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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Grow High-Performance Teams

Tara Ellis
Engineering Manager

In my career, I’ve learned that effective leadership requires authenticity - in the leader, the leadership style, and the team. In order to lead with authenticity, you need to know yourself, your team, and put in the work to build trust. In this talk, I’ll explain what Authentic Leadership means, strategies to put it into practice, and why this style helps build high performing teams.

I have to say this clicker kind of confounds me.

First question. How many of you have ever emulated other people's behavior at work? Because you thought you were supposed to, I got a show of hands. Yes, me too. Absolutely. So few years ago, I started working at Netflix and my first week I attended this meeting called product strategy or project track for short.

Now product strategy is a meeting where anyone at any level of the company can come and speak about what they think about the product and what strategies we should go after. So this is the room that prod Strat takes place in. It's pretty cool. Also kind of looks like a Coliseum, no gladiators fighting calciums.

So there's nowhere to hide in this room. Right. So I was so excited. It's like getting access to this room that I've never had the capability of getting into in any other company I'd worked at. And so what I hoped was that I was going to come out of this feeling super refreshed and excited and ready.

Unfortunately, when I came out of it feeling was absolutely terrified because what had happened was I watched a lot of people at every level speak, clearly concisely and cogently about topics that I had no idea about. And it was the first time that I thought to myself, how did I get in this room? How did I get here?

I get this job. And I'd love to tell you that I just hunkered down and I learned something new and everything. But that's not what happened. What happened was I proceeded to say, okay, well, these people clearly must know something. I don't know. So I'm just going to, I'm just going to copy their behavior and that's going to make everything work well.

And so this played out in a lot of little ways. So perhaps how I started to run my meetings was a little, a little different than I used to, or maybe some of the language I used and how I spoke to my colleagues change. And all of these little tiny things over time, just built up till I was finally acting in a way that wasn't who I was, was not my authentic self.

And I had basically I was pretty miserable and I felt like I was ineffective. And on top of that, I had contracted my first case of imposter syndrome. So what I'm hoping to share with you guys today is kind of how I worked through it. And how I learned to stop worrying and enjoy growing high performance teams.

So my name is Tara Ellis and I'm an engineering manager at Netflix. I, I started out actually in school. I majored in international studies in German. Cause you all know that's exactly the path. One takes engineering management. So I taught myself how to program and I worked my way into a seven year standard.

Amazon done. After that I decided, you know what? This startup thing seems awesome. So I'm going to go work at a startup and did you see it's not there because it didn't go as well as I would've liked it to have gone. I decided to trade in those 80 hour work weeks for free park passes at Disney. When I went to Disney, I came in as a senior software engineer.

I worked on my way to a staff engineer. Then eventually a manager. At that point, I decided I was going to trade in the sunny skies of Seattle and moved to the bay area to work at NASA. Now, despite the fact that I have no formal CS education and I've worked in some pretty high pressure environments, it literally wasn't until I got here that I felt imposter syndrome.

So when I was thinking about what I wanted to share with you guys today around this process, I ended up stumbling across this management theory that actually completely summed up a lot of my own hard won wisdom and had some really awesome steps for how to get through imposter syndrome. So that theory is called authentic leadership.

So, oops, I went the other way. What is authentic leadership? So authentic leadership is a management style in which leaders are genuine self-aware and transparent and authentic leader is able to inspire loyalty and trust in their employees by consistently displaying who they are as a person and how they feel about their employees.

So one of the biggest proponents of this, and actually the progenitor was a man named William George. Who's a senior fellow at Harvard business school. And he wrote a book about this in 2003, called authentic leadership. He sends written many books about this site. Some of them, I, I referenced in the back, but he has four key characteristics that he, that he uses to define an authentic leader.

So the first one he says, self-awareness I say, no thyself. And basically an authentic leader understands what they value and their strengths and their limitations inside it out. Because if you don't understand who you are and what you value, then you cannot be an authentic leader nor get through in the other steps here.

The second thing is that authentic leaders practice relational transparency. As I like to say, they're genuine and they know. Authentic leaders are honest and straightforward and you know exactly where you stand because they tell you authentic leaders, practice, balanced processing, they're fair minded.

They actively seek out opinions that are different from their own because it's only these diversity of opinions that actually allows us to make really well-informed decisions. And lastly, they have an internalized moral view or would I like to say they do the right? Yeah. They have an ethical compass that doesn't deviate, whether they're in work or outside of work.

So I wanted to chat with you a little bit today about know thyself and be genuine because I think those are the two that actually gives you the biggest bang for your buck as you're leaving here today. So what does it mean to know that. So, as I mentioned, you know, I started off my tenure at Netflix, basically feeling like I had to kind of pattern match.

And I came across this quote that I thought so perfectly summed up this experience and I wanted to share it with you all. And it says, it's funny that something so basic as being yourself starts to become harder as you gain responsibility and scope. But the truth is being an authentic leader. Or being authentic as a leader has to be consciously worked at.

So how do you do that? How do you consciously work at being an authentic leader that I share with you? Some of the steps that I took to kind of help myself get there. And then again, they're all kind of bill George's scholarship. So the first thing we're engineers, right? We like data seek feedback.

Feedback is data in this process. And that feedback can be from anyone that you respect or anyone in your life that you feel has a good idea of who you are, because the goal here is to really try and make sure that what you think you're presenting in the role is how it's being perceived. Now I'm lucky to work in an organization where feedback is absolutely mandatory.

It's actually, if you can't take feedback at Netflix, that's a problem, right? We feel it's like. But I do recognize that not every company is like, that is like that. And this is kind of a hard step. I say, start with someone, you know, that you trust and just ask them, how am I doing? This is a journey I'm on.

I'm trying to get better. You know, what kind of advice or inspiration can you offer me can start small and then build out from there. But the point is to seek the feedback, to get out of the echo chamber. Secondly, Can practice some focused reflection. I have the word focused here, like purposely and what this means is write it down, sit down and think about the questions I'm about to show you and like go through that process because this is iterative and it frankly takes kind of a lifetime to master.

So what does some of these questions for reflection? Look.

The first one that I'm going to talk about is basically what are your most deeply held values? Because the reality situation is if you don't know what you value, then how can you possibly show up? Right? So for me, one of my most deeply held values is fairness. I believe strongly in fairness, and I'm not naive enough to think that the world is fair because it is.

But I do believe it is my responsibility to treat people fairly. And it absolutely informs how I lead and how I move through the world. Secondly, which people and experiences in your early life had the most impact on you? Your life story can give you so many clues to who you are as a leader that you just have to pause for a moment and think about how did I get here?

What are the things that. So for me, the people in my life, it was my grandmother who gave me my strong worth ethic ethic, and also taught me that I could do anything. I set my mind to, despite what the rule told me and one of my great early experiences, I lived abroad in Germany in college. And I'll tell you, you want to talk about humbling and empathy.

You know, try go live in a society where you speak on a sixth grade level, have to figure out how to get through school. And then also like just live, you will, you will have a lot of empathy. Thirdly, who are the leaders that you admire? And so what I like about this one is that it's trying to tease out from we've all had leaders that we, hopefully we've all had leaders that we like or admire, but trying to tease out those particular traits with them that you should.

It's kind of like a way of, of, of sort of amplifying that, that, that trait. So for me, one of my leaders that I really love is my old director. He's, self-assured deeply technical, insightful. I'm incredibly laid back. And the guy's like, you know, the calm and every storm. And I'd like to think that we share some of those qualities.

But I'm also not naive enough to think that I'm laid back. Cause I'm not. If you spend five minutes talking to me, you'll realize I'm pretty high strung, so that's not a thing I'm going to try to emulate. So it's okay though. And then lastly is somewhat controversially. Are you the same person outside of work or you are, as you are in work.

And I want to be clear this isn't about social morays, right? Like I'm not. We're a bathroom to work just because I wear one at my house. Okay. Like, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the things you value and the core of who you are. So I mentioned earlier, I believe in fairness, and I'm going to be fair to you, whether I'm in a conference room with you or see you in the grocery store that does not deviate.

So this process, as I mentioned before, is quite iterative. It's just kind of a series of getting feedback. Reflecting and getting feedback and reflecting. And over time for myself, I did eventually kind of work my way out of my crazy imposter syndrome. And I, and I ended up getting an excellent opportunity.

Not soon after I started this to basically test this out. So I'll share a story with you. When I got to a, of a moment where I got to choose between, do I want to be my authentic self or am I going to just continue trying to be a thing? I'm not sure. I was leading an initiative that was pretty cross-functional.

It was about six to eight engineering teams involved. And I had pulled together a meeting to discuss kind of how we were going to do this work. So in this meeting, it was all leaders, managers, and directors. And my director had been there, went through the meeting, felt like it went well, got some good information.

And we ended. So at the end of the meeting, I boss says to me, Hey, how do you think that went? And I was like, well, you know, so bumpy at the time. I'm not naturally a public speaker, but I thought, okay. He went okay. And he then proceeded to say to me, yeah, that's not, that's not how I experienced that at all.

I feel like, you know, you didn't really drive to a conclusion. Like we were all there, but nothing really got solved. And like, basically you need to be sure. And I was like, oh, okay. You know, my first thought was like, where are the same room? Like, how are we having the same, like completely different experience here?

So I said my initial response was to go, okay, okay, I'm sorry. You're right. I'm sorry. I'll, I'll work on that. And then 10 minutes later, I'm like, what are you doing? You know, you've just spent all of this time, really trying to deeply understand who you are. This will not stand, you know, so I decided to go back to my boss and say, Hey, can I have a second?

I just want to chat with you quickly. But I said, look, I have a question for you. Do you value outcome? Or do you value style? Because let me tell you, my style is not to walk into a room and push through an agenda in the meeting. My style is to talk to all of those leaders one-on-one, which is what I had done.

And I'd gotten all of their buy-in before we walked into that. So the point was once we were in that room, this is a logistics conversation. This is not, not like we're going to get on board or not. I didn't say that by the way, but you know, and I, you know, I tried to explain to him that like, this is, this is how I do it.

And honestly, I'm sorry, I didn't let you know that. Right. Cause if he had understood that, then that would have been the bar even better. And then I just waited, waited to see if this was a CLM, a career limiting move wasn't sure. And you know, he looked at me and he said, okay, fair point. I care more about outcome than style.

And then he proceeded to tell me one of the greatest gifts ever. He said, but these things are not mutually exclusive. There's a way that you show up in large spaces that you don't do one-on-one or in small groups. And that is what I want you to do. It was like this amazing moment. Right? I got to assert my authenticity, explain who I was as a leader, not be penalized for it.

And then on top of that, get this awesome nugget of feedback about how he was perceiving, how I was in that space. That was actually pretty crucial. We ended up having a great conversation about what I was doing that was kind of causing that. So I'd like to think we both learned something now. But I'll tell you when I walked out of that room, I was like,

and I've been like that pretty much ever since, except Mondays don't like Mondays, but I found when I kind of reconnected with my authenticity authentic self, it carried out into my relationships with my colleagues, definitely with my relationship with my manager. And more importantly, with my relation with my team.

Because when I was more comfortable and I showed up as myself, then they felt more comfortable and they showed up as themselves. So that's what I'm gonna talk about next is concept of being genuine, especially with your team. So the name of my talk is, you know, how to stop worrying and enjoy building high-performance teams.

I don't believe that you can build high-performance teams repeatedly without authenticity. And a key ingredient to authenticity is transparency. Because once you have transparency, you get trust. And once your team trusts you and you trust them, they will perform at the highest they possibly can for you for themselves and for each other.

So how do you build that trust? Well, As we go along on the journey of how to build that trust. I want to point out one thing that I want you all to keep in mind, especially as new managers, you have to understand that your title affects the communication you have with your team and hierarchical systems, your title affords you power.

And that means every person in this room, me included every single one of us will often defer to the person in the room that we think has the effect. So think about that when you're talking with your teammates, especially if there were people that used to be your peers and now you're their manager, it's kind of hard.

So what you have to make sure that you do, and at least what I believe you should do is you have to do your best to, to level the playing field as much as you can. It's never going to be level it's just inheritance. But what you can do is accept the responsibility that, Hey, you have this power B it's your job to actually make them as comfortable as, as, as they can be to build that trust, to talk to you, to understand their motivations, to pride.

Sometimes when maybe they don't feel like telling you you have to take on that role because they're not always going to just come forth and tell you it's costly for them. So once you fully understood and accepted this, this little power that you have now, the best thing I would, the next thing I would say that you really want to focus on listening, learning how to listen and authentic leadership listening is the Lynch pin.

Because if you don't know how to listen, you won't listen to yourself. You sure won't listen to your team, whether things are stated or not. So listening is also a value valuable. Because it allows you to be able to be proactive and help things that may be happening in your organization instead of reactive.

If you said something's coming, you can get ahead of it on an interpersonal level. It also strengthens relationships. It builds, trust, improves teamwork enhances your credibility, increases loyalty. And frankly just shows your employees that you. So what is some of the ways that you can build that trust, work on that communication practice, listening.

If you're paying attention to the last talk, you know, that is one-on-ones, I'm a big fan of the one-on-one. I thought quasi did a great job of providing a framework. I'm going to get a little deeper in the kind of adaptation part. So this is my opinionated guide to the one-on-one because I have a lot of opinions about one-on-ones born out of my own experience.

And also, you know, from, from a peer and as a manager, step one, you want to set expectations when I'm working with the new engineer for the first time, I like to say, hi, this is your meeting. This is your time. This is the only time you will have my uninterrupted. To talk about only what you care about.

That means I do expect you to program it and that could be, you know, what, what, what your, what your aspirations are, what your goals are. It could be what book you're reading, what you watched on TV last night. I don't care. This is your time. As long as we're using that time to kind of build a relation.

And to kind of call back again to quasi his talk on adaptation, you would be amazed sometimes at what people will come up with in a one-on-one. So being able to kind of go with that is really important. Number two. Oh, I really am not no status updates. I'm not a fan of the status update. I'm going to tell you right now And my job, at least we have so many meetings.

We have project meetings. We have all sorts of times where you can talk about status. So I don't want to talk about a status in a one-on-one. I'm going to talk about the things I can't get outside of that room. If you don't have that, that, that luxury, I guess, of having that sort of framework, then I suggest maybe do status updates every one in three.

Okay. Just don't want it to be the focus on that. Don't avoid them really. It's hard. I know. I I hate it when one-on-ones, when, when I was at IC hated them. It just was so awkward. You know, sometimes I would forget they were coming and then I'd be like, oh crap. I'm like five minutes to prepare for this.

And I don't know what I'm gonna talk about. And on the flip side for all of you, who've just recently become managers. You may have noticed that your calendar is crazy town now. So you're busy. You're really busy and. It's really easy because of that power dynamic. I talked about earlier to think, oh, I'll just, you know, they will, they'll be okay.

It will be okay. You know, it's, won't be a problem. I gotta read this VP. It's fine. The thing is, if you avoid them, you're giving up this time to actually build that trust. And you're also communicating to them. You don't value their time, which you want someone to value your time. It's just the same giving.

I will say too, sometimes it's you have to move them. Sometimes that happens when that happens for me, I try to actually talk to my engineers and say, Hey, this is what's going on. This is why I have to move this. Do you need time later today? Or can we move it to like, you know, later in the week, I just try to give them that courtesy.

You do want to spend some time on it. And so growth. That's, that's a, that's a nebulous word, but it can mean so many things. Maybe it's title and promotions. Maybe it's learning a new skill that they're interested in, or maybe it's working on public speaking like I'm doing right now, right? The point is, if you don't spend this time, you know, opportunities, don't wait for you to up.

This is your time to understand what your engineers are interested in, in the ways of what they want to grow so that when you see things across the organizations, you know how to slot them in,

you want to find out how they're really doing. This is hard because you know, sometimes people don't necessarily want to tell you and you don't want to beat them up over it, but you do need to understand where they are. So I had an engineer in my team. It's I've been managing this person for about two months now.

We had our first growth conversation and he proceeded to tell me, yeah, I'm interested in leadership stuff. However, you know, I've, I've been working on getting a master's degree at night and you know, I want to finish that. And then once that's done, you know, we can do this. And my first thought was like, oh, things you should tell your man.

No idea that was happening, you know, and it was like this moment of like, wow, if I hadn't actually asked him that I would have put him into a bubble. You know where I thought smart guy, great engineer, but he seems to shy away from responsibility. I wonder what that's about. Right. And nothing to do with anything you need another job.

Right. So, so I did tell him, like, you should tell me those things and like, this is how I can try and make afforded as far as like, now that I know I'm not going to immediately think, okay, this guy has no aspirations. Right. And the last thing which I'll try and cut short here is just, you want to share your thoughts.

I believe sharing your thoughts of seeking your in. I know when I was an engineer, like I always was like, just completely astounded at the creativity and passion that my peers had that were outside of coding. They had no actual place to show that. Right. You have this job, you're building this thing.

You're just executing. So because of that, I like to just kind of encourage that kind of interaction. I like to ask my engineers, you know, sometimes problems I'm working on. So they get a little view into my job. Hey, you know, we're running this tactical meeting. I think this meeting's kind of boring. I see you all on your, on your laptops.

What can I do to make it better? Right. I've gotten great ideas that way. And this framework has worked really well for me. And it's worked really well with me getting the best out of my team. So quick story, an engineer in my team. He was actually being, working on a project for a different team, but I was still managing him.

So we had our one-on-one. So number three, I didn't avoid it, which would have been easy to do. He could have been easy to move because he wasn't working on my stuff. And as we were talking about it, I had decided to talk with him about what are you working on? How's it going? What's going, you know, what's going well, what's not going well.

Trying to find out how he was really doing. And through the course of the talk, he actually ended up coming up with an idea that he. And he was saying, yeah. I realized if I do X, Y, and Z, I wish I could tell you the whole story, but I can't, you know, sorry. But then it would basically increase the performance of our product on low-end devices.

So I was like, you should go do that. I'll find the time for you. Write it up. You know, one, one page. We don't need anything crazy. We'll talk to design. We'll talk to PMC because engineers at Netflix can actually run their own AB tests. Make sure I'll get you on the phone. Well, we did this and this little tiny idea ended up blossoming into something that was at a tremendous material impact to the business.

I so wish I could tell you what it was, but and it was awesome. And all I think about is man, if I had, if I had just been like, how are you? Fine. Okay, cool. Here's here's the stuff we're going to work on this week that would have never surfaced. So in summary, you can actually build extremely high performance.

Through authenticity, authentic leadership and being yourself. The first thing you want to do is you want to know yourself. You want to invest the time to seek feedback and reflect on yourself and your leadership. And then you want to spend a lot of time knowing your team. That's building trust with them through transparency, listening really, really well and communicating effectively by understanding your role in the relationship.

And by making excellent. One-on-ones thanks. That's it.

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.