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Managing with Metrics: The Two Key Patterns for Engineering Leaders

Metrics for Software Dev Leaders

In previous blog posts, we’ve written about our philosophy on using metrics in engineering teams - focussing on measuring and improving team-level performance rather than micromanaging. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), as documented in the Measure What Matters book, have gained traction in Silicon Valley companies like Amazon, Google and Intel as a way in which organisations can use metrics to set targets and achieve high levels of growth.

However, for senior management within an organisation, it is important to support their management teams in achieving team-level performance goals. For CTOs, VPs of Engineering and Heads of Engineering, this means having the metrics to coach Engineering Managers and Engineering Directors in achieving their team’s goals.

Managing effectively with metrics requires more than access to the metrics themselves, strong leaders are able to use managers to allow team members to know where their team’s performance stands, what’s going well and the areas for optimisation.

Compassion and Honesty

The worst way to manage with metrics is to use irrelevant or untrue metrics to manage engineers in an unkind way. In other words, the worst managers will not only be unkind but they will also not know how to measure.

“If a manager has any responsibility in the world, it's to help people understand why their work matters. If they don't think that's their role, then they're the ones who don't deserve their job.”
- Patrick Lencioni

Effective managers need both compassion and honesty, but it’s important to avoid thinking that these are in conflict. Whilst it is unkind for managers to give feedback without compassion, it is also unkind to fail to give feedback with honesty.

Avoiding giving constructive feedback which is vital to self-improvement is often rooted in emotional aversion to holding crucial conversations. As the management consultant, Patrick Lencioni says: “Failing to hold someone accountable is ultimately an act of selfishness.”

The consequences of failing to be honest will ultimately catch-up with an ineffective manager when either their own emotions boil over or they have to resort to firing an employee for an issue that could have been handled with early and compassionate mentoring. As Lencioni also states: “Firing someone is not necessarily a sign of accountability, but is often the last act of cowardice for a leader who doesn't know how or isn't willing to hold people accountable.”

The Good News

The good news is that honesty in delivering feedback can often be addressed with some self-improvement and courage. By contrast, leaders who are unkind will often find their behaviour rooted in some deep inner-insecurity which requires considerable work to improve, even when that individual finally concedes they need support after all.

For the sake of good management, it is therefore important that we all practise giving honest and compassionate feedback early, so we can effectively mentor people under our supervision when issues arise but also give staff the confidence that they can trust our feedback.

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