7 mins

Servant leadership may be the missing piece for helping your team reach the next level of success.

Managers of software engineering teams often feel conflicted about the value they bring. Particularly when overseeing teams with multiple senior/staff engineers that don’t quite need extensive people management, it may be valuable to turn the tables and start being a servant leader. Letting the team define the role and purpose of their manager can be a great way to avoid force-fitting the existing skills of an engineering manager onto a mature team whose needs are different.

Though there are many advantages to servant leadership, there are elements of it – that, if taken too far – could hinder your team. Examining and remaining cognizant of this fine line will help your team excel, especially during a period of economic downturn.  

What is servant leadership?

Servant leaders support and serve their teams, valuing the team's feedback and collective wisdom for better outcomes. They trust their team's instincts over their own and communicate the team's vision clearly, representing collective input.

Crucially, they foster humility within the team, acknowledging imperfections in themselves and team members. They take responsibility for the team's vision, encourage alignment, and prioritize learning and growth, inspiring others to do the same. Servant leaders prioritize the team's needs, adapt to circumstances, and step out of their comfort zone when necessary. In essence, they lead by serving and empowering others to achieve shared goals.

Leading by example doesn’t scale

Leading by example is entertaining but is at risk of becoming exhausting and unsustainable. Servant leaders often attempt to exemplify all the behaviors they expect from their engineers, but this approach doesn't scale because there are simply too many aspects to cover, from technical competence to clear communication, teamwork, coaching, feedback, mentorship, sponsorship, and team coordination.

This risk is that leading by example will transform into single-handedly tackling every challenge. An especially likely outcome in a time of crisis where a direct show of competence can come from a place of self-preservation. A more enduring strategy is to recognize individual team member's strengths, empowering them to represent and exhibit those values, thereby fostering a resilient and balanced team dynamic. 

For example, one team member may excel at setting the pace, while another shines at providing meticulous code reviews. As a people manager, the clearest way to lead by example is to point to those on the team who are already doing it perfectly and avoid trying to do it all on your own.

Be a shield for your team over being accountable

Part of being a servant leader is being accountable to the team. Accountability begins with transparency about various aspects, such as how you allocate your time, especially when you're not contributing as an individual contributor (IC).

Not only does this help the team understand the body of work engineering managers do to keep the team operational, but it also helps managers get feedback if they have their priorities wrong. Another plus is that it allows individuals on the team who are looking to grow into people management to have the opportunity to witness an engineering manager’s day-to-day. 

With a lack of caution, transparency can become a double-edged sword. Excessive transparency can trigger panic within a team. For instance, consider an engineering manager being summoned to an executive board meeting to discuss enhancing organizational efficiency without much context. To prepare adequately, they might need to gather financial data, involving input from your engineering team. However, by openly revealing the executive goal of improving efficiency to the team, you could unintentionally raise unnecessary alarm bells. This could be misinterpreted as a potential risk to the organization's continuity or even individual job security.

Depending on the composition of your team, particularly if there are more junior members, it may or may not be a good idea to share existential questions that you've had to field. Managers who are excellent shields for the team keep the noise out. This tends to be more valuable, far more often than any marginal accountability you’re able to bring from being completely transparent.

Prioritize adaptability over unwavering commitment

It’s important for line managers to be operationally involved with the team. At times, managers of managers involve first-line managers in planning and strategy meetings to the point that they fail to provide operational support to their own teams. Whether you lean more towards the tech-lead-manager role or the pure people-manager role, it's crucial for first-line managers to remain operationally engaged with their teams. 

Balancing the technical contributions and people management contributions can be tricky. It’s important to prioritize tasks differently depending on the size, seniority, and gaps in the team. Choosing strictly between people management and technical oversight is now outdated. The aim is not to master one at the expense of the other but to remain adaptable and available according to what the situation demands.

Don’t give up your seat at the table

In organizations with a successful track record of executing long-term initiatives, active participation in planning and strategy discussions is imperative. However, it's equally crucial to evaluate how your involvement in these strategic planning efforts aligns with your role as a servant leader. 

Differentiating between superficial aspects of strategy planning and transformational elements that can shape an organization's trajectory is essential. A straightforward litmus test to discern strategy from theater is to examine the organization's accountability process. If individuals, including leaders and executives, are held directly responsible for the outcomes, both successes and failures, of the strategy, it serves as a clear indication that strategic involvement is not a mere optics exercise and warrants direct involvement.

Prioritizing involvement in activities that merely appear strategic at the expense of serving your team’s needs can diminish your availability to them and undermine your role.

On the flip side, completely disconnecting from wider strategic discussions may put your team's long-term success and influence at risk, as they might lose their seat at the decision-making table. 

The key lies in striking a balance and periodically reassessing how these activities align with your servant leadership approach. If you manage other managers, exercise caution when involving them in time-consuming, potentially futile strategy discussions, especially as a display of your intent to give them growth opportunities. The cost of their absence in daily operations is significant and should be justified.

A culture of conflict, disagreeing, and committing

One thing servant leaders do is encourage healthy conflict in their teams. It brings a great deal of psychological safety for team members to express dissent publicly on product decisions, operational decisions, and strategy. Such open dissent frequently also results in better outcomes than executive decisions made by a single person. 

The cost of over-optimizing for a culture of dissent is that it can sometimes lead to churn and extend timelines of deliverables. Consider a situation where an engineering team is repeatedly discussing the efficacy of a feature at the cost of delivery, even after a collective decision was made to experiment with building it. Without leading indicators of success, the team may be better off building, releasing, and learning instead of repeatedly debating if it should be built at all.

To combat such churn, it's crucial to set expectations that engineers should be able to follow through once the team arrives at a decision, even if they disagree with it. If they have any major concerns, they should raise them before a commitment is in place. That way, unnecessary churn is avoided. 

The perfect engineering manager ratings paradox

Engineering managers often view their manager ratings collected through surveys as the ultimate indicator of their servant leadership success. While these ratings are essential, they don't provide the full picture and can lack context. 

I've made the rookie mistake of flaunting my high manager ratings without considering whether they were an artifact of never having to make tough decisions, manage performance issues, or deliver strong developmental feedback. 

This isn't to say that giving strong feedback and having high manager ratings are mutually exclusive, but a perfect score may sometimes be a result of serving your team exceptionally well while not fully meeting the organization's broader needs. Often, any signs of you having fallen into this category materialize a little later down the line; you may find, for instance, that your team incrementally loses sponsorship from the surrounding organization. 

On the flip side, a lower-than-expected score on management dimension does not necessarily indicate a failure in leadership. Perhaps you have had to make tough and unpopular decisions, disagreeing, and committing to deliver results that drive business value.

Final thoughts

Servant leadership has played a pivotal role in shaping tech people management by emphasizing humility, empathy, and teamwork over authority and top-down decision-making.  Through wielding the skill of servant leadership with wisdom and finesse, your teams are bound to bring success and elevated performance.