The Future Leaders of FlightAware. Part 2: Principles, Practices, and Tools for Building Strategic Leadership

The Future Leaders of FlightAware. Part 2: Principles, Practices, and Tools for Building Strategic Leadership

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.

In our previous blog in this series, The Future Leaders of FlightAware. Part I: Structuring the Manager’s Path, we covered some of the high-level strategies we employ to grow the future leaders of FlightAware and why it is so important to us. This time, 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.

The Tenets of the Course

The class was created with these objectives in mind:

  1. Teach the participants the basic set of behaviors required to get the job done.
  2. Cover material that will allow participants to recognize characteristics in themselves that need to be nurtured or modified.
  3. Pique the participant’s interest in management as a subject and encourage them to learn more on their own.

The class is not designed to make every participant an expert manager as soon as they complete it. That only comes with time, dedication, and introspection. What it will do, however, is send them down the right path to begin their management journey.

The Format of the Class

The format of the class is simple: we meet as a group every two weeks for an hour to discuss the focus topic(s). Before the meeting, everyone reads or watches the material, takes notes, and prepares for the discussion. During the meeting, I facilitate by asking the participants questions to start the discussion or continue it on to other topics that merit attention. I also spend some time each session relating previous experiences that I have and giving more practical examples of the topics being discussed. I also encourage others to do the same so that we can all benefit from each other’s experiences.

We like this approach for a few reasons. First, it fits into people’s schedules. Regular, recurring meetings are easier to schedule and to schedule around. Additionally, the two-week frequency allows ample time to consume the material and ruminate on it. We’re looking to discuss the material in each session, not just regurgitate it. Having enough time to process the reading and form your own opinions about it leads to a much better discussion. Ultimately, the discussion is where the real benefit of the format shines through. It gives multiple viewpoints on the topics, allowing the participants to think about them in new and interesting ways, and potentially leading them to a different understanding than they came in with. In almost every session, someone has an epiphany about a concept, tool, or methodology that grows their ability that much more.

The Coursework

There are three main sources that we use for the course: The Manager Tools Effective Manager video course, The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier, and The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker. There is also some FlightAware-specific material that is included in the course that gives more specifics on how we expect managers to lead their teams related to topics presented by the core coursework.

Effective Manager Video Course, Manager Tools

We start with the entire Effective Manager video course from Manager Tools because it is the most practical of the three. It has short, easily digestible video segments that discuss topics in a way that is meant to train or teach. There are questions to answer, exercises to do on your own, and downloadable documents to support some of the subjects discussed.

In our curriculum, it is used to cover the basics of management and the behaviors a new manager should engage in to be effective. Working through this video course takes the largest number of training sessions, and of the three coursework materials, it is the most important to make sure it is understood fully. It is basically the foundation on which the rest of the learning is built.

It is VERY systematic (that’s the point), which may make it off-putting to some. It can give the impression that the direct sitting across from you is just a set of variables to plug into an equation to get the answer of how to manage them. That seemingly formulaic approach to management may feel less personal to some and therefore may require more discussion of its merits to keep it from being dismissed. But it should not be dismissed. It’s a good way to introduce the fundamentals of management to anyone.

The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier

After finishing the video course, we next take on The Manager’s Path, chapters one through four. This book is written by an engineer for engineers, and Fournier does an excellent job relating her experiences and expertise. We focus on the first four chapters because they encompass the participants’ journey to this point, covering what to expect from a manager and how to be managed, how to be a mentor, how to run a technical team, and how to manage direct reports.

Fournier sprinkles anecdotes and advice throughout, giving it a relaxed coaching vibe. The participants get to learn from her successes and failures and, as engineers, they’re easy to relate to because they’ve likely had some of the exact same things happen in their careers already. She also discusses the human element of management more in-depth, giving the book a more personal feeling than the Effective Manager video course.

One of the great things about following the video course with this book is their different takes on the practicalities of managing day to day. They have differing opinions on how to do 1:1s and feedback, so it’s a great opportunity for the participants to engage in discussions about the merits of each.

Even if you ultimately decide not to include The Manager’s Path in your management curriculum, I highly encourage you to have all new hires to your organization read the first chapter, especially if this is their first position out of college. It does a fantastic job of level-setting expectations for the direct and manager’s responsibilities in their relationship and will help start the new employee down the right path (pun intended).

The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker

The last text we cover as part of the course is frequently touted as one of the best management texts ever written. The Effective Executive has a place in the curriculum because even though it was written well before most of the people participating in the course were born, it still has many nuggets of wisdom that can be mined.

We cover chapters one through four in the class and encourage the participants to finish the book on their own. These chapters cover some concepts that many new managers struggle with, like time management, delegation, and being part of a bigger organization.

The reason we like to include this book in the curriculum is that it’s a stretch. It was written in a different time and the examples (and sometimes the prose) aren’t easy to relate to as an engineer in the twenty-first century. We want the participants to have to work a little hard to tease the advice out of the stories from a bygone era. This makes them really analyze what they’ve previously learned and reinforces those concepts.

The text can be a little redundant after going through the Effective Manager video course; many of their concepts are the same, but there is value in reinforcing them. And there is plenty of new material that is covered that makes it more than worthwhile.

Wrapping it Up

The curriculum we use for this directed management training program is what I would consider 100- and 200-level course material. It also covers some other practical topics specific to how we do things at FlightAware (e.g. annual reviews) so that they have what they need to get started as a manager here. Broadly, though, the topics covered can be used in any organization with a desire to teach their prospective or new managers the basic set of behaviors required to get the job done, get them to recognize characteristics in themselves that need to be nurtured or modified, and pique their interest in management as a subject for career-long learning.

Appendix: Directed Training Program Curriculum

Here is a collected list of the course material we found helpful when creating this program:

  • Effective Manager Video Course, Manager Tools. We cover the entire video course as part of the class.
  • The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournie. A modern hands-on manual for both aspiring and existing technical leaders. We cover the chapters listed below but I encourage the participants to read further.
    • Chapter 1: Management 101
    • Chapter 2: Mentoring
    • Chapter 3: Tech Lead
    • Chapter 4: Managing People
  • The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker. This book provides timeless insight and coaching for development. Again, we only cover part of the book but highly encourage the participants to read the entire work.
    • Chapter 1: Effectiveness Can Be Learned
    • Chapter 2: Know Thy Time
    • Chapter 3: What Can I Contribute?
    • Chapter 4: Making Strength Productive
    • Chapter 5: First Things First
Chadd Mikulin

Chadd Mikulin

Chadd Mikulin is the Vice President of Engineering at FlightAware. For over fifteen years, he has helped grow and promote leaders in the organizations of which he’s been part.

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