How to set goals for engineers?

Growing your people is the most important task.

As a manager, your most important responsibility is to grow your people constantly. First of all, because people wants to grow and build their careers. Everyone has a steeper and more gentle growth curves in their lives, you included. Therefore, remember to leave your growth behind and look at your team through their current ambitions.

When you build a track of successes of your people, the best will work with you and you will grow too. In manager’s world, people are everything. Developing your people has multiple impacts on your career. Your team is getting stronger, so you can achieve bigger things together. By learning how to grow and motivate more senior people, balancing towards more coaching than mentoring, you build skills for managing managers. And last but not least, by having a proven track of promotions of your people, most ambitious people will want to be on your team.

Build an environment that empowers the growth.

When you plan growth for your people, you should consider the environment you are all in and how you can impact your local ecosystem to empowers your team. Great environment for growth is motivating, ambitious, fast-moving and there needs to be a sense of urgency.

The last, fast-moving and sense of urgency, are extremely important and very often missed. First of all, it’s essential for sustainable growth of your team as there are always things to do that are less motivating, but important for team’s health - like on-call, bug fixing, tech debt rationalisation, etc. By providing fast pace, there is no punishment for missing the opportunity, knowing that soon there will be next one so that the core team activities can stay healthy. Following up with the same argument, it leaves space to fail and learn, without a feeling of the missed opportunity due that failure.

Personal goals, with your guidance are the key.

I am a strong supporter of personal goals for every team members, independent of their seniority. Of course, there are some rules of creating growth goals to make them aligned with the mentioned environment that empowers the growth.

First of all, a manager needs to put ambitious goals on each team member. These goals should be crafted individually, but empowering the whole team - it keeps everyone focused on the team, in the meantime significantly benefits their careers.

Personal growth goals should not be binary. There should be no price for reaching them and no punishment for missing them. The journey is what matters. This is controversial, but I strongly believe that it has a lot of advantages:

The manager should mostly coach journey to these goals. Your job is to help to notice and grab the opportunities to reach them and during that, your people will grow much further than the specific boundaries of goals you set them. Push them even further, show them their abilities.

However, if you fail in giving guidance, distract yourself from their growth or miss the opportunities for them, it’s your fault. It should never happen.

Difference between growth goals and KPIs.

What is important to understand is the difference between personal goals and KPIs. In my opinion, growth plans should be focused precisely on levelling up your people, strictly focused on improving their skills and behaviours to make a step up in their careers. KPIs are metrics and goals that are derived from their work responsibilities and are crucial for their performance reviews and compensations (like delivering project XYZ). Both KPIs and growth goals sum up in the proven track of successes for your people.

How to set up goals for engineers?

When I was senior technology leader at my former company, managing eight managers, setting up goals for the engineers was always a shared theme of the hardest task. I try to use the following mindset for that:

  1. Start with the job spec and figure out what are the skills and behaviours that level them up.
  2. Highlight those that are most impactful for your team in near future (weeks or months). Make sure that you balance correctly between levelling up strengths and needs for improvements.
  3. Set metrics in a number of activities that will give them opportunities to grow. It’s up to them if they will grab them properly, but it’s your job to coach them appropriately. It will keep them focused on these level-up opportunities, and a quantitative metrics will make it feel more real.

Examples of good goals for engineers.

What are the bad goals for engineers?

There are some red flags for goals, too.

First of all, the binary ones. If there is a clear yes / no result, like deliver project XYZ, it’s not a growth trajectory but rather a responsibility or part of the job. Of course, the person will learn a lot while delivering project XYZ and there definitely will be a lot of opportunities to grow in multiple dimensions, but it’s more a KPI than a separate growth plan.

Other bad ones are scoped to the engineer only - like reading a book or doing a course. Of course, it’s important for people that need to build their expertise on more junior levels of knowledge in your technology. But they don’t grow more senior people properly.

Summary.

Goals are important. If you don’t give them, you gamble your team’s growth. It takes time to prepare proper goals for your team members. Such discussion should take a couple of 1:1s, making sure everyone understands benefits of having them. The good news is that goal setting is a manager’s skill that also you can get better at. After couple of quarters, you should get a reusable list of most impactful goals that had proven successful for your team members already and can try to reuse them.

What are your thoughts on giving goals to engineers?