Changing a manager as Engineering Manager

I changed managers recently. The reorganisation in my org slightly changed the north star vision for my group and also changed which engineering director is my manager. I totally underestimated how much energy it will cost and decided to write down the observations and lessons to be better prepared next time.

The magnitude of the challenge came from the fact that it was the first time I changed manager while being group engineering manager, being responsible for a way many more people and projects that I can keep context about in my head at the same time. And the fact that I had to many times uncomfortably say I don’t know made me realise how important it is to be well prepared next time.

Prepare for challenging questions

Your new manager ask questions to get context about your team or org. They sometimes stay high level, sometimes dive to the bone of specific technology or bug. This learning period can take weeks or months - depending on the complexity of your scope - and often is based on historical events and technology that is not top of your mind anymore. You need to be mentally prepared that this process can be draining, uncomfortable and sometimes stressful when you realise or remind yourself about mistakes from the past.

There is never enough time to walk your new manager through the entire journey that you walked through to make some particular decisions. If you don’t have written rationales or crisp mental model, it will be very uncomfortable. This technique from Amazon of writing rationales down scales really well for that, but if it’s not deep in your company culture, it won’t be available always.

There is always much more to do than you can do - everyone is continuously embracing that stretch. And you always have some parts of your team that works amazingly and some parts that should have evolved months ago. I am sure that you made hard prioritisation calls in the past, but it’s usually hard to explain them a few months later. This context getting mode of your new manager will highlight them and bring them up and in front of your mind. I always plan my 6-week goals and, in retrospect, I think it’s a good idea to also write down what you de-prioritised.

Ask for feedback loop early

You are waiting for the feedback loop. What is good? What is bad? What quality bar will this new person bring? How will she communicate this feedback? Will I understand it? Ask directly and often. This will really help and ease your mind.

Design onboarding

First of all, deliberately think about designing the onboarding. I am sure you have a well-designed onboarding process for new engineers in your team. Do similar thing for your new manager. Remember that it’s stressful for the new boos too. Being deployed to a new organisation with immediate expectations, but without any context is a hard job. You can start gathering resources and thinking about multiple zoom levels of your organisation and scope of the influence way in advance.

Plan your contributions accordingly

Plan accordingly and lower the expectations for your contributions for the next few weeks. Onboarding new manager is stressful and energy draining. You won’t be able to keep going at the same pace as usual. Plan accordingly.

Understand what your new boss cares about

People care about different things. Your previous boss might have been very into engineering and you have the best possible documentation about your systems to share, just to realise that it’s not what makes your new boss tick. This getting context mode is a great opportunity for you to learn what your new manager cares about - look for the moments where they go this one more “why?” deeper, which documentation they leave most comments on, what makes their eyes lit up when you walk them through your org.

Invest in the relationship

Don’t forget about the personal perspective. It’s not a first-week problem to dive into personal hobbies of your boss, but keep it in the back of your mind. Don’t forget to build personal connections - it takes time and you need to do it deliberately.

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