Engineering the next generation of tech leadership

What it takes to build, manage and lead tech teams


Folklore Ventures

August 30, 2023

Engineering leadership takes more than technical expertise in today’s evolving and complex startup landscape. 

Modern engineering leaders are required to wear many hats – acting as a conduit between technical and non-technical stakeholders, building and nurturing high-performing teams, and making strategic decisions that impact their organisation. It's the synergy between their technical and soft skills that takes their teams and organisations to the next level.

Folklore recognised a gap, an opportunity, to create conversation around the soft skills that engineers will require if they decide to step into tech leadership roles for ANZ startups. Our Engineering Chapter brought 250 engineers together to learn from 16 thought-leaders who were early pioneers at startups like Forage, Dovetail, Tyro, Swoop Aero, Linktree, CultureAmp, Canva, and more.

The result? Highly impactful discussions including candid, on-the-job insights about the engineering leader’s journey from individual contributor to manager, and what their day-to-day would look like. 

Transitioning from operator to leader

The journey from maker to manager can be transformative and challenging – typically involving a shift in mindset, objectives and responsibilities. 

As Engineering Chapter coaches Lachlan Hardy and Elle Meredith (Blackmill Consulting) shared, managers are now responsible for their teams' success metrics, rather than solely their own output. As leaders advance, it can become more difficult to remain directly involved in technical work, and there are expectations of delivering high quality results channeled through their team, retaining and upskilling team members, and crucially – fostering trust through consistent one-on-one communication, open dialogue, clear expectations, and supporting the team's growth (more on this soon). 

Lachlan and Elle mentioned that leadership roles vary significantly based on company size, culture, product, and maturity. The traditional career ladder in startups generally involves progressing from IC into management and leadership positions. However, engineering leadership roles are not one-size-fits-all, and each journey is unique. Having clear and concise expectations of the overall vision and being prepared for the unique challenges ahead will differentiate the operators from the leaders. 

Engineering Chapter coach Ben Meneses-Sosa (Lendi) also shared his views on the shift into engineering leadership, and the different pathways available –

"Engineering leadership is maturing as a discipline, and more people are learning good practices and frameworks. The value that engineering leaders bring to the team is well understood. Also, there are more options for engineers to opt for a non-leadership path which gives us better managers and leaders and lets us keep brilliant individual contributors doing what they enjoy and do best."

Whether you aspire to become an engineering leader, or would prefer to be an individual contributor – adaptability, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to personal growth are essential.

Managing the daily grind

In his session, Ben focused on the primary responsibility of tech leaders – delivering value sustainably. This involves –  

  • Aligning the team’s work toward the agreed objectives and commitments with the business; managing stakeholder expectations, and proactively communicating if the plan needs to change
  • Making balanced decisions by understanding when to get input from the team, and adequately communicating when it's impossible to have an open decision
  • Identifying what to delegate and to whom, setting expectations for what the leader expects from the team member, and deciding how progress will be checked so that there is no perception of micro-management

For engineers who are aiming to move into leadership roles, Ben recommends that they share their goals with their manager and request opportunities to observe and practice these skills. This could look like shadowing leaders in their objective planning sessions, or asking to lead the delivery of an OKR, if this practice is available in the team. Practising situational leadership deliberately during everyday opportunities, like chairing meetings or participating in technical decisions, helps to build these skills.

Developing your team 

During the program, Jessica Lin (Linktree) and Paul Hughes (CultureAmp) talked about the importance of creating a supportive environment when developing teams and addressing performance issues. They believe people inherently have potential, and as leaders, it's essential to create conditions that allow that potential to flourish. 

What can engineering leaders do to maximise potential?

  • Believing in the team – being curious about their dreams and ambitions, listening intently, and recognising and calling out their unique qualities, so that they can tailor and support their team’s individual journeys 
  • Offering development opportunities that are not limited to formal training, but include real experiences, exposure to new challenges, and education through the action of doing
  • Creating psychological safety, so that team members can take risks and know they will be supported and valued regardless of the outcome

Jessica and Paul believe the foundation for these conditions is valuing each team member to the fullest degree. It is rare that a drop in performance or motivation is not due to an underlying reason. Personal challenges can significantly impact professional performance – so when it comes to difficult conversations, being empathetic and seeking to understand underlying factors causing challenges is critical. Together with offering support, this can lead to greater trust. 

When challenges are identified, creating a plan and realistic expectations can help team members work through these and balance work. Additionally, finding ways for them to contribute and connect can lead them to remain engaged and feel valued, and result in improved engagement and performance. 

Building high-performing teams  

What is a high-performing team? Emma Jones (Project F), Kate Andrews (Dovetail), Paul Keen (Tyro) and Francois Gourichon (ex MILKRUN) defined it as one that works effectively under a common purpose, displays innovation in problem-solving, communicates and collaborates productively, consistently achieves goals, works cohesively, and is engaged in their work. 

A common emphasis was that trust must be created at all levels with open and consistent communication, clarity and autonomy, constructive feedback, and genuine care and empathy for team members. In early-stage startups, employees need to be ‘antifragile’; encouraged to embrace change and thrive in dynamic environments. The key to high-performing teams is prioritising and focusing on a few key opportunities, leading to systematic and disciplined problem-solving. Consistent delivery, communication, and self-governing practices are also critical.

One of the biggest talking points during this discussion however, was the importance of breaking bias and curating diversity and inclusion. You can do all of the above, but homogenous teams can limit creativity – and diversity is vital for trust, innovation and problem-solving. As Emma puts it –

“The fact that diverse teams perform better (at problem-solving, being creative and reaching innovation) means good engineering leaders make diversity a strategic priority.” 

Curating diversity requires ongoing commitment and effort to ensure all voices are heard and valued at all levels of the organisation (rather than limiting it to entry-level diversity). Panelists recommended that startups create inclusive environments early on – being open to unconventional career paths, challenging bias in hiring and promotion processes, and proactively creating programs to help underrepresented groups progress into leadership roles. 

These are just a few of our top Engineering Chapter takeaways, thanks to the generosity of our 16 incredible coaches.

For the aspiring engineering leaders out there, we will also be making all session recordings from the program available in the coming months – so be sure to drop your name on our waitlist for access 👀

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