This is one of a series of blog posts where we share some of the key takeaways from our interviews with engineering leaders for our upcoming book, The Engineering Leader Within. Get notified as we release more interviews.
Over five years ago, I had lunch with bethanye Blount, and amidst conversations about best ways to roll out new services, effectiveness of re-writes, and her extensive systems knowledge, what stuck with me years later was her unique perspective on her job as a manager: to help people be the most badass versions of themselves. When Edmond and I started interviewing people for our book, I knew we had to talk to bethanye.
“A lot of manager theory from the '70s talks about things like fixing weaknesses in people. I think that the idea that you would look at somebody as something to be fixed is fundamentally problematic. And I think the idea of looking at somebody as on a journey and that you can help them on that journey makes a lot more sense. To me, that's thinking about helping people be more badass.” — bethanye Blount
Bethanye Blount is the Founder and CEO of Compaas and has an impressive background leading infrastructure and systems teams at companies such as Linden Lab, Facebook, and Reddit. In our conversation with bethanye, she shared that she focused a lot of her energy as a leader in helping people around her become more badass. To bethanye, helping people be more badass “means being able to imagine a more awesome version of every single person you work with” and supporting them in that journey.
So how exactly do you help people be the most badass version of themselves?
Advocate for Individuals First
When thinking through how to make decisions, bethanye Blount references these priorities: the individual person, then the company, then the team, then you. “That's the only order of operations that I think is right.” She's honed in on these priorities through her extensive experience, including “personal conviction and failure.”
Bethanye explains what it means to prioritize in that order:
If somebody wants to leave the company, and it will hurt you, but you really know this is a great opportunity for them, then you need to let them go and be happy for them. Because that's the only way to go. If somebody wants to move to a different team and it's gonna hurt your team, but it's good for them and it's good for the company, suck it up. That's the order. The individual, then the company, then your team, then you as a person.
Prioritizing individuals first and foremost is the most effective way to build a high-functioning team. Says bethanye, “The people around you, the people on your team will pull together to be greater than the sum of its parts when they believe that you really do have their back and they can see that. And one of the ways you signal that to them is by advocating for them as individuals first.”
Build Trust in Your Value
Depending on people's previous experiences, their trust in management may differ. “A large preponderance of people are suspicious of management,” says bethanye. Based on her many direct reports over the years, she adds, “There's a reason that they don't think you have any value. Because they've been working with someone who wasn't there for them. Right? It's not that it comes from nowhere...you don't just have to get their trust to the point where they're willing to try it, you then have to deliver on that by actually being there.”
That means showing up reliably for 1:1s. It means advocating for them, even in seemingly intractable situations when they're not completely blameless.
This step is critical before moving on, because as bethanye says, “It's difficult to help people be more badass who are determined that you have no value.”
Eventually, when they see that you do have their back, “one day, they will start talking to you. And this is pretty amazing.”
When people know that you have their back and their best interests in mind, that's when you can have the hard conversations about what holds them back.
Tell Them What You See In Them
One of the common ways that bethanye has seen people hold themselves back is through fear. They think that they're not ready or need a lot more experience. “I want people to have choices and I want them to have options. And I want them to be able to choose that future for themselves and not opt out prematurely from something because they've decided that they can't do it.” In these cases, bethanye shares with them what she sees as a more awesome version of themselves.
“It is my responsibility to imagine a more badass version of that person.”
Bethanye might say to someone:
- “I think you'd be really awesome at this thing. I think you'd be so good at it. Oh my god, I think you'd be great at it. And if it's something you want to try, I've got your back. Let's talk about a plan to get you there.”
- “That fear might be holding you back. We'll work together on that. Let's do baby steps together.”
- “You can do this. Let's do a test. Just try this one. Just do a project. Do this one project. I think you'd be good at it. If you hate it, it's fine.”
When you share the awesome version you envision, bethanye says to make sure it's the beginning of a conversation. It may be that you imagine a version of an engineer where she is evangelizing some tool and giving talks at major conferences, but she may actually be repulsed by that idea. Notice if the badass version in your head is aligned with how someone views themselves, or if they hold back out of fear of not being sure they can do it.
Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior
Another common way that people hold themselves back from the most awesome version of themselves is by engaging in behavior that sabotages themselves. In her First Round article Troubleshooting Troublemakers, bethanye discusses her trademark of handling “difficult” engineers. She says, self-sabotaging behavior may show up as bad social behavior that is tolerated for awhile, but when somebody wants to accomplish something that requires more people, people have no interest in working with them.
The way to increase awareness and change self-sabotaging behavior is built on trust — you first need to build the other's person trust in you that the feedback you give them is in their best interest. And that it is all in service of helping them achieve the outcome they desire.
"Do you want to accomplish this goal, or do you need to get credit? Does it have to be done your way, or do you really want the end goal?" And they're all like, "Well, I really just want the end goal." I'm like, "Really? Because your behavior says different." And then you do a lot of debugging and eyes on the prize, eyes on the prize, eyes on the prize.
It can be a journey, for people to debug their own behavior that holds them back from what they want, and sometimes it's slow — sometimes it can take years. bethanye likes to both point out self-sabotaging behavior, as well as ask questions that teach engineers how to debug it on their own. She might ask:
- “Walk me through why you're making that decision. Why are you doing that?”
- “What do you think is the repercussion of that?”
- “What do you think this person is going to do?”
- “What do you think this other person is gonna do? What are you gonna do then?”
By analyzing their own human behavior, she helps people form hypotheses on what will happen, do post-mortems to see if their theories were correct, and then let them find their learnings from there. “And I think that they have to learn for themselves where they were not as dispassionate in their decision making,” she says.
Here are some ways you can start to practice leaning into this perspective.
- Make a list of direct reports or peers, and for each person, think about their strengths and what it would look like if they leaned into those strengths fully. What would a more awesome version of that person look like?
- Share what you see as possible for someone. What is obvious to you may be very obscured for someone else.
- Find alignment - see if what you imagine as an awesome version of someone resonates with them, and if they shy away from it because it is unappealing, or because they don't think they're ready for it.
- Make a plan - what are some baby steps you or that person can take to help move someone forward?
It's only by prioritizing each individual and helping each person become the most badass version of themselves that you can build a team that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.