Building High-Performance Product Teams: The Importance of Empowerment and Trust • Slash

Building High-Performance Product Teams: The Importance of Empowerment and Trust

March 27, 2023

Empowerment, a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. People believe we should all feel empowered and that somehow, we are responsible for empowering others. This assumes that to begin with, no one is empowered and that empowerment must be gifted to you by someone in power. Before running down the philosophical rabbit hole, perhaps I should clarify that my focus herein will be on empowerment in the workplace. That is, one place where a clear power imbalance exists. Top-down management structures are no longer suitable for the workplace of today and certainly not tomorrow.

High Performance Individuals

Managing high performance individuals is always a challenge. For an easy example, look to the world of sports and see how coaches struggle to manage some of the most talented players on the field or court. It’s key for a company to acknowledge those individuals and be sure they understand the company sees their talents and can grow with them. Therefore, this will put pressure directly on People Operations and the individual’s immediate line manager to not let them down in this regard. Focus on and foster their growth; ensure they trust the company is the right place for them to be so, the relationship is beneficial.
The software industry has a continual ebb and flow of work based on projects coming in when opportunity is found by the sales and growth teams. Yet, what are you to do when that opportunity is not found? Your company is full of high performing, talented players that need to be engaged and know that your company is the place they should be. No developer likes being put on a bench, right? Now consider having to bench your star player(s) and how well that would go.
Where am I going with this? Well, we come back around to the beginning not of empowerment. In reality all your staff, regardless of performance level, should feel empowered and able to steer their career course within the company and not feel listless. This means you’ll need to provide a variety of opportunities for them to engage with whenever they find themselves not engaged headlong in a project.

The Bench

The dreaded place for all software engineers. Ironically you may be thinking, “who wouldn’t like a little paid downtime”, but when you consider the nature of the industry, you understand it’s not always a good thing. Software engineers are expected to continually grow their skills to stay relevant with the fast changing landscape that is programming languages. So bench time can certainly be productive time, but your company needs to provide the opportunity and access to that which can make the time productive for on-bench engineers.
The opportunity afforded to them will empower them to make their own choices as to how they will use that downtime. For example, an engineer may want to take some accreditations for AWS so, ensuring they have a clear path to do so is necessary. However, in turn your company needs to stay one step ahead and consider once the high performer gets that new skill, you have a plan to allow them to employ it. This is where trust comes into play. They must trust you to continually provide for them, for when you stop doing so, they will sooner leave than sit around and see their talents go to waste.

Mix Things Up

Not all companies have the luxury of offering their software engineers a plethora of opportunities. In fact, most companies tend to focus on one or two main areas leaving those high performers likely to feel bored a whole lot sooner. It’s a balancing act of how you can see to the company’s needs while also attending to the engineer’s personal career needs.
Why go to such lengths? Because good help is hard to come by. Again, look at sports and consider the careers of some of the star players. Now look closely at their careers and what some of the teams did just to keep those players on the team; it’s not all about the money. They want to win, they want to be able to utilize all their talents, find themselves pushed to their limits and win the championship games.
High performers are generally the same in all walks of life. So being sure to mix things up is key. If your company specializes in one or two stacks for a niche market, I can’t recommend enough the importance of having a deep learning and development program to keep your engineers engaged. Don’t stop at just the tech stacks; your program should extend well beyond: give your high performers opportunities to be leaders, understand the end-to-end aspects of product development and even into the marketing stages. Ensure that their thirst to excel and improve is thoroughly satiated!

In the end, one must acknowledge that there is a sweet spot between creating opportunities, the nature of the business and people’s willingness to learn. We cannot empower people for everything all the time; as well, once their trust is gained, don’t betray. Ensure you have a culture of appreciation and cyclical feedback for all your engineers. Communication and the relationship you keep with them will always need attention, yet always pay you back in spades when given what it needs.

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