I admit to saying "I can easily fix problems below me, but the hardest problems are above me".

I still believe this, but I think many people misinterpret the statement. If you're thinking it means "my bosses are the problem", you're dead wrong.

For a start, that's pretty arrogant, but it's also very unlikely. You're implying that you know how to do your job perfectly, and you could do their job better too.

But think about this.. it's likely that there are people on your team that say the same thing.

At any point in the hierarchy - even below you - there are people who think they could do better than those above them.

Are they right?!

No, they probably aren't. Because although I always try to hire smarter people than myself onto our teams, it's likely that your Project Managers or Architects or Developers only know more about one thing, e.g. process or architecture or coding.

(You don't still think you're the best coder, do you? If you do, you're doing it wrong. That shouldn't be your role now)

The very smart people on your team know a lot more than you about their role, but that doesn't make them better than you at your role.

So why does this myth perpetuate?

Communication is not equally bi-directional

What I mean by "the hardest problems are above me" is that there are often obstacles to clear communication with those above you in the company.

And of course being able to "Tell Them Everything" requires clear communication.

These obstacles include:

  • You're intimidated by your boss
  • You don't meet or talk to your boss enough
  • Your talks are limited to tactical, not strategic matters
  • You're not being honest with your boss
  • You disagreed with your boss on one thing, so they're henceforth "an idiot"
  • You're shifting blame by using your boss as a scapegoat in front of your team
  • You're scared of being fired

You have the confidence to communicate and help improve your team, without fear, but for one of these reasons you're unwilling or unable to communicate effectively with those above you.

Find your biggest problem in the list above and fix it!

I've said this before - most (if not all) problems come from poor communication.

A simple example to demonstrate this - when Engineering doesn't publish a weekly report that clearly shows the status of all projects and teams, you're leaving executives to make assumptions.

They may be optimistic and assume projects are all on track.. or they may assume the worst. In fact, you should be telling them regularly what the actual situation is, so you can both react accordingly.

While you're continuously improving the Engineering department you should be publishing data that shows those improvements.

  1. Everyone calms down when sufficient data is being provided.
  2. Everyone gets nervous when they don't know what's going on below them

Even during a crisis situation - think late project or important client bug - regular communication will calm everyone involved. Suggest to PM that they send status updates twice daily if needed.

Whatever the data, you'll find a cadence where the questions stop, and executives focus on other problem areas. You've got your shit down, we'll move on.

If you think about it, your team already does this to you. They don't want you focusing on them or their project, so they make sure you have enough faith in them.

If your boss is giving you a hard time, they don't have enough faith in you. That's your fault. Provide more data!

But I'm being micro-managed!

Is your boss asking for weird or irrelevant data or "asking the wrong question"? Get to the bottom of what they are asking for. What is their core question?

If you've ever played the Why game with a child you'll know you can ask Why enough times to get pretty deep into a problem. Do the same - ask what question they are really trying to answer.

They aren't really asking "why did writing that feature take so long?" or "why did Joe take such a long lunch break?", they are asking "how can we get revenue-bearing features to market faster?".

Bring the focus up and away from the micro-management and to the big picture questions. Step away from the minutiae, identify bottlenecks and brainstorm big changes.

The "Other Boss" problem

I've been lucky to have some great bosses, where we see eye-to-eye, have mutual trust and even in difficult stressful situations we respect each other's opinions.

But even then, they have a boss too, or they have peers in other departments. These other bosses are much trickier, because you don't have the same relationship or communication avenues.

Arrange some meetings where you all sit down and discuss the big picture goals and again, brainstorm some solutions. It may take a few iterations but every time you interact it gets easier.

Document your improved processes and underlying goals so that when department heads change you can review these touchpoints.

Start to independently build relationships with leaders of other departments - they need data too. Ask them what they'd like to see from Engineering.

Setup regular meetings, over communicate and when problems occur look for ways to stop them recurring.

And don't forget about personality types

Whether you're using Strengths Finders, Myers Briggs, DISC or other similar system, take time to look up the best and worst ways to communicate with your boss(es).

All of these systems have a matrix that shows effective ways that you (the rational engineer) can communicate with the other departments.

Using Myers Briggs as an example, remember that we ENT/INT's are in a very small minority - just ~10% of the population. 90% of the workplace does not think like you.

One last thing; if you're a "Rationalist" ENT/INT like me, as well as your awesome talents as an Engineering Director, others may view you as controlling, arrogant, intimidating and angry - not terribly conducive to open and honest communication!

So step away from "the boss doesn't understand" viewpoint and instead ask if you understand them.