I see software development somewhere between a craft and a stricter engineering profession. What matters is that both a craftsman or an engineer, we are talking about people who are used to facing new challenges and needing constant improvement of their craft and knowledge.
Sure, one could be just reacting to some business demand, and the evolution happens without much thought. During a career, this might work a couple of times. But people get seasoned. They get used to facing the same sort of challenges, and they dive heads-first with their, more or less equipped personal toolkit.
The manager has the task of taking care of their people, which means that the manager should drive a continuous learning mindset. The problem arises when the engineering manager also does not know how to promote growth. Growth and learning are most effective when it comes from within.
So how to promote this growth without it being a company or business requirement?
An engineer manager has several different hats to wear daily. One is the coach hat. As coaches, we have the powerful opportunity to help our direct reports face their needs. One of the tools that can help in this quest is the GROW model.
GROW stands for Goal, Reality, Options and Will.
I like to start by facing Reality.
I find defining a goal when we do not know our starting point is troubling. So the initial question is, “where are we at this right moment?“. It is not an easy question to answer. Self-awareness is paramount for a continuous learning process. Help your direct reports to understand and, sometimes uncover, what difficulties they are facing. I had experiences wherein a single 1on1 meeting we could figure out what was happening, but also had experiences where we needed to dig deeper in multiple sessions. Keep asking open questions. If you feel you are in a rut, stick with the five Why. For each answer, ask “and why?“. If you sense there is more to it, don’t stop asking just because you already asked five times.
Now is the time to take a step back and work on the Goal.
Where does your direct report want to be at the end of the entire process? Which new capabilities does your direct report wish to acquire? I will not dive deep into the Goal setting in this post, but for the sake of transparency, I use the SMART framework for that.
When both of you have a clear understanding of the end goal, start working on the Options. I enjoy this phase of the process. I find it quite amusing. Some people are more creative and childlike, while others have more psychological baggage and strong beliefs. So, be ready to face the neverending answer, “I don’t know“. It is possible to help people be more creative, but that goes way beyond this article. But fear not, sometimes contesting an “I don’t know” with a provoking reply like “yes, I know you don’t know. But if you would know, what might be possible?” does the trick. Urge your direct report to write down every hypothesis that comes to mind. Anything goes.
The final step, Will like in “what will you do next?“. Your direct report should leave with a plan to follow and a clear vision of which steps to take next.
Remember, if you want to see real action, the person should be made accountable. So do not forget to end the meeting with a deadline for the activities to occur. Depending on your direct report personality, you may, or not, have to schedule some follow-up reminders.
As soon as you start using the GROW model with your direct reports, it will help both of you to have a deeper understanding of the current state and a clear vision of the possibilities that might unfold for the future.
Give it a try.