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Management vs. Leadership: How to thrive as a new manager

Perspectives in Engineering

Management vs. Leadership: How to thrive as a new manager

Making the distinction so you can grow as an engineering leader
GitPrime elevates engineering leadership with objective data. In this interview series, Engineering Leaders talk about how to build high performing teams.

You’ve been an individual contributor on a growing team. Your hard work and technical chops have been recognized, so you’ve been asked to step up to manager. Congratulations!

With all of the leadership required in your old role, you figure taking over an entire team shouldn’t be all that hard… except that management and leadership aren’t the same thing.

“Most new managers confuse management and leadership, and teams struggle as a result,” says Benjamin De Point, Senior Director of Software Engineering at Datto, Inc.

Like many developers, when De Point first shifted into management, he had no experience in management.

“I think I had some leadership qualities,” he says. “You know, I’d been captain of sports teams and things of that nature. But I was just literally asked to do it, and I’ll be honest, I did it because I thought I was going to get more money, which is the wrong motivation.”

It turned out that De Point appreciated the people side of the business more than the tech side, and now he is a senior director at a data backup and disaster recovery business. And he has succeeded, in large part, because he has developed an appreciation for the differences between management and leadership—and how new managers can benefit from that understanding.

The TL;DR here is this: management is a role, and leadership is a quality.

Managers exhibit strong leadership qualities. And strong leaders are often candidates for management positions. But your teams will succeed more naturally if you understand and act on the distinctions between leadership and management.

Take me to your leader

The pragmatist’s approach to leadership might be asking: how do you choose a formal team lead? And the answer is: you don’t. At least not exactly.

De Point has a couple thoughts around appointing a formal role based on leadership alone.

“In my ideal setting, you don’t need a team lead,” he says. This dream setup happens when a team collaborates well and organizes itself naturally. The people who excel at the front end take over the thought leadership there. Same for the back end. The people who are strong in espousing the team’s goals and values take the lead there. This setup isn’t just a fantasy—De Point actually has teams that operate like this.

Then there’s teams that need clearer leadership. “But I don’t like the idea of just christening a leader,” De Point says. “They need to emerge.” The context is different for every company, but Datto values courageous thought—valuing progress over order, willing to take (calculated) risks. When a team member exhibits these behaviors, they become the defacto go-to person on the team. “The ordaining of a leader is literally ‘Yeah, we know.’ It’s obvious to the team,” he says.

In either case, De Point says it’s all about self-organization. A team knows who they look to for leadership. And a self-organized team with healthy leadership tends to match three other hallmarks as well: they’re predictable; their solutions work; and they exhibit a healthy level of pushback.

“What I mean by that is they’re willing to debate, and to argue, and to position for solutions,” he says. “But they’re also willing to acknowledge when someone else’s solution is better, and they buy into it.”

A self-organized team with healthy leadership tends to match three other hallmarks as well: they’re predictable; their solutions work; and they exhibit a healthy level of pushback.

Unhealthy teams (and consequently, unorganized teams) often have those personalities who spend more time trying to prove they’re right than looking for the best path forward for the product and the company. You want people involved, De Point says, who prioritize merit-based solutions.

Team members with strong leadership skills inspire cohesion, but they cannot enforce it. Nor should team leads, whose priority is the team’s productivity, be tasked with deciding what’s best for the other stakeholders in the company.

That’s where management comes in.

Take me to your manager

In De Point’s model, an effective manager emphasizes that kind of self-organization over command and control. A team manager’s role is to facilitate healthier self-organization when team members are not working compatibly together. And that manager also bridges the gap both ways between engineering and the rest of the company.

“My job as a manager is to make sure that that communication is happening. To bring clarity on both sides.”

This will sound familiar to many engineers: there are times when the best merit-based decision on a development level is incompatible with the business side of the company. “Sometimes you have to make the trade-off from making a ‘right’ decision on a product in order to expedite it into the marketplace,” De Point says. And that decision falls in a manager’s domain.

“My job as a manager is also to make sure that that communication is happening,” he adds. “To bring clarity on both sides. If the engineers are not in sync with what product management wants, if they don’t understand it, I’ve got to help clear that up. And vice versa, if product management can’t figure out how the engineers are thinking about these problems.”

Of course, how this communication looks in practice depends on what types of relationships engineering has with the product organization in a particular company. But however that relationship is structured, moving from a developer role (even as a team leader) to a management position is a confusing and confounding transition.

One giant leap for manager-kind

De Point doesn’t waste any air discussing how to approach the shift from development to management. “It’s a career change, not a promotion,” he says. “Learn the craft. Don’t just go in there thinking your personality and your technical expertise are going to get you through, because they will not.”

“You became a good developer because you kept learning different tech stacks,” he adds. “Same thing with becoming a good manager. You’ve got to get in the right threads, you’ve got to follow the right forums, you’ve got to follow the right blogs, get into a mentorship, whatever will help you.”

It’s really easy to undergo this career change without stepping back and understanding the value you’re trying to bring to your organization. You may want only to defend the engineers, go only for what the engineers need—and that mindset is a huge pitfall for a lot of first-time software engineering managers.

The natural consequence of that mindset is that a new manager ends up missing the wider vision of what the organization is trying to achieve.

“Really, managers need to take these teams that they’ve built, figure out how to get those teams to perform, to bring value to the business, and ultimately to get their work into the marketplace to that it can grow revenue,” De Point says.

“Learn the craft,” De Point says. “Your overall goal as a manager, and as a leader, is to enable others to perform and be successful.”

It’s worth articulating the distinction between management and leadership within your organization to avoid the confusion that leads so many teams and companies to struggle. Clearly define the positions of team leader (if there is one) and manager, and the expectations for both positions.

“In general, it works out well if it’s known within the team that the principle or lead on the technical side is not a manager,” De Point says. “And the people in managerial positions need to understand that even though you want to get into the tech, you have to allow the team to fail, allow them to succeed, and not take any of their credit. Give it all to them.”

That may be as close as it gets to templating how to be a good manager. There’s so many specifics contingent on your organization and your team. But ultimately, although leadership and management are separate concepts, the newly dubbed manager will do well to exhibit strong leadership.

“Your overall goal as a manager, and as a leader, is to enable others to perform and be successful,” De Point says. “Find out how you can do that.”