The one leadership approach that transforms engineering teams

by Praerit Garg

The idea has been around in one form or another for decades — even centuries — but it’s never had more potential to drive real transformation in business. Servant leadership — a style that prioritizes listening, coaching, power-sharing, and collective decision-making — is critical to how I think about building and sustaining successful teams, from Microsoft to Amazon Web Services (AWS) to my current role as CTO at Smartsheet.

Since the concept of servant leadership was popularized by Robert Greenleaf over 40 years ago, it’s had a tangible impact on some of the most formidable companies in the world, including Starbucks, Marriott International, Intel, and Nordstrom. And while servant leadership can be applied to most departments of an organization, I believe it can be especially powerful when leading teams in engineering and information technology.

Here are five lessons that I’ve learned about servant leadership throughout my career that technology, information, and engineering leaders can use to transform their management mindset.

1. Focus on people, not projects.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that we tend to promote engineers and IT specialists into people-management roles based on their success in achieving project goals on a consistent basis. However, the people-management job is very different than the actual project work. So, when I coach new managers on this transition, I try to plant the idea that once you become a people manager, you become a coach — not a project taskmaster. 

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To be a successful coach, you need to switch from waking up in the morning and thinking about projects to thinking about people. What are they struggling with? What work muscles do they need to develop? It’s a dramatic, fundamental shift in how you think about your team, and your own work. No longer should your one-to-one conversations be about project status. Instead, simply ask team members how they’re doing, and what support they need to rise above barriers to their success. If you focus on the people, the projects get done. You get both performance and happier, more connected teams.

When I started my career as an engineer, my priorities used to be: 1) technology, 2) the business problem the technology was solving, and 3) people. Today, as an engineering leader, my priorities are the exact opposite; it's all about people. It’s easier to solve hard technical and business problems when you have the right people, and they have the right mindset. True growth and success lie in flipping the priorities.

2. Trust managers to develop specialists.

 In businesses of all types, it often takes many different specialists to get something done. For example, engineering teams need good product managers and UX experts to understand customer requirements, and translate them into the specifications for what we build. We need good developers and database engineers to write quality code, underlying data models, and operations in order to architect the software for scalable services. 

We need high-performing quality assurance (QA) professionals to verify that what's actually built meets customer needs across multiple dimensions such as security, performance, scale, user experience, and reliability. If you are building a software as a service (SaaS) platform, you also need site reliability engineers (SREs) to ensure excellence in operational practices such as deployment and monitoring of end-to-end service.

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These specialists need to come together to define, implement, build, deploy, and operate software capabilities as a cross-functional team. How do you organize so that this cross-functional team can be successful?

Corporate America has historically been organized into reporting hierarchies, often based on division or function. I believe that for cross-functional teams, leaders need to adapt to how they think about these structures, in a way that’s analogous to the way American football teams are put together.

In football, there is the main team, the practice squad, special teams, the coaches, the front office, and other employees. Each football team can be further separated into positional specialists: quarterbacks, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, wide receivers, and so on. Players need to trust each other to get their jobs done; if you don’t have an effective defense, this limits your offense’s capacity to make an impact on the field.

Coaches add an interesting dimension, as football is a very complex sport. You hire coaches for each specialization: a defensive line coach, an offensive line coach, a quarterback coach, etc. These specialist coaches work to help the players succeed, and develop their on-the-field IQ by providing guidance and practical wisdom. They wake up every morning thinking about their specialists and how to enable them to perform at peak. These coaches are servant leaders.

I believe this is how servant leadership can be rolled out in a corporate environment such as SaaS engineering: Specialist people managers must act as coaches to their direct reports and organize them into cross-functional service teams.

As CTO, I consider myself to be something like a head coach standing on the sidelines, whose real job is to hire and develop an exceptional coaching staff as well as simplify the playbook. I believe that if you focus on developing a world-class coaching staff and can help teams simplify their plays, they are much more likely to deliver peak performance and make those plays effectively.  

3. Know when to roll up your sleeves.

A large part of the servant leader’s duty is to help specialists appreciate other people’s roles in adjacent teams or departments. One example is from my experience working as a general manager for AWS Identity & Directory and Access Services.

I inherited a team of 15 engineers who had been working hard for over two years to launch a managed directory service. When I arrived, the team was bleeding. A few senior engineers had already decided to move on, while the others were buried under immense operational load and thrashing. I knew I had to roll up my sleeves, build trust with the team, and start helping them triage issues by focusing on their key challenges.

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We were receiving around 50 high-severity issues every week, so priority number one was to help them feel less stressed by reducing the number of tickets. I created a weekly triage meeting and personally reviewed each issue, helping to find a resolution that would ensure the issue wouldn’t happen again.

Together, we brought the number down to low single digits. In parallel, we focused on prioritizing work and growing the team. We were able to launch the service publicly within five months of my start date. This was rewarding and impactful for me because I was able to make the team productive, and create a sense of collective accomplishment.

Over the four years I worked at AWS, I was eventually responsible for about 20 distinct service teams. In order to scale myself, I evolved from coaching individual contributors on a service team to become the coach of coaches, essentially building an organizational structure where we focused on coaching and developing frontline leaders to accomplish business results.

Since these leaders are in the huddle every day, you want to reward them for hiring and developing individuals on their teams, in addition to delivering business results.

4. Be consistent in your communication.

It’s important to recognize that servant leadership is not natural or obvious. When individuals start their careers as individual contributors, their success is often measured by accomplishing deliverables. When these individuals are promoted to people managers, the change in success criteria is not at all obvious. People do what has made them successful in the past.  

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The natural tendency is to focus on projects your team is responsible for delivering, rather than on the team itself. Completing projects provides a very direct sense of fulfillment. Focusing on individuals on your team is a much more indirect yet higher level of fulfillment. It requires a level of self-confidence and maturity that the leader may not yet possess.

It’s also important to acknowledge that we tend to experience a sense of control when we focus on work, and we experience a loss of control when we focus on people. People have their own brains and ways of doing things. I often say that I grew as a people leader by having kids and watching them grow.

5. Create a climate of mutual respect.

When projects require cross-functional teams to come together and work as a unit, individuals can struggle to appreciate the contributions of different specialists, simply because they’ve never done that job themselves.

Building trust among cross-functional specialists is critical to the success of the team. Using the football analogy, the offensive team must appreciate and trust the work their defensive team does to recover the ball. The quarterback must trust his offensive line and his wide receivers on every play to have a chance to succeed.  

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This puts tremendous responsibility on coaches to focus on helping their specialists not only do their job well, but also be intentional about appreciating others on the team. When everyone appreciates each other’s specializations, it can have a huge impact on morale and ability to succeed.

In corporate environments, this coaching responsibility falls on people managers, who must undergo a mental model shift away from how they operated in the past as individual contributors. They must also change how they define personal success: not by deliverables but by the success and growth of the team members.

You need to afford people leaders the time it takes to process the mindset change and build their skills as coaches. Most frontline people leaders have never had to develop or exercise these work muscles. Therefore, it becomes critical for the leaders of these frontline leaders to coach them through the transition. Adopting a servant leadership mindset does not happen overnight, and the mental model shift depends on your existing corporate culture and leadership values.

If you stay consistent in your communications and lead by example by coaching the coaches, they’ll understand that the shift to coaching and servant leadership is well worth the effort. It pays off by helping move them, and your company, forward.

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