February 2, 2021

The Six Traits Behind Every Successful VP of Engineering

Table of Contents

Key takeaway

You’re good at what you do. You have worked hard to get to this point, and so far you have been rewarded for your progress and success. The only problem is your career seems to be reaching a plateau. 

Maybe you are bored with your day-to-day responsibilities, or maybe you feel you are ready for a new challenge. This plateau is common for employees in every industry; but in the fast-paced, cutthroat world of engineering and technology, it can be even more difficult to move out of middle management.

I would know, as I spent many years as a manager at Cisco before being promoted to VP of Engineering. While this transition was not seamless, my promotion was also not coincidental. During my time in middle management, I leveraged my leadership skills by imaginatively wearing the hat of my manager or  the business leader of my product area, or the customer. This allowed me to work with a bigger picture and naturally demonstrated what I could bring to the company in a new role.

Even with this “stepping up”, the jump from manager to director, and later from director to VP, was a large one. I stumbled along the way, but by reflecting on both my successes and failures, I was able to rapidly progress my career. I am currently the Chief Development Officer at ThoughtSpot, where we have had great success in building a product organization that thrives on solving our users’ and customers’ unmet needs with differentiated approaches, velocity, and high quality.

In this blog, I would like to share what I have learned by providing you with the key traits necessary for both promotion and success at the head of engineering level. I encourage you to challenge yourself by embodying these characteristics daily in your current role. The results may surprise you.

1. Vulnerability

It was my first week as a newly minted VP. As I sat around other, more seasoned leaders in my CEO’s staff meeting, I was anxious to prove myself by sharing with them my team’s successes. My CEO then asked each of us to provide an update, and to my surprise, my colleagues began to speak openly about their challenges and failures. They each showed great vulnerability as they detailed both their wins and losses, and I began to reevaluate my approach to the job. 

It was then that I realized your success as a leader is directly related to your ability to authentically self-reflect. By talking about your challenges with others, you can see your weaknesses more clearly and utilize the experience of others to improve. 

After I learned this lesson, I began to integrate it into my hiring practices as a VP at Cisco. The strongest candidates are able to admit what they don’t know and listen for suggestions. This has been my secret weapon in both hiring effectively and navigating my own role. By being open about your weaknesses, your leaders will gain trust in you so that they can know exactly what to expect. 

Bottom line: if you are not vulnerable your team never will be. It’s okay, even encouraged, to show vulnerability to your leaders. It may seem counterintuitive for someone trying to rise in the ranks but trust me you will be rewarded for this accountability. I truly believe it is the most important skill to transcend into the upper echelons of leadership.

2. Transparency 

Transparency goes hand in hand with vulnerability. Explaining the ‘why’ behind business decisions is critical to garnering employee trust. While it may seem more appealing to shield your team from anything not directly affecting their work, this context is often crucial to keep them working toward the bigger picture with you. 

Revealing the decision framework used by leadership to your teams allows them to truly understand the ‘why’ behind their work, and this understanding often promotes better execution and results. 

Many leaders don’t share company challenges with their teams for fear that their teams might lose confidence in their superiors. I take a different approach, and it has served me well. By leading with the mission and staying transparent about everything, your team will feel included, empowered, and respected. And they will step up to help solve those challenges. My experience is that for a good team, no challenge is insurmountable once they focus on it.

3. Leveraging Data to Make Decisions 

Decision-making can be impulsive sometimes. As long as it is only sometimes and is quickly validated through the lens of urgency, you will be good. Some of the mistakes I have made in my career have been when I have not leveraged data when making decisions even when there was time and opportunity to do so. Data is objective when you cannot be, and therefore prevents you from creating dangerous false narratives about your product and its users. Appropriately leveraging available data can help you in your most difficult responsibilities as a leader: these include but are not limited to: 

  • Understanding Processes - As the head of engineering, one of your main responsibilities is to create or fix processes. Process Engineering is something they don’t teach you at school. You need the ability to understand when you need a new process or should remediate an existing one. Without the right processes in place to manage large teams, you (and your teams) will never reach your full potential. After all, when hiring many thousands of new engineers as I did at Cisco, your people leadership skills can only carry you so far.
    One of the best secrets I learned from watching CEOs operate is not their salesmanship, but rather their process leadership skills. The reason these CEOS are successful is that they really know how to set up and finetune a sales process. This is the only way to scale. Sales, like engineering, is all about efficiency and responsiveness. The only way to scale with a large team is to leverage data. Lead with metrics and KPIs. Instrument your processes with numbers. This will be a great accompaniment to your gut feel and past experience. 
  • Removing Biases - Early in my career, as my team scaled, I relied on my immediate managers to provide insights into their teams and how they operated. These managers were all very well-intentioned, hardworking, and good at their jobs, but I soon realized that they all (like me) had biases. Leveraging data helps remove biases. It helps you start a meaningful conversation and ask the right questions.
  • Improving Focus - By utilizing carefully chosen metrics, you help the team to rally around a common goal. Choose a few metrics to focus on improving every quarter. Be vigilant in working to achieve those goals, as it can help you communicate and point to specific improvements made under your leadership. You can’t improve what you can’t measure. 

4. Decisiveness

A great CEO once told me that it is better to make a decision and be 60% right than to wait for better data. Be decisive. Your team will thank you for it. Don’t always wait to build consensus. Listen to feedback and get everyone’s point of view, then make a decision. Be transparent about your decision framework, and utilize data and others as appropriate, but know that many times ultimately it is up to you to make the hard choices. As a leader, you need to understand that you will not be liked by everyone. That is not your job. Rather, your job is to lead with confidence and swiftness; after all, if you are appropriately utilizing your resources and in tune with your processes, you will be more than capable of sound judgment in critical times. 

5. Empathy 

Be empathetic. As easy and straightforward as this sounds, this is one skill I have seen most neglected by middle managers. Each person on your team wakes up and chooses to work for you and your company. Return the favor by practicing good leadership skills, which include empathy. In the age of remote work, your team members’ work lives and personal lives often intersect. Keep in mind that each person on your team faces their own challenges that they may choose to keep private, as you also may. Reward loyalty and hard work with kindness and understanding. 

That said, empathy is often confused with likeability; this is simply not the case. Your team does not have to like you, but they will respect you if you treat them with the same respect. With this in mind, as a great coach, do not settle for less. Ensure that you are challenging your team, giving them actionable feedback, and helping them be the best professional they can be. It is up to them to deliver once you have offered the appropriate support to be successful.

6. Letting People Go

This is an area I have seen most leaders struggle with. Most of us just aren’t comfortable with letting people go. However, as a leader, you have to quickly recognize if someone is not a good match for your team. Maybe they were once performing well and now aren’t. Maybe they are too tactful or too strategic. It could even boil down to the employee not possessing the right skill set or attitude. It is your job to make that call in a timely manner so that this person does not negatively impact the team dynamic or productivity. 

Because you may have established good relationships with the very people you are terminating, it can be easy to rationalize performance or give excessive time for the employee to show improvement. Ultimately, it hurts the entire team to lower your bar or knowingly employ someone who is not in line with your mission. Be decisive and fast. Listen to your gut and back it up with data. 

Conclusion

Being an engineering leader is one of the hardest jobs out there, and can sometimes be more challenging than being a CEO. However, a true leader leads not only with important soft skills but also with fact-based strategy. It is truly your duty as a leader to start leveraging data to make decisions. By doing so, you will surprise yourself with the massive positive outcomes you see from leading by listening to the numbers. Your gut has taken you this far in your career, but your experiences and intuition provide limited insight. Invest in tools that help you understand the state of your engineering operations and help you make and challenge decisions based on the facts. I hope these experiences help you build a team and company that not only leads but also thrives much beyond your time with them. 

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