6 mins

If you’ve just entered a management role, cultivating your relationship with the senior engineers on your team may be a daunting prospect. Here are a few ways to get that relationship off to a good start.

When I became a manager, I experienced fear and self-doubt, making me question my ability to lead an engineering team.

But after a year of managing a team, I learned that you don’t have to be an expert to lead. Instead, having experience in your team’s space and a genuine interest in helping others will help you lead and care about your reports.

By creating a collaborative and supportive environment, you’ll be able to learn quickly, make the right decisions, and grow your confidence as a leader.

Learn about the people on your team

When I received the green light to transition into a management role, I had one week to prepare. I started by reading The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou, where I learned the importance of truly understanding the people on your team. To begin this process, I scheduled a bi-weekly team meeting and 1:1s.

I learned that my senior engineers could handle scheduling their day-to-day work but still wanted to know that I had their back. I learned that they wanted autonomy, professional growth, and to have their input valued.

Prove you’ll support them

While senior engineers may require less technical guidance compared to newcomers, they still rely on your support. To prove you’re there for them, you can take three key steps: ask questions, take appropriate action, and follow up.

What types of questions should you ask? During 1:1s, I find the following questions to be helpful:

  • What is the biggest challenge you’re facing this week?
  • Is there something you need from me that I still need to provide?
  • How can I help?

Senior engineers are typically self-sufficient, so their first response may not reveal areas where you can offer help. When this happens, try shifting the focus to their plan for completing specific tasks. For instance, ask about their approach to implementing a new feature or how they intend to address a particular problem.

As they respond, pay close attention: if you can offer helpful feedback or support, do it. Alternatively, note any action items for yourself and ensure you follow through on them. If they have a solid plan, let them know they did a great job putting it together.

By actively engaging with your senior engineers through thoughtful questioning, taking action vs. waiting to be asked, and consistently following up on their needs, you will prove that you genuinely care about their success.

Support their career growth

To learn more about supporting my team’s growth, I also read Radical Candor, by Kim Scott, where she shares how to care personally and challenge directly to support your team.

Her book outlines two main growth trajectories for high-performing team members: gradual and steep growth.

  • Gradual growth: People who consistently exceed expectations, make incremental improvements over time, and want to avoid a promotion if it means changing their current scope.
  • Steep growth: People who want to advance their skills quickly and actively seek promotion. Keep them continually challenged.

To find out which trajectory your team members are on, you need to have a conversation about their career goals.

Here are some questions to guide this conversation:

  • What work activities or tasks energize you?
  • What would you like to achieve in the next 6 to 12 months?
  • What motivates you to strive for these goals?
  • What resources or support do you believe you need to accomplish them?

After this conversation, you can work on finding opportunities that align with their growth trajectory.

Give them space to make decisions

Once you assign them an opportunity, give them the space to make decisions. This is important because it helps them become more confident in their decision-making process. Have genuine belief in them throughout this process. Taking the time to understand their strengths, interests, and areas where they can grow can be a useful asset.

That said, giving your team autonomy is often easier said than done, but I’ve had a previous manager who was great at it when I was more junior. For instance, this manager recognized my expertise in networking (switches, routers, network topologies, etc.) and encouraged me to take ownership of networking-related projects, offering additional support for tasks outside my usual scope.

With this understanding, you can provide them opportunities to make meaningful contributions, encourage ownership, and encourage their development.

For instance, if there is someone who has expressed an interest in learning about a framework, give them the opportunity to own it. Give them the information they need and outline your expectations. Once this is done, put time into both your calendars to regularly check up on their progress and give them a stage to ask questions.

By doing this, you encourage them to take charge of their responsibilities and share their insights with you and the team.

Collaborate with your senior engineers

A collaborative environment allows for people, including you, to ask for help and share knowledge.

Lead by example and ask your team for input when something comes up that’s outside of your expertise.

For example, when our team took on new responsibilities during an org change, I learned alongside them. As new things came up, we worked together to figure it out. This process helped us find solutions and created a sense of camaraderie and trust.

Here are some tips to help put this approach into practice: 

  • Be open and honest about not having the answer and invite your team to share their insights
  • Share problems with your team and incorporate their feedback into the decision or plan
  • Recognize and celebrate their contributions no matter how small they may seem to them

Be assertive about your decisions

Although collaboration is the best approach for making decisions, you must make some choices without consulting your team. This need can arise from a decision having to be made quickly or if direction from senior leadership compels you to.

In either case, you should spend time preparing how you’re going to relay that change or decision to your team. When you do share the decision during a team meeting, remember to pause for feedback and allow space for questions. This can be intimidating, especially if some senior engineers strongly disagree with your choice. But as a manager, it is better to remain resolute.

Here’s a simple framework you can follow to prepare your message:

  1. Clearly state the change — whether it’s a new project, feature, or process.
  2. Explain the reasoning behind the change, including the need and goals.
  3. Consider and communicate how the change will impact the team.
  4. Anticipate any questions or concerns your group may have and address them upfront.

To strengthen your message, choose your words carefully. For instance, replace “I think” with “I believe,” use “will” instead of “could” when appropriate, and avoid excessive use of “only” when explaining your reasoning.

In summary

As a new engineering leader, confidently guiding your team may seem challenging, especially if you’ve recently been promoted and find yourself managing the same senior engineers who once mentored you.

However, the key lies in building trust. By genuinely caring about your team’s well-being and development, you earn your team’s permission to lead.