge. During your 1:1, explore this aspect, as it’s possible they’re struggling to convey the message due to these gaps. Alternatively, their scattered communication style might simply stem from processing their thoughts aloud, even if they understand the domain well. This step is foundational because it’s near impossible to convey a message or teach something we don’t understand.

A technique that could help them in both scenarios is to mindmap the domain they’re discussing in preparation for meetings. This exercise helps them pre-process and form their thoughts by visualizing connections, user interactions with the systems, and system wiring. This clarity can guide them in finding a starting point when presenting. It can also help them strengthen their understanding of areas where they’re fuzzy on the details beforehand. 

Once they feel confident with the content at various levels of detail, the next step is to tailor their message to the audience.

Empathizing with the audience

The goal of this step is to understand the role and goals of who they’re speaking to, and what that audience cares about. Two different audiences being presented to on the same general topic will require a difference in the approach your lead might want to pick. Effective communication, technical or not, is about helping the audience with their goals as directly as possible.

Let’s use an example: say technical debt that has accumulated in the tech lead’s team. They’d approach this matter entirely differently when pitching to executives for a new hire as opposed to when someone is onboarding onto the team. In the former, they’ll want to focus on the business goals resolving this debt will accelerate, alongside alternatives they’ve considered; it’s not the time for a deep dive into the technical details. By contrast, once the time comes for them to onboard a new hire, they’ll want to focus on the details and prioritize the issues that need addressing.

Here are some prompts for the tech lead to go over ahead of meetings – especially ahead of important ones:

  • Who will be in the meeting? What are their roles?
  • When it comes to this topic, what’s important to them? What do they care about?
  • What are some concerns or questions that I expect them to raise? Can I proactively address them?

Pointers for delivery

It’s good for your tech lead to have a structured approach for every conversation. The below outline is one they can lean on when they need to deliver a message:  

  • Start with a summary, then dive into the details. One example technique is the pyramid principle. This is a brain-friendly approach regardless of the topic because it gives the audience a mental model for upcoming details or information. This is especially true in this day and age, where our attention spans are generally suffering, and directness is less work than figuring out the endpoint.
  • Stop to check for understanding, and to ask for input or disagreement. Sharing out is only half of effective communication; the other half is listening. Listening can constitute as paying attention to verbal cues or scanning the audience’s body language for agreement or disagreement. To take it a step further, they can make a note to pause and explicitly invite questions throughout the session. That allows them to build a connection with their audience and saves them from going too far down a path the audience might not be following.
  • Use visuals smartly. Visual communication is particularly effective in tech as it simplifies typically intricate concepts. In practice, this doesn’t have to look like a slide deck or anything fancy. Encourage them to practice drawing concepts or architectures on a whiteboard while talking. In presenting data or strategy, ask them to use easier ways for the audience to process (for example, charts to show growth instead of a bullet list of sentences). Dan Roam’s work can be a useful resource here. On some occasions (systems topologies and data-rich conversations are examples), words are just not the best medium; drawing a diagram can be both more collaborative and an easier format for the audience to understand.

Final thoughts

Going through the first two steps will help your tech lead pick the main points and tailor their message to the situation. Experimenting with the techniques in the third step will help them figure out their unique effective style during the session itself. 

With consistency, this will all become a habit of theirs, so you’ll see them communicating more naturally. On your end, keep finding opportunities for them to exercise effective communication, offer them practice and coaching in your 1:1s, and seek out feedback to offer them after each occasion to help them grow over time.

–– Maria

If you need a secondary perspective on a problem you're having at work, our coaches are on hand to help! Submit your challenge here