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Skills for Aspiring Engineering Directors

Prevailing wisdom suggests that within the ranks of management, despite their proximity on most career ladders, the roles of a manager and a director are meaningfully different. Just as it’s difficult to appreciate the responsibilities of line management without having done the job—hence the multitude of misguided attempts to remove the role—it can hard to realize what a director does. Here’s my attempt to articulate the position.

Disclaimer: These views are my own and do not reflect the views of any past or present employers.

Foundational Management Skills

Let’s start with what should be obvious job requirements. In this case, I’m defining a director as a manager of managers.

Directors should have extensive experience as managers. This makes intuitive sense: not only should a director be coaching and mentoring their manager reports, it’s much easier to identify and nurture management potential in relation to their past selves. Less appreciated is the reality that gaps in the organization—new teams, manager attrition, etc.—are by default escalated to the next level. This means that directors need to temporarily take on management of teams and individuals directly, without expending a ton of mental effort.

Sadly, this is not always the case. Sometimes startup founders with little management experience will insist on titles and reporting structures which only briefly touch this important line manager phase1; other times, parallel IC-management career ladders allow very senior individual contributors to assume the director role directly. Having been in both these situations in the past, I can attest to feeling helpless, of being unable to receive the support and empathy I needed to solve my own management challenges from above.

Developing Frameworks and Mental Models

As coaches and mentors, managers need to learn how to delegate and provide space. I’ve found the refinement—the when and how—of enabling others to be a good delineator between newer and more experienced managers, particularly when it comes to developing their own reports. Senior ICs thrive on the challenge of clarifying ambiguity and delivering on results sans prescription.

Directors are expected to ratchet this up even further by establishing the philosophical underpinnings to the cultural norms, processes, and procedures that define their teams’ working environments. These standards become guidelines for managers to follow in their own decision-making; it’s easier to understand and evolve the how when there’s a clear and consistent why.

In fact, this aspect of formulating mental models is largely applicable at higher levels of management as well. Respected VPs have a clear vision of how to organize cross-functional teams, and seasoned executives apply consistent rules to complex business decisions and resource investments. And while there will always be some amount of grumbling on the ground levels about seemingly arbitrary mandates, providing clear frameworks behind major decisions can effectively alleviate concerns.

Autonomy and Managing Upwards

I define the director role as solidly middle management—while there is a small hierarchy of folks who report upwards to the director, they themselves answer to more senior management and executives. Being stuck in the middle is usually not all that fun; making sense of, and executing on demands from above while keeping the folks beneath content and informed is time-consuming and stressful. Disagreeing and committing is an effective tactic to make progress on controversial decisions, but managers are the ones tasked with dealing with the negative fallout.

The ability to resolve conflicts within the team and to communicate that resolution upwards is useful at every level of management, but I’ve found it to be especially important here in the middle. At 2–3 layers of management and beyond, there’s just less context for senior managers to make informed overarching decisions, and escalations are inevitably more about authority. Without intimate knowledge of the surface area2, it falls to directors to act as that bridge, to provide mentorship and advice on one side while ensuring that actions taken on the ground do not catch executives off-guard.

I have been on the receiving end of a number of ill-advised executive/senior VP initiatives as both IC and manager, and have learned to appreciate robust, two-way communication.

A good director, then, should be able to expand strategic executive objectives into concrete tactical plans. In doing so—in addition to implementing decisions and frameworks that make their teams effective—they earn trust and then enable their teams to develop additional autonomy and scope.

Miscommunication and Implied Authority

Organization structures codify authority. I wish this wasn’t true3, but the realities of:

  1. Directors overseeing more people, and hence less have less social rapport and context to any single individual,
  2. Added levels of management applying proportionate amounts of authority per level

Means that it becomes increasingly likely to have communication be taken out of context, interpreted incorrectly, or outright weaponized for someone else’s agenda. What this means is that directors have to be “on” even more than managers; whereas managers’ actions serve as exemplary behavior, directors’ and VPs’ words are similarly influential and can easily cause more harm than good. I’ve learned this lesson a few times already; it’s just downright hard to be on-guard and on-alert all the time4.

Practicing and Improving

There’s a lot more facets to the director role and above then the handful of points here, but for me, these have been the most impactful differences in mindset that I think are continually applicable to even higher levels of management.

The thing is, much like how it’s possible to practice the skills of a people manager without necessarily playing the role directly, it’s also possible to work on these areas without having to manage managers or even other ICs. I encourage other managers to think about these aspects—even if they never intend to transition to managing managers—because it still makes them a more effective manager of ICs and handle their increasing influence, impact and scope within their own team and teams around them.

  1. Exacerbating the issue is pride, which translates to a resistance to train and improve on the fundamentals.

  2. Though to be fair, at a certain scale, it’s nigh impossible to take everyone and everything into consideration.

  3. Similar to the idea that job and seniority titles won’t affect work relationships.

  4. I suspect this is a contributing factor to why executives are chummy to one another—in large part because their role is defined to be cross-organization, but also because those meetings are where they can let their guards down a bit.

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