2 years. For most tech companies, that’s the expected median tenure for a software engineer (Forbes). If you’re an engineering leader, having that high turnover means a lot of your corporate knowledge leaves each year. Your managers are also constantly on a hiring treadmill to maintain equilibrium, even more so if you’re also trying to expand.
We can do a heck of a lot better and, given the changes happening in the industry right now, we have to do better as leaders.
Right now, as funding tightens up for startups and people become nervous as they see more layoffs in the industry, having a plan to maintain good relationships with the best people as a manager is critically important. If in the worst case your company has layoffs occur, if there aren't strong relationships many people you want to stay could also head for the exits.
Over the years I’ve been an engineering leader, I have placed a lot of effort into understanding why people move on so quickly, and how to address those concerns to build longer and healthier relationships. The biggest reasons people have confided in me have been:
- Lack of career growth,
- Concerns about losing salary opportunities,
- Fear of technological stagnation,
- Not seeing the value in the work they do
All of these concerns are reasonable and align well to some of the known patterns we use as leaders to define our workplaces. Culture, Meaning, Opportunities, and Money is one such model that I've seen picking up traction on Twitter in the past few weeks after being featured in a comic titled "Why people leave even the most high paying jobs". You can also see alignment to Microsoft's 5Ps of Employee Fulfillment: Pay, Perks, People, Pride and Purpose.
The truth is there are many management books written on this subject, each with their own uniquely worded models, with different ways to discuss building relationships with your team. Many of them are good, and I've heard praises for The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Start with Why, and The Effective Manager. I've read them all, they're great! I often find that they revolve around core elements that are important to building an effective and strong team. It's a lot less important to read all the different management books, and much more to pick one and implement it until you've gotten true value from it.
For the sake of argument, let's look at the Culture, Meaning, Opportunity, and Money model and see how it addresses those concerns I shared earlier.
I've seen a number of folks lately treating culture and work-life balance as synonyms. Culture is much more than just your working hours, if you're a remote-friendly workplace, and if you send people corporate-branded teapot cozies. Culture is how people feel about the company they work for and how they actually work and interact with their coworkers.
Having a good culture means deeply understanding the needs of those who work for your company, and meeting those needs with mutual trust and respect. If your culture is doing "the right things" but feels parental, it's not forming respect with your employees.
If you're a manager or leader, you may not be able to make dramatic changes to company culture, but there are things within your control you should be focused on. The first thing you can do is build psychological safety within your team. Have an environment where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable to each other. Research shows teams that feel this safety are dramatically more effective. If you want a deeper dive into building this sort of safety and trust, read The Advantage. But here are some quick points to get you started:
- Trust. Closely tied to that feeling of safety is building trust, and you can build trust through connection. Take the time to meet one on one with your team members frequently, be open and vulnerable in discussion. Keep track of what they value, and invest time on more than just a transactional basis.
- Consistency. Do what you say you will, and don't make empty promises to your team. Follow consistent patterns in how you meet, accept feedback, and improve. Importantly, make sure the feedback you're giving your team is also consistent, if someone is starting to perform poorly tell them right away your concern and don't wait for a quarterly checkpoint.
- Action. Do good work, and model the behavior you want to see in your team. If you're not knowledgeable in an area, admit that openly and seek to learn more and get input from those who understand the space better. Show where you shine, but be open about where you don't.
Meaning (or purpose, and a neighbor of vision and mission) is critical to why folks join your company, stay with your company, and are effective at the work they do. Having worked for many smaller startups with no brand currency, limited funds, and sharp edges around the process, meaning had to do a lot of heavy lifting for recruitment and retention.
I often define meaning as the weekend effect where someone feels so connected to and excited about their job they'll want to talk about it on the weekend. A good place to start in developing strong meaning is to make sure the company's mission is clearly articulated, and then that the individual vision of the team and how it will help reach that mission is also clear, referred to consistently, and updated when required. Every team member should be totally clear on why they're doing the work they're doing.
Beyond making the mission of the company and vision of the team clear, it's important to understand the motivation of the person. Some people want to be tightly aligned with the mission of the company (I'm one of these people). So they want to work for companies that seek to change the world in a way they want to accelerate. Others are motivated by the work itself, wanting to be challenged to show their skills and develop new ones. Others are motivated by the team, to work closely with and problem-solve with others. Your job as a manager is to understand what motivates and demotivates each of your team members, and help them see and achieve their meaning within the team.
This has traditionally been one of the weakest points in technology teams over the past 2 decades. The standard way to receive career advancement in a technology role or at a technology company has been to take another job. Part of this comes from a lack of investment and maturity, as a lot of technology companies are young startups and lack depth in nurturing their talent.
If you're small and can't support a dedicated person or team in your company to help with Talent Development, there are steps you can take as a leader to provide opportunities within your team(s). Even if you do have a talent development person, these actions can make their impact more powerful:
- Give actionable feedback. Have a clear description of each role and give actionable insights for each team member on areas they can improve. Don't delay feedback, either! Provide it as the opportunities come up.
- Share opportunities in the team. Make sure you're not stagnating work within the team to the same members over and over. Share opportunities to work on new tasks and into areas folks want to expand their skills. This also provides for some redundancy.
- Peer and group programming can also provide opportunities for learning and experience. Where possible, in technical teams, also try and pair team members with architects and outside teams.
Ultimately, the strongest statements towards providing opportunities are developing a strong learning program and career framework. I'll be covering both of these topics in a future issue from an engineering perspective.
Money is often the most constrained resource and, with the changing market conditions, is likely to become more constrained over the next few years. Even with the other items here covered, not paying your team fairly is going to pull down the rest of your attempts to build a strong team. If you're not sure how your pay compares with peers you can look at a report like the ones created by Robert Half for your region (USA, Canada). From here, you can see where your salaries fall among your peers.
If you're looking for "A players" and "10x engineers" you're likely not going to get that if you're paying in only the top 50th percentile. If you're willing to take some chances on people with less experience, but a willingness to learn and obvious passion, you might be able to pull folks in at lower salaries and build their careers in your organization. Be ready to pay more as their skills develop though, or you'll find their replacement sooner than you expect.
The next few quarters are going to get more weird for leaders, so if you don't have a plan to build deep connections with your team this is the week to start. As always, feel free to reach out with questions or feedback.
Make room to be awesome,