The power of peer coaching for engineering managers

In a fast-paced environment of software today, it’s crucial for engineering managers to continually improve their skills and seek support to grow in their roles. While traditional coaching by your manager and mentoring have their merits, there’s a powerful tool that often goes untapped: peer coaching within your team of engineering managers.

One of the most impactful factors contributing to my growth has been the peers I had the fortune of meeting throughout my career and establishing coaching relationships with them. These relationships provided me with multiple perspectives for problem-solving and project development. I hate working alone; my instinct is always to find partners in crime or coaching partners to bounce off ideas.

Peer coaching has not only helped me navigate tough times, but it has also alleviated anxiety by teaching me that I’m not alone in experiencing emotions and struggles – it’s normal.

Seeking peers to talk to was one of the most important goals for my first year at Intercom a few years ago. Many of these relationships remain my most trusted partnerships, though some have moved on, and we don’t communicate as frequently. Most of these connections were established during the earlier days of the company when it was smaller than Intercom is today. I’ve observed that managers who joined in the past two years often lack this natural coaching circle.

While it’s common for managers to suggest coaching partners for specific projects requiring growth or when someone is underperforming, I believe as managers of managers, we are missing an opportunity. We should ensure that coaching partners are always available for our teams, not just when there’s specific guidance on what to focus on, but also as a means for our directs to determine what is most valuable for them.

Coaching assignments

Approximately a year ago, I introduced the concept of rotating peer coaching to my team of four managers who report to me. We decided that every six weeks, they would form two pairs and hold weekly coaching meetings, regardless of their current projects.

We defined goals for these meetings as follows:

  1. Build relationships through collaboration
  2. Enhance coaching skills in areas with limited context
  3. Increase accountability by having someone invested in personal growth

Building relationships through working together

Of these three goals, I consider this the most crucial. In the age of remote work, establishing long-term relationships can be incredibly challenging, especially outside of one’s primary team. These managers excel at fostering relationships within their teams, whether between engineers or product managers. However, what about their own relationships as managers?

Having colleagues at the same level, without a power imbalance, whom you can trust, is a tremendous asset that can help navigate difficult times. If this peer also reports to the same manager as you, it adds further value. Shared experiences among managers, including their mistakes and subsequent learnings, create a sense of optimism that despite any errors made, there is a secondary support system. Additionally, more tenured reports can offer guidance on how to work effectively with you, often pointing out unconscious patterns.

Enhancing Coaching Skills in Areas with Limited Context

This goal is also significant. It provides a safe space for improving coaching skills. Coaching can feel awkward, especially when starting out and attempting to “talk less, question more.” While building relationships remains a priority, trying out different coaching techniques within this safe space offers excellent practice.

Increasing Accountability through Invested Support

While this is the last priority, it is still a valuable goal. Essentially, it brings healthy peer pressure. Participants discuss their work and what they aim to achieve, creating an unspoken expectation of self-accountability during subsequent coaching sessions a week or two later.

Closing thoughts

So far we had great positive feedback about these sessions. Folks in my team really enjoy them, they built stronger relationships with each other, they are less dependent on me and continuously growing their exposure. For a few quarters, this was consistently the highlight of the culture in our team. As much as it feels awkward at the start, it’s definitely worth doing.

If you are managing managers, consider starting it. If you are an engineering manager, suggest that to your team!

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