Control Freak's Guide to Empowering Your Team

· 4 min read
Control Freak's Guide to Empowering Your Team

During my first years as a CTO, I was a control freak. I wanted to be involved in every engineering decision — from reviewing pull requests to picking out frameworks. I thought we’d only build things right if I was orchestrating everything. Of course, I was wrong.

Learning to Let Go of Micromanaging

After a few months, I was burnt out trying to micromanage a dozen engineers. That’s when one of the clients gifted me a book by Ray Dalio, an American billionaire investor and hedge fund manager who founded Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds. The book “Principles: Life and Work” outlines his philosophy on life and management. That book opened my eyes. I keep it on my table and consult with it regularly now.

In one of the principles, Ray Dalio talked about the idea of leverage — empowering people under you to do the heavy lifting. At the same time, you focus on high-level guidance and feedback. The way he put it just made so much sense. I realized I couldn’t scale as a manager if I kept trying to do everything myself.

Implementing Principles of Leverage

We started experimenting. Over time, we’ve built a robust process automating and documenting some of the routine tasks. Team members I could rely on began to run the show, making most decisions and conducting training sessions instead of me. And I defined and communicated our architectural and strategic principles upfront so we stayed aligned. I did it verbally, but I’d love to write all of them down at some point, the same way Mr. Dalio did.

Over time, I felt my control freak tendencies subsiding. My calendar cleared up, and I could think more strategically about where I wanted to take our team long-term. The calendar got clogged up again later, but it’s a different story. The best thing is that the engineering team stepped up with many creative solutions I never would have come up with.

How to Achieve Leverage

Leverage is great, but how do you achieve it? I recently came across an excellent chapter by Cate Huston in “97 Things Every Engineering Manager Should Know” that provides some helpful perspective. Here are the key takeaways from it. Follow them, and you’ll be the greatest engineering manager ever.

Focus on Empowering Your Team

Letting go of control can be scary, I get it! I used to think my team needed me to make every little decision too. But that bottlenecks things and hinders their growth.

The key is giving people actual ownership. Let your team drive solutions with guardrails, not hand-holding. It builds confidence and skills so much faster.

Like when I had Dmytro, our lead designer, take the lead on our new mobile feature. I prepped the goals but let him run the UX completely. Now, he owns the mobile experience.

Look at Overall Delivery Consistency

It’s tempting to freak out over every little delivery hiccup. But take a breath, get some altitude, and look at the big picture. Are you shipping often? Is output predictable over time? Then you’re doing great.

Sure, chaos means something systemic needs fixing. But consistent execution is magic every manager wants. It takes work to build a sustainable cadence, but it is so worthwhile.

My team’s goal is to have monthly releases down to a science. Bumps happen, but we roll with them. Everyone knows their role because we’re nailing our rhythms.

Cultivate Open Communication

I used to think my virtual door was always open. Unfortunately, people won’t just step up and voice their concerns. You’ve got to actively nurture safety to get candid feedback.

If your team only speaks up when frustrated, you miss crucial chances for incremental improvements. Make it clear you want transparency early and often.

In 1:1s, I always say, “I rely on your honest input.” It keeps the communication flowing. But it’s not enough to say it. You have to mean it.

Develop Leaders Under You

My first tendency was to do everything myself, like a complete control freak. But that path leads to burnout and bottlenecking.

You have to deliberately nurture other leaders. Give them room to stretch and grow through real projects, challenges, and mistakes. Empower, don’t just delegate, even if it sounds cliche.

Expand Your Scope Outside Your Core Team

Once you’ve built a smooth sailing team, set your sights outside. Find ways to use your skills to help peers and multiply impact.

Get out of your silo. Understand other teams’ worlds by offering help where they need it most. Build crucial perspective and influence.

I started advising other companies to help them work around dev limitations. It built partnerships way beyond just my own little corner.

Listen to Peer Feedback

This one seems simple, but it’s so crucial. People on your team notice blind spots you can’t easily see yourself. Regularly get their direct feedback.

Fellow managers can share key context and call out areas for growth you’d never spot alone. Be grateful when they shine a light on dark areas of your process.

When another CTO said I wasn’t visible enough externally, I took that to heart. Now, I write publicly to spread our vision.

You Can’t Manage Without Letting Go

The lessons from Ray Dalio and Cate Huston hit home for me. Trying to be the almighty puppet master burns you out fast. You’ve got to empower your team and leverage their skills, not control everything.

Building trust and processes that allow you to step back takes work. But your crew will thrive even when you’re not there when you promote open communication and feedback!

Then, you can focus on the fun strategic stuff versus being bogged down in the weeds. The principles seem simple, but it takes discipline to let go. I’m still learning.

If you stay self-aware and keep growing, you’ll get there. And when your team is killing it while you provide high-level guidance, that’s a great feeling worth working towards. That’s the sign of a leader who brings out the best in people. And that’s what we should all strive for.

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