Leadership soft skills make or break your career as you transition into engineering management.
Many engineering leaders give up and turn back, while others succeed. Many of us think the successful ones were born with the soft skills necessary for leadership.
This story will tell you otherwise.
Gergely Hodicska, also known as “Felhő,” is currently VP of Engineering at Bitrise, but he started out as an engineer. His road to becoming a successful leader had its bumps, but he persisted, mastered many leadership soft skills, and turned his weaknesses into superpowers.
Gergely Hodicska started his career as a back-end engineer building websites with massive traffic. Eventually, he transitioned from engineering to management and leadership. He realized that in order to improve the organization, leadership had to improve as well.
Leadership became his passion, and he’s learned a lot about it over the last 10 years. Engineering culture and organizational development are his favorite topics. His goal is to build a culture where people can thrive and feel encouraged to move towards reaching their full potential.
You need to be aware of leadership soft skills because they’ve changed a lot over the last decades. Business has become more complex with a focus on customer behaviors, different markets, and so on. We’ve been using the VUCA framework to describe this, which means: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
Organizations are facing a high pace of change driven by globalization and technology. If the internal changes of an organization can’t match the external change demand, then that company will go downhill.
Millennials also pose a challenge. They grew up in a network-based society, so they tend not to like hierarchical structures. They connect to purpose more than previous generations.
Some companies are oblivious to this, which will cause them problems when it comes to attracting talent. Research shows that about 80% of employees dislike their job, while 20% are actively disengaged, which means they’re working against their company.
We’ve learned a lot about the way our brains work. We have a fight-or-flight mode, for example. We live in a different world than our ancestors did, so while this may be great when you’re facing bears, it’s less useful when you’re wrestling bits.
When you get an assigned task, it’s harder to keep up your attention level. When you’re working on something you define yourself, it’s much easier to maintain your attention.
Most of the organizations are hierarchical and bureaucratic, and they’re losing ground each year. Leadership and organizational structures have to become more flexible and diverse. We also need a workforce that can deal with a higher level of complexity.
Work in software development today is all about collaboration and co-creation, and there’s a lot of untapped potential in people.
This is why it’s inevitable for companies to invest in soft skills. Most interactions are ego-based because people aren’t as self-aware as they could be.
Collaboration is often tainted by unconscious fear-based reactions. Even in average meetings, it can take half an hour just to get on the same page, because people are approaching the topic based on their fears. This is a waste of energy.
The same is true for leaders. Many engineering leaders are ego-driven; they’re thinking in silos, kingdoms, hierarchies, and central strategies, and this limits the potential of the entire organization.
Leadership soft skills consist of two big groups: people skills and leadership skills.
People skills, in general, include empathy, facilitation, collaboration, negotiation, conflict resolution, and similar topics.
Leadership skills include articulating a vision, establishing a strategy, balancing operational and strategic concerns, acting as a servant leader, and other aspects of communication.
I will focus on people skills.
I like to define the purpose of leadership as influencing others to act for a better outcome. From this perspective, every employee is a leader, and it makes sense for companies to invest in them as such. Less hierarchical organizations put more responsibility on the teams getting the job done, so more leadership capability translates to higher level operations.
We tend to treat these traits as if they were hardwired, but there are many ways to improve them.
I consider emotional intelligence the most important soft skill. You can split it up into four large sections, each including different traits.
It’s essential to understand what emotions are and how they work. According to researchers, emotional intelligence contributes about 80% to lifetime success while IQ only contributes about 20%.
This helps you understand your strengths and your weaknesses, so you can work on both. You don’t want to have glaring weaknesses, but the return is higher if you invest in your strengths.
When in a conflict, people often feel attacked, and most of the time they aren’t even aware of this. When attacked, people turn on autopilot and react differently. Our brain is wired for this, but we can improve emotional self-control with practice.
Confidence is important in a leadership position, and you can work on building it. It can be an important quality for everyone. For example, if you’re asked to do something you don’t agree with, confidence allows you to speak your mind.
Integrity and transparency are about making smart promises and delivering on them. If you make a mistake, you should acknowledge it. It’s okay to show vulnerability and to act in line with your own values.
Empathy and sympathy aren’t the same. Empathy means feeling the same way as others do around you, while sympathy means paying attention to and understanding the feelings of others.
Sympathy is the leader’s tool. Listen carefully, understand the situation, and act accordingly.
Servant leadership is important, but service orientation goes beyond that. It also includes serving the customer, all the stakeholders, and possibly even serving the planet. Coaching and mentoring are also a part of this, and leaders need to utilize them a lot.
As organizations get more complex, networking becomes more important. You need to build a network you can rely on. You need to be good at this to build a high-performing engineering team and organization.
All the above-mentioned points belong to emotional intelligence.
Spiritual intelligence is the next level of emotional intelligence. The word “spiritual” can make it sound like a religious idea, but for me, it means being conscious in the present. I recommend two books if you’re interested in the topic: 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, and Conscious Business.
There is a developmental model detailing how people go through three major stages of consciousness.
When a person is at the stage of the socialized mind, they aim to please others.
A self-authoring mind has created an ego. In this stage, people know their own truth, and they think their truth should be the universal truth.
In this stage, people realize that it’s possible in any situation for there to be multiple conflicting truths. Reaching this level is a must-have soft skill for leaders, and it’s also important for employees.
I know a tech lead who got into his position based on his ability to use multi-perspective thinking rather than technical skills.
Other tech leads envied him, and they kept saying he played politics. This wasn’t the case. This person was capable of understanding multiple perspectives, and he always came up with solutions that pleased all the stakeholders.
Mastering different leadership styles is useful. Adjusting your style to the person and the context will yield better results than using the same leadership style all the time.
Having a creator mindset over a victim mindset is great for leadership. The victim treats situations as if they can’t change them, while the creator takes responsibility and actively shapes reality. Creators turn every situation into an opportunity.
Creating the right culture is a big topic that I’m passionate about. Engineering culture is a delicate thing. It’s hard to grasp, and even harder to build, so it’s worth digging deep into it.
Personal productivity for leaders is key because leading by example is powerful. Intent doesn’t matter; leaders can’t have a big impact if they aren’t productive enough. It’s essential for managers to master time management.
Building habits is essential in engineering leadership both on the personal and the organization level. Most change initiatives are about turning a new behavior into a habit. If you can’t turn a behavior into a habit, the organization eventually falls back to its previous state and the change initiative fails.
There are many aspects of making decisions. Understanding the context, satisfying different stakeholders, making sacrifices, and many more concepts go into decision making. Getting good at it is another key to effective leadership.
Many people believe that facilitation is the most important leadership style. Organizations are becoming more network-based, with less emphasis on formal authority. This makes facilitation the key to connect with the organization, to find pain points, and to harness the collective intelligence.
Leaders need to invest in continuous learning. A good way to go is to set up sources of inspiration. You may follow inspiring people on Twitter, listen to podcasts, or read books and articles.
Naturally, you need to learn from your own mistakes as well. However, optimizing your own context can only get you to a local maximum. Inspiration can take you further.
These sources of inspiration help me create a vision of a framework for the organization. Without this vision, it’s hard to move an organization anywhere.
Maybe it’s only common in Eastern-Europe, but many people don’t invest in themselves. They expect their companies to pay for their training. It’s a stupid approach because investing in yourself helps you stay competitive on the market.
Buying a book isn’t a big investment, but you can get a lot out of it. There are also great workshops and training options. Investing in yourself will show you how you learn the most effectively, for example, group learning can be more efficient compared to learning alone.
I received feedback that made me think that I should invest more into my soft skills.
I had a heated argument with a friend of mine at Ustream, and he told me, “This is why I don’t like working with you.” At first, I thought, I’m just trying to find the best solution, but really I was defending my ego in that conversation.
Moments like that made me realize that I should improve, and research why I react the way I do in certain situations. That’s when I started to learn about my psychological drivers.
There are two main psychological drivers in my head. I realized that being right was strongly attached to being likable for me. Similarly, I attached my usefulness to my likeability.
Likability is important for a person. Whenever I unconsciously felt that I was losing my likability, I fought for it, which made me a less likable person. Simply understanding these triggers gave me a better chance to stay likable.
As I’ve learned about behavior and soft skills, I realized that I don’t act consciously in many situations. Gaining control over this was a big challenge for me.
Giving and receiving feedback is closely related to this. When I receive constructive feedback, I tend to feel attacked. I get defensive and often start attacking myself, and since I’m good with words, I manage to win many of these arguments. It turns out, by winning these battles, I’m losing the war.
I realized that when giving feedback, I often aim to control others, show off my intellect, or dominate the discussion. Investing in self-awareness allowed me to use my autopilot less. These instinctive reactions often hurt more than they help.
Earlier in my engineering leadership career, I was sensitive about other leaders crossing into my domain. I wanted to control everything, which made me less collaborative. This behavior limited the overall impact of my team, so it was a bad strategy.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of my presence in these dynamics. In my mind, my impact was connected to my controlling function.
Even my boss perceived me as someone who wasn’t great at collaborating on a broader level. As I started to understand what was behind this behavior, I started to give up this need for control and became better at cooperation. This led me to obtain a bigger responsibility as I became VP of Engineering at Ustream.
Giving up control made my impact bigger.
Creating mental frames and looking at the world through these lenses is a natural part of human thinking. At the same time, this distorts reality at the level of the input.
I tended to quickly put labels on people, and once the label was on, it was hard to change my mind. Even now when I’m reflecting on a conflict, I find that thoughts like these lead me into conflict mode. They aren’t always true; they often come from a bias I’ve developed.
I’m actively working on improving this. Even if I build those frames, I aim to assess every situation separately, in detail.
It’s been a long road.
The first step I took was learning about personality types. This didn’t give me a lot of answers, but it helped me understand why others are stupid.
Going to a coaching school helped me improve my self-awareness. It helped me learn a lot about myself. It taught me models of different situations, and this was the point where I started to see why I’m stupid.
Improving my self-awareness had the biggest impact on me. Understanding what subconscious triggers turn me into a fight-or-flight mode was invaluable. After learning about it, I started to be able to exercise more control over my emotions.
I’ve improved a lot, but this journey never ends. I need to keep working on it.
As a next step, I started to learn about nonviolent communication, which I recommend to everybody. On the surface, it’s a communication tool for leaders, but as you learn more and more, it turns into a self-awareness journey, especially with a good teacher. This taught me a lot about my emotions.
It helped me build the capacity to focus on the discussion while still checking my emotions. When you aren’t aware of your emotions, you can’t control them.
I’ve participated in many workshops.
I can’t recall all of them, but they all gave me something. Often it wasn’t even about gathering more knowledge, because people tend to have more knowledge than they can leverage. It just reminded me how interesting human behavior is, it reminded me of my own triggers, and it motivated me to start using the knowledge I’ve collected.
I’m prone to spending more time acquiring knowledge than working on myself. Even knowledge can become a trap if you don’t use it properly. Luckily, my brain works rationally, so once I understand something, I can quickly build triggers to use my understanding in live situations.
The most important thing is to create space for self-reflection. This can be dedicated time to think, to write in a journal, or to do coaching sessions with someone.
As I started self-reflecting, I started to see my faults in the many heated discussions I’ve had. I found the moments where I started losing control of my emotions. As I kept practicing, it started working in real-time.
When I caught myself being triggered, I made myself more aware to avoid going into the fight-or-flight mode. This helped me tremendously. I considered these weaknesses, but I had a chance to turn them into superpowers.
Now even when I’m writing an email and I’m about to just poke someone, my spider-sense goes off, and I start carefully considering it. Sometimes I go down this path anyway, but I often avoid it. Nowadays, I can mostly avoid these heated discussions, but sometimes having them is the best way forward.
It was feedback that started me down the path of working on my leadership soft skills. When you get feedback, you gain insight into the reality of others, which is often different from yours. You can keep using feedback forever to keep conscious of the mistakes you make and the angles you miss.
Emotional intelligence and self-awareness are the two biggest problems, as everything is related to them. As long as you manage to stay self-aware, you can control your situation and your emotions, and the autopilot won’t take over.
Going to communication training is a good starting point to improve this.
Training also helped me realize that I don’t need to spend as much time with my ego, which improved my listening skills. I became better at understanding situations and different perspectives and at merging them together. This also makes it more natural to take responsibility.
Taking responsibility is important because when people are faced with a problem, they tend to overemphasize blaming the attitudes of people over external circumstances. This is a bias to look out for. You can’t assess the attitude of others; you can only notice what they say and what they do.
Systems often drive the behavior of people who simply play the role assigned to them. Once you find the parts of the system responsible for driving a problematic behavior, you find options for improvement without changing others. Considering your own responsibility in any situation can lead to interesting solutions.
People usually think what happens in a situation is a direct cause and effect, but it isn’t the case. You can shape reality by your own communication.
For example, the typical bad managers believe that people are lazy, and they need to push them for results. They start micromanaging them and cause their team members to lose psychological safety. This leads to lower engagement and worse results, which reinforces the manager’s bad mental model.
This happens all the time.
Awareness of your impact on situations is essential; otherwise, you end up blaming others. This is a cornerstone to a healthy engineering culture. When it comes to culture, actions always win over nice quotes on the wall and your engineering culture deck.
People usually think that giving candid feedback can hurt their relationships. This is a trap because not giving feedback will hurt the relationship more at a later point. For instance, they might need to fire a report; but firing a person for a reason you’ve never given them feedback about is unfair.
Feedback is like oil to the machine. If you don’t give feedback, the entire organization starts to erode.
When I joined Bitrise, it was my goal to get better and more candid at giving feedback. Basically, I was improving myself while helping my reports. It was hard at first, but it turned into a great experience.
I use one-on-one meetings to provide meaningful feedback to my reports and to help them improve their leadership soft skills. I leverage my knowledge to help them reflect on their own situation. I help them do self-reflection.
I’m better at mentoring than coaching, but I’m trying to get better at coaching as well. Unless I make sure to stay conscious of my decisions, I easily turn on my problem-solving mode. It’s often helpful in life, but it’s a bad strategy for developing others.
We hold team learning events. For example, we’re running a book club where we’re currently processing a book from Fred Kofman together.
We’re also working with an external coach to help our managers improve at coaching.
Everybody has a training budget at Bitrise, so employees have a chance to learn individually. When it comes to using this, leading by example is important for engineering leaders. A leader can’t ever be perfect, but if they believe they don’t need to improve, and if they don’t touch their training budget, they show a bad example to the rest of the organization.
This is part of the reason why I keep learning, and I always try to share some of the knowledge that I acquire with others. This has a big impact on the culture of the organization. Many companies say that innovation is a baseline value for them, but in reality, they’re bureaucratic and avoid risks.
For example, Bitrise wants people with a growth mindset. It’s important because we’re rapidly scaling engineering, which means that our current knowledge won’t be enough six months from now. Continuous learning is part of the game; we can’t stay successful otherwise.
It’s always possible that even though you may be able to help your report, they don’t want your help.
I always have a vision, an understanding of where I’d like to get with them over time. I always try to understand the aspirations of my individual reports. There is always an intersection of the two at some point, and when I find it, I get a default buy-in.
This helps me get past any resistance.
The default hiring process for engineering managers at Bitrise includes a cultural interview. We assess each candidate from different perspectives, like growth mindset, receiving and giving feedback, willingness to fail, and willingness to learn.
We do our best to remove any bias from the process. We hold similar interviews with every candidate and use the same set of questions. At least two of us attend every interview, so my personal bias has less influence on the final decision, and we use scorecards to help compare the candidates.
When engineering managers interview with their hiring manager, the focus is on people skills. This is about assessing their leadership toolset, like how they deal with people, and how they deal with conflicts. Over the years, I’ve seen many candidates with great people skills who were socialized in a bad company culture, which affected their mindset in such a negative way that they weren’t a good fit for us.
This is a tough topic, and it often isn’t managed well. It’s always sad when you have to fire a person for any reason.
On the other hand, not dealing with low performance sets a low standard at the company. This hurts the organization in multiple ways. It signals to other employees that low performance is good enough, which causes talented people to leave because they want to work with an A-team.
Removing people who don’t uphold your culture helps the culture in the long run. This doesn’t make them bad people; it is simply a bad cultural fit. Giving honest feedback can help you prevent these situations.
When you’re starting a change initiative, focus on finding your first allies, instead of fighting stupidity. You can start small, find some peers, and start a discussion with them. Together you can run experiments, like a workshop about nonviolent communication, and assess its impact on the team.
Once you can show some examples, you can go to top-level leadership to showcase your results. This way you can showcase real impact rather than trying to sell a theory.
You need to change internally before you can change anything externally. Even if you’re in a toxic environment, you have the option to leave. You can also make the decision to analyze the part you play in the culture and start improving yourself.
There is danger in change. Change is often painful, but the overall journey will have a positive impact.
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About the author:
Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.