There is a piece of advice that I share with every engineering leader I speak to. It changed my view on engineering leadership when I heard it from my podcast co-host and former GitHub CTO, Jason Warner:
💡 You have to think of yourself as your department and your department’s efficiencies, but it’s more important to think of yourself as an executive first.
Thinking of yourself as an executive first means:
Working together towards the same goals creates organizational alignment, so you can run your function incredibly well without being competitive with the other departments. Ultimately, you'll create a healthier company culture through continuous alignment and open communication. Everybody wins.
The key is to start early on. Let’s explore how.
If you’re thinking about yourself as an executive first, you’re thinking about the business, the new LTV/CAC ratio, sales efficiencies, and all that’s going on in finance.
You don’t have to understand these things deeply, but you are interested when the CFO talks about cash flows at the exec meeting, your mind doesn’t wander to “we need to talk about database tuning.” Instead, think about those things second. Then you’ll care about the entirety of the business.
Almost everyone thinks about their division before they think about the company. As a result, their primary role is downward-looking, their secondary role is upward-looking, and their third role is a sideways looking role – at their exec teammates.
Try to invert that. Think about your partners and your teammates as the primary relationship. You have to operate in first team mode.
The healthiest exec groups and companies operate in first team mode.
Operating in first team or second team mode is all about a leader's mindset concerning their team, function, and executive group. It's all about alignment and knowing which team you are playing for first.
Your first team needs to be the exec group.
That means everyone is on the same page on things like:
If you’re operating in second team mode, you’re not aligned. You’re out there working on your metrics. As a result, you don’t care exclusively about your organization, and tension will come through.
Operating in a first team mode is one way to create a healthier organizational culture.
The next step is that your function runs incredibly well.
Running well does not mean that everything is green. Running well means that everyone in that room understands what’s happening – The risks, the trade-offs, the good, and the bad. You could have five red projects, but you’re fixing them, and two green projects that are critically important, so sales are still happy, and everything feels like it’s under control.
But you don’t make it competitive. You don’t say, “we’re better than sales or marketing.” That’s a well-run organization because everyone knows what’s happening. If everyone is operating in the same way, there can be no finger-pointing.
If you’re an exec, you have to have one-on-ones with everyone on the exec staff – and you have to start early on.
It all comes back to company culture. This “executive first” mentality needs to be adopted as early as possible – before you have to fight things like politics or survival mechanisms that happen inside larger organizations.
For example, implementing this type of behavioral change in a company like Microsoft would be complex. There’s a reason it doesn’t happen inside places like that: information is power. And a lot of people are afraid of losing that power. So don’t let your company get to that point, do it early.
I credit this advice to Jason Warner, an exemplary engineering leader who has been in companies that didn’t operate with a “first team” mentality and in companies that did. He has implemented this mindset in cultures that were at times unhealthy and saw the positive transformation it can yield.
Navigating both the exec room and your function as an engineering leader can be incredibly challenging, but something as simple as knowing who your primary team is can make a huge difference for you and the business.