Chadd Mikulin is the Director of Engineering for Data and Software Services at FlightAware. For over fifteen years, he has helped grow and promote leaders in the organizations of which he’s been part.
This is the first in a series of posts about growing the future leaders of FlightAware. In this first installment, we’ll cover why this is important to us as a company and some high-level strategies we employ. In future posts, we’ll cover the details of some of those strategies.
Investing in Our Own
FlightAware is growing. We’re constantly looking to add great people to our company. Finding them is one problem, but once you do find them, to whom are they going to report? Any substantial growth requires an expansion of the overall structure, with new teams and people to run those teams.
This is a great problem to have. You get an opportunity to do some noodling on how you should structure your organization and how it should work to produce results. See more about that in the blog post, Crews, Wings and Alliances. Part 1: The Principles of How We Work. After that, though, where do you find the managers to fill out the different positions that are created by the expanding organization?
At FlightAware, our goal is to promote from within as often as we can. The reasons? They already know a tremendous amount about the organization, so you don’t have to spend time to ramp them up. They understand the company culture and the values we want to promote because they’ve been living in it. They have also already built a network within the organization which allows them to know who to go to for what and have existing relationships that can be leaned on as they work to get things done. Finally, they already have a reputation for delivering results. They are already respected across the part of the organization they deal with; the scope of which could be their current, small team, or, if you’ve been doing your job and getting them broader exposure, a significant part of the organization.
However, just because you promote someone into a position doesn’t mean they have all the skills they need to be effective. But what does it really mean to be effective? At FlightAware, to be effective as a manager, you must create a safe and productive environment that makes your directs want to continue to achieve. We want everyone at FlightAware to be able to share ideas with their coworkers and to not hesitate to do so. When someone makes a mistake, we want them to recognize it, own up to it, and work to figure out a solution, not worry about getting blamed for causing a problem. And we want everyone to be productive and find their job fulfilling. These methodologies allow us to retain the great talent we have, and our management team is charged with making sure that we’re fostering the environment that will make that happen.
Imagine the benefits of this line of thinking, not only for the company, but for the employee. When I was promoted into my first management job, I definitely was not ready. I never received any formal training or had even been recommended to read anything on the subject. Many of the mistakes I made early on could have been avoided with the right support system. Like the company I got my first management position at, many organizations don’t do a great job of getting people ready for the next step in their careers. We don’t want FlightAware to be one of those organizations, so how do we make sure someone is set up for success? We think that anyone who expresses interest in pursuing management should get their feet wet well before it’s time to manage people day to day. We want to be able to have people on deck that can take on a leadership role when an opportunity arises and SUCCEED.
So how do we set potential managers up for success? We have created an opportunity for potential future leaders to gain some of the knowledge they need through a formal training course. We think there are a lot of qualities that someone needs to be a good leader, and we want to give people the opportunities they need to become one before they are called upon to do so in a structured setting.
Let’s talk about the leadership opportunities that everyone at FlightAware has as they progress in the engineering organization. We follow this process so that our employees can gain valuable skills and, ultimately, make an informed decision about whether they want to take on a management role. We want to start them off small and build up their leadership skills prior to taking on the responsibility of being in charge of an entire team’s growth and retention.
First, we give them the opportunity to mentor new folks to FlightAware. Having a good onboarding process is important for a short and successful ramp-up period (and is a blog post in itself). Providing a mentor for that new hire is a crucial part of that. Being a mentor helps develop the ability to build relationships and offer support to someone that needs help, while still letting the mentee learn things on their own. It also helps the mentor with time management skills that they’ll need later as they take on more leadership responsibility.
Next, we encourage them to act as Coordinator for one of the big learning initiatives that are constantly going on at FlightAware, which we call Alliances: small groups of people focused on learning about a specific topic that meet regularly to discuss their findings and share related work. Acting as coordinator gives them a low-stakes way to plan work and coordinate the activities of others. They can create a reading schedule and assign the work for different sections. They also will likely need to work to get buy-in and make adjustments to the schedule as people’s availability changes. Both are crucial skills for leaders.
After that, we like to have them act as tech lead on projects that take more than one person, either within their Core Crew or on a Crew that encompasses members from different Wings. This starts to give them an idea of what it means to be responsible for a group’s output and really helps them flex their leadership muscles.
Once they have some practical leadership experience under their belts and decide they want to pursue it as a next step in their career, we want to give them a good primer on the theory of what it means to manage people full-time. That’s where the formal training course comes in. Being responsible for a group’s technical output is one thing; being responsible for their career growth and retention is something different. They need to know how to conduct 1:1s, a crucial tool for successful relationship building, how important feedback is and how to give it, and a host of other methods that will help them to understand the behaviors they need to go through. And that’s the secret. You can learn to be a successful manager. It doesn’t have to come naturally. You just have to know what behaviors to engage in and do them reliably. That’s what we work to teach in the formal training program.
Delving into Directed Training
In the next installment, we’ll discuss the brass tacks of our directed training program: the format for the course, the curriculum we use, and the individual pieces' pros and cons, so that you might choose whether they’re something you’d like to incorporate into your leadership training initiative.