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.
“Anytime you take over a team, you're going to have some transitions. You're going to have people leaving already. So that's already stressful. And if you're already in a high-stress environment where you don't have enough people to begin with to do all the work that you're being asked to do, that's stressful. When you don't really know how to manage, that's stressful. When you're dealing with figuring out also how to deal with a senior leadership team who's asking you to get various things done, that's stressful.”
Startups are constantly in a state of transition, and one of the main contributors to success in such an environment is how well you can navigate all the intense emotions in those transitions. Camille Fournier is someone with lot of experience in this domain.
Camille is the author of The Manager's Path, the former CTO of Rent the Runway, and currently the Head of Platform Engineering at Two Sigma. In her own experience, as well as through extensive research for book, she's identified a key skill for leaders: the ability to prioritize your emotional energy.
“Figure out what's important for you to be feeling about.”
Not only do we have limited time, we also have limited emotional energy. When we worry or stress about things that aren't important, Camille says, it's like giving someone else “free rent” in your mind.
In the same way that we need to prioritize high-leverage activities or our time or what our team is working on, we also need to prioritize where want to spend our emotional energy.
Notice and Manage Your Own Emotions
Some of the most emotional experiences that Camille went through happened during transitions. When she first started running the engineering team at Rent the Runway, she faced high stress both from the stress of a fast-paced startup environment and from a new role.
I struggled to be a good leader. I struggled to be a good manager. I struggled to figure out the balance of expecting a lot from people, and not trying to push them too hard...it was a perfect storm of a lot of responsibility, not perhaps as much mentorship or coaching, direct coaching, certainly not at work. And a lot of stress.
And the first step toward developing the maturity to navigate the strong emotions in situations like those really comes from being aware of and acknowledging that strong emotions will emerge in different situations.
When someone quits, for example — even when you two might not get along — there may be some sadness, guilt, pain, frustration, and even anger.
When you're not aware of the emotion, you might end up acting out your anger. That's a pattern that Camille sometimes notices in new managers. These managers think, “You're quitting on me? How dare you. You're a bad person. Here's all the things that you're bad at, or that are wrong with you.” They don't want to blame themselves and so they end up taking it out and blaming the other person, possibly burning a bridge in the process.
It's only when you become aware of your own emotions that you can start to notice the impact they have on your behavior and how you might want to adjust the behaviors. You might be aware that you don't want to burn bridges — and that intention will shape how you act.
Other times, you might hold strong opinions about the way something should be done. Perhaps you believe that the interview process should be run a certain way. Or that a peer isn't managing the team effectively and causing a lot of stress on their team. Or that the company is following the wrong strategy.
When we're too attached to the way we want things to be done — particularly when they're counter to what everyone else thinks — we burn through significant rations of our emotional energy fighting uphill battles. Camille says it's important to ask, “Is this impacting me right now? Is this impacting my team right now?” That lets you zoom out and understand whether this is is actually a place where you want to be intentionally spending your energy.
But perhaps the area where it's most important for leaders to notice and manage their emotions is when it comes to hard conversations. Camille continues to be surprised that many people are very reluctant to disappoint people or have hard conversations with them. And when that's true, you're going to struggle to lead effectively.
Leaders know that the harder conversations are oftentimes the most important ones to have and that they often get harder the longer we marinate and play through those conversations in our minds.
Help Others Prioritize Their Emotional Energy
As a leader, it's not just important to prioritize your own emotional energy — you need to help your team manage theirs too.
One way is to provide input to others so that they can more effectively choose how to spend their energy. This may look like providing an external perspective, reassurance, or context for a situation.
In situations when people quickly jump to blaming themselves, Camille helps them navigate their potential emotions of guilt by contextualizing the situation for them.
“Sometimes it's literally just being like, look, this sucks. Don't blame yourself. I'm going to be very clear, it sucks that this person is leaving, or that this system failed or whatever. I don't blame you for that. I know this hurts and you're unhappy about it, too, and you feel responsible for it, but you really aren't responsible for it, so don't beat yourself up.”
Aside from situations in which people may blame themselves, people often feel intense emotions when they notice things being done in a way they believe to be suboptimal, but are actually outside their scope of influence. The temptation to jump in and expend your emotional energy can be overwhelming. This can be a struggle for new managers, or when “you care about everything. You care about every detail. You want everything to be done right.”
In these situations, you can help others choose how to prioritize emotional energy and figure out if a battle is worth fighting by focusing on the battle's impact.
Being curious and asking questions can help them zoom out from the issue they are feeling intense emotions over. Camille recommends asking questions such as:
- Is this really the important thing?
- It's bothering you, I get it. It bothers me too. What impact is this actually having on you right now?
- Given that there are only a certain number of hours in the day, do you really want to try to fight this battle, or are there better things that you could be spending your energy on?
“Prioritize your energy because you don't have unlimited emotional energy.”
Here are a few tactical ways to start to prioritize your emotional energy, just as you would prioritize your work.
Pick Your Battles
When you find yourself getting riled up about something you observe to be happening, ask yourself, “Is this how I want to spend my emotional energy?”
Camille suggests asking yourself, “Is this impacting me right now? Is this impacting my team right now?”
Redirect Your Energy
Even once you've identified that you don't want to be spending emotional energy on something, it can be difficult to let go of the issues you care deeply about.
Find other projects and initiatives that you are excited about to spend your energy on. Remind yourself that you might not actually be right in a given situation. And make sure to take care of yourself with non-work activities like exercise and meditation.
Build an External Support Group
It's important to have external sources of support — people you can vent to, to get third-party perspective from, and to lean on when your emotional energy is drained.
For Camille, this looked like working with several coaches, as well as having a peer group of newish CTOs and VPs of Engineering to bounce ideas and situations off of.
As leaders, we all want to have a big impact. And, it's easy to believe we need to do all the things, which can result in overextending ourselves and burnout. “A lot of management and becoming a good manager is developing awareness about yourself in general for all kinds of situations,” says Camille.
Figure out what you want to spend your emotional energy on, focus on that, and let other things go.