Teammates First Deadlines Second

“Am I investing my full attention in my team’s deadlines at the expense of leading by example?”

Deadlines, by nature, create a powerful feedback loop, where you get rewards such as external recognition from your boss/peers and internal ones by removing a task from your To-Do list and going home feeling “productive”. Due to their visibility and ease of measurement, most managers prefer to invest their time in keeping deadlines, instead of exercising their leadership first. By entering the “deadlines loop”, it’s easy for your teammates to feel that you’re only pushing more work into the pipeline, rather than being someone they can actually follow and rely on. It’s a rhythm that is hard to break without intentionally taking steps to put your teammates first.

Even though you’ve got plenty to prove, one of the things that should be on your mind when you’re managing people is how you can engage them in a way that will make them respect you and earn their trust.

Start with setting the tone and lead by example

The idea is to gain trust by drawing on values your teammates will appreciate:

  • Get to know your people better: Treat each feature and each task as an opportunity to learn something new about your teammates. Pair Programming and Code Review are great ways to check for coding style, provide feedback and have a discussion. Make sure your teammates include these tasks when setting a deadline for a feature. Use your time together to learn which parts drive them – is it the code? architecture? new language? performance tuning? the discussion itself? the product?
  • Show them they can learn from you: Many times you’ll find yourself thinking “I could do it twice as fast” while asking for an estimation. It may be because you’ve got some expertise or (more often) you simply have a better ability to visualize the required work, thus better estimating the time it will take. Take this chance to do some pair programming: break it into tasks together (so s/he could learn from you) and my secret trick – create dependencies between the tasks, so you’ll be waiting for each other at the end (solve it by introducing interfaces and mockups so you could both work). This creates anticipation to prove to each other you can nail it. When the mockups are replaced with real code, you’ll have fun laughing if something breaks down, run mutual code-reviews and ship it together.
  • Define what “beautiful code” and “beautiful documentation” means in your team’s context: There is nothing worse than having a “religious debate” while deadlines are keeping your team working around the clock. From my experience, you should prefer using business concepts such as “beautiful code makes it easy to add new features on top of it” versus “beautiful code has 95% code-coverage” or “beautiful code has up to 5 methods per class” (here is my definition, slides 32 and 34, use it for reference but always prefer your own). Next time you sit with one of your teammates, you could say “I think the design you made for the feature is awesome *and I want it to be super easy to add more features on top of it later on. I’m not sure if we need the abstraction you suggest at this point, I prefer to see 1 or 2 more usages before we’re adding abstraction layers. I’m afraid we will build something that will make it harder to add things as we move forward, just because we’re lacking more context and real use-cases. What do you think?” 
  • Build expectations with your boss: One of the most underused tools available for you as a manager is your own boss. There is no one more passionate to see you succeed than him/her. Learn to explain why you prefer delaying a deadline and show the value you are hoping to gain – “I know that we should have completed this feature today, but I feel there is a great lesson here my teammates can learn and I want an extra day to do some retrospection and improve parts of the code. I believe it will improve their work in the long run“. Your manager, like you, has an interest in building a long-term A+ team. That means sometimes you will both need to sacrifice short-term wins. Having honest discussions with your boss, sharing your experience and asking for guidance can provide you the oxygen you need. My advice – ask your boss to tell you when s/he think you’re too focused on short-term deliveries. It will do wonders to your 1:1 sessions. 
  • Self-retrospection is not a nice-to-have anymore: I’ve written before about building a framework for improving your management skills and I highly recommend setting a 1 hour recurring meeting in your calendar once a week just for you to reflect on your work (early morning of the last day in the week should be ideal). Use it to ask yourself again “am I too focused on my deadlines or am I building confidence within my team?”


What do you think? Got more tips about setting the right balance between short-term and long-term team building? Would love to hear from you!

* always replace “but” with “and”, a great tip from Bill Gross on How to give GREAT employee feedback

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photo credit: Alan Cleaver


Oren Ellenbogen

Curate awesomeness @ , Engineer @ Commerce Sciences, Author of , Explorer of Company DNA.