A blog site for Dave Mason. I'm a software engineering lead from Manchester, UK. Here I'll write about some techie stuff and some leadership stuff.

Engineer to Leader - Part 2

Core Principles: Conversations

During my career so far, I’ve been lucky enough to work for and with some great leaders. However, I couldn’t tell you a single thing that they all have in common. Some of them have been inspirational technologists, some have been excellent people motivators, some have been expert strategists. There’s not one way to be a great leader, you just need to understand what your own strengths are, then tailor your game accordingly.

However, I do think there are a set of core actions that every leader should be doing. Plus, if you’re like me and tend to worry about whether you’re doing the right thing or not, having a set list of things to do can be quite comforting.


Have Conversations

If I could boil all of the following down to one piece of advice, it would be this: “have conversations”. It’s a strange adjustment at first, because conversations can seem frivolous and it’s difficult to attach direct value to them. But when your job is to understand how to orchestrate the interactions between people in order to achieve a specific aim, then the only way you can do that is by talking to people. By building trust and opening dialogue with the right people, you can steer an organisation to achieve the right results.

Get To Know Your Stakeholders

Because having the right relationships is pivotal to achieving results, understanding what the right relationships are is critical.

Your Team

It almost goes without saying, but you need to have strong, individual relationships with every member of your team. You probably interact with everyone on your team in a group situation every day, but it’s also important to invest the time in having one-to-one conversations.

I used to really struggle with one-to-one’s. I felt like there was an expectation on me to impart wisdom and have the solution to every problem. But that’s really not the case. Often, just giving someone a sounding board to talk something through is all they need. Being able to ask insightful questions is useful, but not critical.

One thing I have learned is that no two one-to-one’s are the same, and it’s fine to let the person you’re looking after lead how it works. There’s also no set amount of time. Sometimes they’ll be ten minutes, sometimes they’ll be a full hour. Don’t feel pressure to drag it out to a set amount of time.

What I do find useful is to do 5 minutes of prep. I like to have a list of topics I want to cover, and that helps provide a structure to the conversations. I also encourage my direct reports to note anything they’d like to talk to me about when it’s fresh in their mind, so that they don’t forget when they do get the opportunity.

Your Boss

As the leader of the team, you’re responsible for delivering the objectives of the team. So it’s important that you have a good relationship with the person who sets the objectives of the team, and is responsible for ensuring that your team executes their portion of a wider strategy.

The two key things to establish with your boss are:


Being in a leadership position can often feel like an isolated role. You’re the only person in the business doing the role that you do, so it can feel like you’ve no-one to bounce ideas off. But there will be other leaders in your business and even if they’re within different disciplines, they’ll be facing the same kind of challenges you are.

Your team is not an isolated unit, they will be interacting with other teams. That will include other engineering teams, wider tech teams, finance, people teams, legal, product etc etc. You should have good relationships with the people leading those teams, so that you can ensure those interactions can happen as smoothly as possible.


Last but certainly not least are your customers. This could be the external users of the product your team is responsible for, the internal teams who are using it, or in a consultancy scenario this would be your clients. As a leader in the business, you need to show that you are available for them to speak to, and for you to get direct feedback from them on their perception of your team. At some point, having this relationship will make a difficult conversation much easier. Invest in it up-front, and reap the rewards further down the line.

Learn To Give Feedback

When you had to learn a new technology or technique as an engineer, you would probably read the docs, check Stack Overflow, read blog posts or watch training videos. Although interacting with people is much less predictable than interacting with a computer, there are techniques you can use to do the difficult stuff.

If you’re going to lead people, then at some point you’ll need to tell someone something that they probably don’t want to hear, but they do need to hear. Giving constructive feedback on someone’s performance is a difficult thing to do, but as long as it’s done the right way and for the right reasons, is always the right thing to do. So making sure you know how to do it is the key to getting this bit right. There are a few things to keep in mind when you do have to do this.


Be Objective

If someone has done something that you know they should’ve done differently, or if they’re displaying consistent behaviours that you know are counter-productive, then it’s your job as their leader to tell them about it. It’s important that you’re very clear about what specifically they did, and what you would expect them to do differently next time. If you have some way that you can support them in this, that’s very helpful at this point.

Be Free of Judgement

Remember that you’re talking about the action, not the person. It’s impossible to know someone’s whole story, and as such you can’t know the reasons why they do what they do. Respect the difference between saying someone “could’ve done something differently” and “somebody is something-or-other”.

Be Immediate

When you are providing feedback to someone, make sure you do it as soon as possible after the event. The more time goes on, the more context is lost, and the feedback will be less effective and less well received.

Give Feedback Face to Face

Although it can be easier to send a Slack message or an email, you should always give feedback face to face. Ideally this would be in person, but in a hybrid working world this is mostly impossible, so a video call is the next best option. You want to minimise the risk that the message gets misinterpreted, and it needs to be a two-way conversation.


There are frameworks for doing this kind of thing. Reading about them and then practicing them will help you to be a more effective leader. I strongly recommend reading about Situation-Behaviour-Impact as a way to ensure these conversations go as well as possible.

There’s More

My original plan for this post was to include sections about establishing metrics and continuous improvement. However, I think it’s long enough as it is, so I’ll do another part soon that covers these topics.