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Guest

124

It's really important to get to know your reports on a personal level, learn about them and whatever comfort level they have with sharing their personal lives. And then also giving feedback because I think showing that you're invested in someone's growth by giving them helpful, well worded feedback is a really good way to show that you have their best interests at heart and you care about them.

In this episode

Why does everyone need to have retrospective meetings?

There needs to be space to talk about long standing issues that don’t come up day to day in the workplace.

In episode #124, Alexandra shares the power of async meetings and exactly how she runs her not so typical engineering retros. 

Alexandra Sunderland is a Senior Engineering Manager at Fellow and author of Remote Engineering Management. Alexandra has worked for over a decade in both hybrid and remote roles, ranging from startups to public corporations. 

Alexandra also shares why communication should be default to open and how she manages a culturally diverse team. 

Tune in to hear all about Alexandra’s leadership journey and the lessons learned along the way!


Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the podcast with your colleagues.


04:33

Create an intentional team culture

12:31

Culturally diverse teams

18:45

Hiring bias 

22:32

Retrospective engineering meetings 

34:22

Asynchronous meetings

36:24

 Building trust

40:13

Conversations during one-on-ones

43:57

The ideas channel

46:12

Sharing publicly within the company  

49:34

Learnings from past managers

52:36

Ask your team questions 


Resources


Transcript

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  00:27

Alexander, welcome to the show.

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  04:35

Hey, I’m excited to be here.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  04:37

Yeah, I know, this is really fun. I’ve been looking forward to this. I mean, you and I before we hit record, we just said that we were talking about doing this since last November, which is the date that I guess you said that you were going to write the new book that you just published.

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  04:55

Yeah, I started writing that book, November 1 2021. And I had the entire first draft done by the end of November. And about halfway through that month, I think we talked about coming on to Supermanagers. And maybe the book will one day be a thing because I didn’t even have a publishing contract or anything at that point. So I’m really happy. It’s turned into a real thing. And I’ve published a book.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  05:17

Yeah, this is amazing. I mean, you and I both know a bunch of people who’ve written books. And I think what you did was borderline impossible to be able to get all this done in time, being able to get such a great publisher, and doing all of that in this amount of time, and now making it on Supermanagers. This brings everything full circle. So for those that haven’t seen the book, it’s remote engineering management. And for anyone who’s watching this on video, I’m holding it. It’s a beautiful cover. And we’re going to talk a lot about it today. So what’s interesting, Alexandra, before we get into all the fun stuff we’re going to discuss, I mean, you have had a pretty wide spanning career obviously started as an engineer, became an engineering manager, now senior engineering manager, and you’ve worked at companies like fluid ware, and Survey Monkey, you do a lot of community things. You are the CO lead of the Ottawa slack chapter, you’ve done many, many conference talks, you travel the world speak at different conferences. And, and of course, now you have this book. But before we get into all those details, I did want to start from the very beginning. Do you remember when you first started to lead a team? And what were some of those very early mistakes you made?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  06:35

I do remember. And so I’m big on believing that being a leader and being a manager are two very different things. And I think that leading in general is something that I’ve done for most of my career. And so when I joined fellow I was, I think, the fifth engineer 12th employee in the company, because we were still pretty small. And there wasn’t any room for engineering managers at the time. And I was pretty excited to just write code anyway. But even at that point, when I joined, like I was creating the very first onboarding process for engineers and helping the other teams create their own, I remember like setting up the 360 feedback process for the whole company and, and running that and doing things that managers typically aren’t doing anyway. But I’ve always like grabbed on to those chances to create process and lead things. But when I became an official manager, and started leading my own team, that was in a very interesting point in time, because that was April 2020. So about three weeks, maybe after everyone had started working from home. So very odd time when everyone’s feeling very vulnerable and emotional. And suddenly, everyone’s working remotely and having to make that work. That’s when I got my first team. But I felt like I was well equipped to deal with that, because I had been working remotely at that point for eight years already, it was a very different shift, because I went from being the only person at follow working remotely to just one of everyone. But yeah, so I started managing a team at that point, and mistakes I’ve made. So another thing is that I’ve listened to every single episode of Supermanagers. And at this point, when we’re recording it, I think it’s 119 120 episodes in and I knew you’re gonna ask like what mistakes I’ve made. And so I’ve been thinking really hard about like what I’m going to talk about, because there have been 120 Mistakes talked about. And so that covers a lot of the stuff that I ran into, I found something that has not been brought up yet, which I was excited about,

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  08:34

you made a new new novel mistake. That’s awesome. Let’s hear it. What is it?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  08:38

I’m still like adjusting to it. I feel like it’s still a mistake I kind of fall into sometimes. So you know, like, we have a very, very culturally diverse company like the I ran a survey a few months ago asking everyone to just reply with like, what country they were born in. And more than half of the companies born outside of Canada, but then most of the company works in Canada. And I have always loved that. And even on the engineering team, there was a point where my direct team had, like every single person was from a different country. And I loved that because it meant that everyone got to learn about each other’s cultures, and food and traditions and all this stuff. But I never really thought about how that affects how people work. And the first time I got tripped up on this is I think about three months after I started leading the team, I asked my manager to do like an informal feedback survey collection thing about me to make sure I was on the right track and that people weren’t secretly upset with me. And I said, Look, what could I do better? And one of the responses that I remember getting was somebody who was like pretty senior engineer on the team, saying that I should be making more decisions and telling them more what to do and that I have to be more authoritative compared to everyone else on the team who’s saying like, Yes, we love that we get to make our own decisions. and like, verify them. But everyone loves that kind of independence. And so when I saw that response, I immediately thought like, well, that’s wrong. Like, you’re you’re not right, like, that’s not the white right way of going about things. I didn’t tell them that you should never tell people that their feedback is wrong. But it kind of stuck with me as like a That’s really strange. I didn’t really think much of it after that. And a few more things started happening with other people where somebody would like, I would ask someone, what they think about a project, and if they have feedback about it, and they would be saying how like, Oh, it’s okay, it’s great, it’s going well, there’s this tiny little thing that could maybe be a little bit better, but it’s not the end of the world. And then that thing would be the end of the world. Like, it’d be really, really bad. And I tell them, like, you’re not giving feedback, right? Like you, you have to be more defensive about this. And so we I had all these clashes with people, I kept thinking like, Oh, they’re wrong, they’re not working the right way. And then I read the book, The no rules, rules, Netflix book, which was very interesting. Look, really, yeah, it’s so good on, like creating team culture. And I don’t know if I agree with like everything in there. But just the idea of being intentional about culture was really interesting. And one of the co authors on there, Erin Meyer, they mentioned a book in there that she also wrote, called the Culture Map. And I love this book. And so I rent went and got that book. And then that puts so much into perspective for me, because that book talks about how every culture in the world, like every country has a different way of looking at things like management style, and how to communicate how to give and receive feedback. As Canadians we might give feedback very differently than somebody in Germany, who will be like much more direct than we will. And seeing that right now made me understand, like, all of those times where I thought like that person is wrong, they’re not working the right way. It’s just that they were working the right way, given their cultural upbringing, it just put so much into perspective for me. And I then understood how like all these things that are going wrong, they can be so easily solved by just like creating a intentional team culture and aligning everyone on just the basic things like here’s how I expect decisions to be made. Here’s who should make decisions, and just being very clear that this is how we should work. And I think like clarifying that has solved a lot of things that I’ve been running into,

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  12:30

oh, that’s super insightful. So tell me more about what you learned in the Culture Map book? Do they talk about different regions and just go through the details of how people interact and work in those regions?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  12:43

Yeah, it’s a very in depth book. And I love it, because it’s just filled with stories of so many things that this person has encountered. And it places every or a bunch of countries on this scale for different traits. So for example, one of the traits is how you give feedback. And some there’s a sliding scale of being very, very passive, like you say something and people are supposed to read into the meaning versus being very direct. And just saying, like, this is wrong, change it. And countries will fall on different spots within that scale. And it actually maps it out saying, like, US is over here, Canada’s over here, Germany’s over here to show like how direct or passive people will be. And I think there are seven or eight traits like that. And so it illustrates why that is the reason certain countries are like that. And then a lot of different stories of like times, different countries worked together on some project. And there were just huge misunderstandings because of the cultural clashes there. So it’s a really interesting book.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  13:45

Yeah. So I think that what you’re saying is very interesting, and definitely something everybody should be aware of. I mean, these days, we work at culturally diverse companies, especially remote work has enabled us to hire people from other places often, but I really liked the point that you’re making, though, which is that when you bring in people from other countries, other companies, different upbringings, they are going to bring with them a set of ways of operating. And unless you very clearly defined that within your teams, then you’re going to leave it up to chance, and everybody will perceive things differently. Whereas if you say, this is how we communicate feedback, this is how we make decisions. This is how we do those things, then it just becomes Oh, this is the culture of the company. And it’s true that everybody comes with a different set of ways of working prior to joining this team or company. But this is how we do things here. And then it just leaves less up to chance. So I really like this. What have you done to implement this within your teams or I know that this is potentially a lot of work, but can you think of like one example of how you use this knowledge to set something in place and the team?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  14:58

Yeah, so various specifically for engineering, I actually, this is very top of mine, because I wrote an article for GitHub about this. And I think we’ll put the link in the show notes when this comes out. But something that’s very relevant is for engineers, when we’re writing code, you create pull requests, and you give each other feedback on that code before it goes live. And so that like that little bit of giving feedback is something that happens for engineers every single day, because you might not go to someone and say, I think you could work better by doing this. But you will be commenting on their code every single day. And so that aspect of how you give feedback is super important. And so one of the like, very basic things that we’ve done is just said, here’s a style guide on how you should be formatting your comments, because things like this codes wrong, change it, that’s not going to be acceptable to us here, it would be elsewhere. And so just making sure that everyone’s aligned on that you have say, like, here’s a suggestion, this might work better if you do it this way. And being a little softer, really goes a long way. So having a style guide, just for pull requests, comments, as a first thing helps a lot.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  16:08

This is very interesting. And as you’re saying it, to me, it is almost self evident that things like this should exist, I wonder about the process of getting everyone to adopt a certain way of doing things like the change management aspects of this, to make something like this very successful people out there thinking, Oh, that makes sense. Like, we should implement something like that within our own companies. But you know, we’re a few 100 engineers, for example, how do we change the behavior of the whole organization? Let’s say that, ideally, you set this stuff up when the company was 10 people, but as you know, that’s normally not practical in a lot of places. But now you you know, you’re a leader you take on this organization, how do you in still that kind of change in everyone?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  16:53

Yeah, so I think there’s a place or team specific cultures as well, I think having a company culture at a high level is really important. And that usually comes down to having shared values. So we have some great ones that follow where, you know, like, set the bar high, and things like that, where like everyone can interpret those and what they mean for their own sub teams. But when it comes to specifically understanding how to deliver feedback, or how to communicate, it is hard to do that at a company level, and really make that change top down. Because every function in the company is also going to have a very different view on that. So the engineering team is always gonna be very different from the sales team and how they operate. So I think it is up to each team, which may be like if you’re if you’re 1000 person company, you probably have teams that are based in different countries and engineering team that’s based in Europe might act very differently from a team based in North America. And it doesn’t necessarily make sense to align those. So I think it’s easier to implement than it might seem because you are doing it at the team level for most cases.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  18:02

Got it. And then I guess there’s also a process of people giving feedback on the feedback. So if you notice someone doing something slightly off track, then you have the documentation. And you can just say, hey, maybe you’re not familiar with the way that we do things here. Here’s where you can learn more. It’s part of the onboarding process, and then it just gets weaved into the culture over time.

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  18:26

Yeah, it becomes so much easier to course correct. Things like

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  18:29

that. Yeah. So I really liked this idea. I wanted to also and I know we talked, you talked about things related to process in the book. I don’t know if you caught this example. So I’m really glad that we talked about it. But I did want to ask you, maybe let’s start from here. So remote engineering, management, great title, very timely. Everybody’s trying to figure this out. What prompted you to write the book and what was your intention behind bringing it to life.

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  19:01

I mean, very practically, I started writing a book because my friend Anna Rossa, I wanted a writing accountability buddy for this NaNoWriMo national novel writing month of November, something like that. And she wanted someone to write something with her so we could keep each other accountable. And I volunteered as a good friend, and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Because the whole point of that month is that you write 50,000 words in one month, which is a lot more than it seems. And that’s basically a long blog post every single day, which is a lot to lock yourself into. But I’ve been wanting to write something like this for a while. Anyway, I’ve always really loved writing written a lot of blog posts and magazine articles and things for different publications. And I felt like this is something that I wanted to share with everyone because when I started writing this had been working remotely for nine years. And there were a lot of things that I saw people slowly getting Good luck with remote work. You know, it was a struggle for everyone when we all started working from home and learning how to use video calls and all that. But I felt that there is a deeper thing going on that people weren’t quite grasping just yet. And so I wanted to share some of the things that you really just need to spend years and years deepen before understanding how to do right. And it was things like, in the first chapter I talk about hiring and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that working from home and doing remote interview calls, there’s a new set of biases that come up in hiring and biases in hiring are really important to be aware of, and really important to, to train people on so that we’re interviewing more fairly. But when you’re interviewing someone on a video call, and they’re at home, it’s a very different situation than if they were coming into the office. And there’s some benefits to it, where they don’t have to travel all the way to talk to you for an hour or whatever it is. And that’s good, because they don’t have to make arrangements for childcare, or whatever it is that that they need before coming in. But you’re getting this very intimate view into someone’s life, and you can see their background, and maybe you can see that there’s like a dirty kitchen behind them or something. And that might make someone think of it like it might not look as nice as somebody with like a really gorgeous, scenic background behind them. And those are the types of things that they’re the biases that we haven’t been trained on yet. And it’s something that can affect how people view candidates. And so things like that, and internet quality and all these things that people can’t, don’t have any control over and don’t exist when you’re interviewing people in person. There are just so many things like that about remote work that I think are really important to talk about. And so I wanted to make this book so that I could share those lessons that I’ve had with with everyone.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  21:55

I think you’re absolutely right, that there’s a different set of biases. And it’s important for people to be trained. I know that a lot of companies, people might go through interview training. And I guess one of the things I learned in reading your work here, which was very interesting as you you have a set of you listed this stuff out. And I think like this is all really good information that to the extent that people have interviewed training in their companies, there’s a lot of really great points on how that might be modified, and to teach people about some of these things and make sure that these biases are routed out. One of the other things that I know that you talk a lot about, and you’ve had a really great talk on this topic is the retrospective. Now engineers, of course have, you know, this is a meeting that maybe has some particular meaning in the world of engineering, and there are certain things that you can do there. But why don’t we start with this is a retrospective is a thing that everyone should do, right? Every manager doesn’t matter if it’s engineering or sales or customer success, everybody should have this type of meeting in place. So maybe let’s start with why should people consider a retrospective and what kind of situations warranted?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  23:14

I think that retrospectives are so important to have on teams because they give you space and time to talk about the things that won’t necessarily come up day to day. So on the engineering team here in particular, like we have a weekly engineering meeting, we have check ins with the teams that go on. And we’ll bring up things like oh, this particular thing that happened yesterday is annoying. So let’s do something to fix that. And the things that are very top of mind will be brought up. But there’s no space to talk about the longer standing issues that are kind of nagging at the back of our minds and might take a little bit longer to talk about. And so what we do is every six months, I think we’ve done we’ve done this for four years, maybe at this point three or four years, where every six months, we’ll have an engineering retrospective. And like you said, it’s not the typical engineering retro, where you talking about just the the tickets and things that you did in the last few weeks. These are just big retros, where you get to talk about absolutely anything that’s on your mind. And there’s very little structure to what is talked about. And basically nothing is off limits. The one rule that I have is you can complain about things, but you can’t complain about people unless the person is me. That’s fine. And what I like to do is categorize things into good, so So and bad things. And so we’ll we’ll start off by talking about things that are going really well that people want to keep doing just like starts off with a nice high note. That’s always a nice way to start off the meeting. And then we’ll talk about things that are starting to be a bit of an issue could really use a little bit more attention, but not the end of the world. And then we’ll end with the things that are like really, really bad. If we don’t change things, right, this second than everything is going to collapse, we just need to address it immediately. And the nice thing about having this six month cadence is for one, it’s very easy to know when the next one’s coming up. Because it’s like, if you wait for a specific situation to happen, you’re probably only going to end up waiting for something really bad to go down, and then you have a retro. But if you have these scheduled regularly, then you don’t have to wait for that bad thing to happen. And maybe you end up talking about something that could have prevented that bad thing from happening in the first place. But I really love these because every single time, there’s just a huge variety and topics that are brought up. I remember one of the really good ones that we had was the first one that we did as a fully remote team. And I think when when that happened, I had been kind of considering not doing it, maybe because I knew everybody was feeling bad, I didn’t really know what we could do to make things better, because that was June 2020. So we were like just getting into the swing of working remotely. And I decided like, now this is probably the best time to do it. Like anytime where there’s a lot of stuff going on, it’s a good outlet for people to talk about what’s on their mind. And it makes people feel heard too, because if I’ve been feeling that the team’s not working great together or something, just hypothetical situation, I might feel very alone about that, and not feel so great. But if I bring it up at a retro and I see all the people like plus wanting a adding little stickers and emojis and seeing that other people feel that same way that I’m going to feel better, even if nothing changes, I’m just going to feel less alone about the situation. So it’s always something that’s good to have.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  26:45

Hey, everyone, just a quick note, before we go back into the interview, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably always looking for ways to get better at the art of managing teams. And that involves managing a team budget, given the current economic times, it’s really important for managers to understand financial forecasting, and how it impacts their organization. And also, I think it’s just in general, very good for everybody to have a good sense of what a balance sheet is, what a profit and loss statement looks like what a cash flow statement is, and really get down into the financials and how it impacts your teams, and how to get really, really good at forecasting. So the good news is our friends at morning brew one of my favorite newsletters, they’re running a course it’s called financial forecasting. And it’s a carefully curated set of lessons. It provides leaders the essential tools on turning mushy strategy stuff into quantifiable metrics, to basically go from a blank spreadsheet to projected performance and define what financial success actually means for your team, your division or your business. And the best part is all Supermanagers podcast listeners get $50 off when you register drew the URL. Now, we’ll leave the URL in the show notes as well. But it’s education dot Morning, brew.com/fellow. You heard that right, just go to education, dot morning brew.com/fellow to get $50 off your course membership. And with that said, let’s go back to the interview. There’s a lot that I want to emphasize in what you’re saying the idea of people feeling heard is a very important one. And because I guess there’s an understanding of, hey, we’re gonna do this every six months. And it’s not too often that it becomes a chore. And it’s not too long, you know, once a year would be too infrequent, for example. So whatever the right cadence is, they’re giving the people opportunity to feel heard. But I also assume that you start these things. And you might say, hey, from from the last time we did this, here’s some of the things that we implemented. And so people get this notion of this isn’t just some exercise, we’re actually going to do things based on this. And I guess the one question that people might have, especially if they’re part of engineering teams, people sometimes do sprint retrospectives. Right. If they have shorter Sprint’s and they then do a retrospective on what the last sprint was like, How is what you’re doing different than that? And how would you differentiate this from a sprint? Retro?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  29:32

Yeah, I think that the two are very different and we don’t do sprint retros just because we don’t work in Sprint’s we have eight week cycles, but we do have eight week cycle mini retros where we talk about the projects that we just did and what could have gone better and I think at the core like the big difference is that the sprint retros are specifically about how did that work? Go? What got in the way of completing that work, what led to it being really Good, and it’s very specific to the tickets on the board type thing. And the longer form retros. When they’re, they’re more spread out these big team ones. It’s more about how the teams work together and processes overall. And I remember like once there is a whole topic about how people were unhappy with how uncomfortable our chairs were, when we started working at home, and how it was hard to disconnect at the end of the day. And that’s not the type of thing that’s going to come up in a sprint rochow. Like, those are bigger topics that aren’t related to any particular bit of code. So it’s really giving people the license to talk about things that are larger and still like very, very important to talk about as a team.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  30:45

Yeah, so different sorts of topics get brought up here. And one of the things I like about this way of approaching things and and just to kind of emphasize this, we’ve taken this retros concept. And we now do this for a lot of things. So sometimes we’ll have retros of two teams working together. So for example, we have our sales team and our customer success team, and they work together. And roughly once every six months, there’s a sales CS retro and the teams have the opportunity to talk about things that are working or not working. And so this retro concept can be used in a lot of different places. And it’s just a healthy part of building a feedback culture. If people feel that they can talk about this stuff. One of the unique things that I think you do, and I we are going to link to it in the show notes, everyone can check it out. You have this great conference, talk about how you’ve taken the retro meeting. And it used to be something that we did in office, and now you’ve just made it this remote endeavour. And obviously people should listen to the full conference talk. But what does it look like today? Like if you were to just walk us through the without, you know, the full journey, just the end product of what a retro looks like today in a remote environment?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  32:04

Yeah, so the retro that we run now it leans heavily into asynchronous work. And so we realize there’s no point having everyone sit in a call for 20 minutes to write things out on virtual post it notes. So what we do is, we’ll have three different deadlines. First deadline is where people have to have written out all of their individual thoughts and put them on to we use a fellow note not to not to promote oil or anything, but we use a fellow note for our retro. And so everyone has to put their talking points in there by a certain date. By the next day, everyone has to have gone through and added comments on those things added reactions like upvoting, and starting conversations. And then by the third date, that’s when we have just an hour and a half long synchronous meeting, where we talk through the most important things like the ones that were the most uploaded, and anything that wasn’t able to be resolved through the asynchronous portion. Because sometimes it’s enough to for someone to write something, somebody has a solution immediately, and then we just don’t have to bother talking about it in person at all.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  33:05

Yeah, I like how we’re doing it in this asynchronous way. It seems like some of the things can just be resolved offline, and it just gets handled that way. What is another benefit? If you know, someone were wondering like, why do you spread it out in the way that you do? What would you say is the biggest benefit?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  33:22

The biggest kind of for for me, and I know you’re similar to this, where if you hear information, you don’t necessarily have an answer right away, you need like a night to sleep on it to have an actual good response to it. That benefit of being able to read whatever one’s thinking ahead of time and have all that time to think through what you want to say that is the biggest benefit to me. And it’s so useful. And it makes the hour and a half that we spend together on the call it makes it such a better use of time, because you’re not just going back and forth, talking about things, developing your ideas in real time. You’re coming with your idea, and you’re talking about it and getting the conversation over with much more quickly.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  34:02

Yeah, I love this taking this process that typically was synchronous, getting everyone for three hours in one shot. And now it’s asynchronous. People are doing things on their own time, but for the parts where you really need to discuss and there’s a lot of back and forth. You use synchronous for that. So that is really good way to do things. I did want to ask you about this topic. So we call this a retrospective meeting. And you’re doing a lot of it asynchronous. And this is something that we talk about a lot and we say asynchronous meetings. And some people might say, asynchronous meetings, that’s an oxymoron. What do you think about that? Or what is your response to that?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  34:43

I kind of agree like I get it. I agree. And I don’t agree. So I think when I when I wrote out my my top proposal, I think in the description, I wrote a sentence just saying async meetings, the oxymoron I know. So I got that and I think that the best equivalent of I like when I try to explain what an async meeting is to people, because I still see value in calling it that, it comes down to basically being a really well prepared meeting. And there are different levels of preparedness for meetings, there’s well showing up with absolutely nothing, which is terrible. But then they’re showing up with an agenda. And then that’s beginner level being prepared for meeting. But the version I really like, which is what I call an async meeting is where you’ve prepared an agenda. And then the participants of that meeting, have gone in and started to answer things ahead of time and thought about things on their own time. And there, you’re basically having a meeting, before the scheduled meeting actually starts and getting through those talking points and boiling it down to the things that really do actually need to be talked about over a call. And sometimes for the best ones, I’ve had this happen where people have put together an agenda and then I like jump ahead and get ahead of myself and start answering all the questions. And then we just had to cancel the meeting because everything has been answered. And so it’s fully asynchronous at that point.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  36:02

Yeah, I think this is one of the things which is you’re going to get really good at remote and hybrid work. Asynchronous communication just needs to be a larger and larger part of it. And I love that you do this for your meetings, you cut down a three hour one into half the time, and you replace it with this asynchronous communication. So I think this is a really good way to go about things. I did want to also chat about team dynamics, because I think this is something that you’ve spent a lot of time on as well. And you know, one of the things that we often talk about is building trust within teams, very, very important for a team to be able to succeed together to build something that’s really high performance, your trust is such an important component of it. I’m wondering, what are the some of the things that you have learned? And I know you talked about this in the book as well. But what are some of the things that you have learned about building trust within a team and really getting everybody to work well together as a result,

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  37:00

I think that for there to be a trust on a team, there are two main components which work together but are still pretty independent. And that’s the trust between each individual member and the manager. And trust between all of the team members and themselves. I think those are two different things. And for building trust between the manager and the reports, the biggest component of that I think, is having regular one on ones, which is something I’m a big fan of having good one on ones that have agendas. And you’re not just showing up and saying, Hey, how’s it going, and then talking about status updates and, and moving on, I think it’s really important to get to know your reports at a personal level, learn about them, and whatever comfort level they have with sharing their personal lives. And then also getting feedback, because I think showing that you’re invested in someone’s growth by giving them helpful, well worded feedback is a really good way to show that you have their best interests at heart and you care about them. And that builds up a lot of trust. I think another thing that I that I do specifically to build trust, because this is also something that takes like a long time to develop, it doesn’t just happen overnight. And it requires a lot of working to really get there. But what I really like to do is being very, very explicit and clear when I’ve done something wrong. And it might be that I’ve done something that upset someone or hurt someone. Or it might be that I said I do something and didn’t. And instead of just like sweeping under that rug and pretending it never happened, I’ll be very clear with the team say like this happened. I’m like, either I’m sorry. Or like, Yeah, this is how we’re going to fix it, or this is why priorities have changed. And I’m not going to do the thing that I said I was going to do. But being explicit like that with a team, I think builds a lot of trust, because it shows like, I’m not going to hide things from them, I’m not going to shy away. And that goes a long way. And then similarly, like if they were to ever give me feedback on things that I could be doing better, showing that I’m really listening, I understand what they’re saying. And then later making, asking them like Has this gotten better have I addressed the feedback really shows that like, I’m not gonna be upset with them for being honest. And I value that they trust me enough to give me that feedback when you’re in that position. So I think that’s a really good way of going about creating trust between managers and teams. And then a lot of that stuff still applies to team members building trust with each other as well. It’s making sure that if somebody says they’re going to do something that they follow through so that people are able to trust that the person will get their work done. Making sure that if you’re giving feedback or making suggestions, nobody reacts negatively and tells them they’re wrong. So it’s a lot of feedback and communication and time spent together really like it’s really something that you can’t do overnight.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  39:52

Yeah, there’s so much there that I want to ask about. A lot of really great points, one on ones very important being the First, I mean, leading by example and talking about mistakes so that people understand that mistakes happen or things change. And it’s important to acknowledge them, not sweep them under the rug, like you said, I did want to ask you maybe a little bit more tactically on one on ones. So one of the things that I think I often hear and people ask about is, well, I want to do the one on ones. And you know, they’re recurring meetings, but particularly sometimes, especially in the engineering world, you find that you might have a one on one, how are things and things are good. And then there’s just like, not a lot of discussion, whereas some people they have a lot to discuss. And I’m curious how you handle this with different types of personalities? And how do you make sure that you have a healthy and enough of a discussion, especially if some people are not very talkative and don’t come in with a fully loaded agenda?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  40:56

Yeah, and I’ve definitely have, like a variety of people that I’ve had one on one too. So I’ve definitely run into that. And somehow, we always end up filling the full time like talking about work things and catching up as well. But I think my go to when there’s quote, unquote, like nothing to discuss, that’s never a thing, like there is always something that you can talk about. And I’m not a big fan of turning it towards status updates on projects, because there’s so many other methods of catching up on that. But my favorite thing to do is to ask a lot of questions, because people like feeling heard. And like same thing with the rochow. Like, it makes people feel good to see that people are listening to them and agreeing with what they’re saying. And people really like feeling heard and one on ones and feeling like their opinions matter, because they do. So what I tend to do is asked people, things like, what do you think should be on the roadmap for the next cycle? Or what do you think of that presentation to Aydin did at the town hall? Like do you think there is information missing? Do you think we should have a different type of presentation next time? What do you think about the type of information you’re getting from that team? How do you think we could improve the marketing strategy over here, like, there’s just an endless number of questions that you can ask people, and it doesn’t have to be related to your business function. Because I think, especially in a company of our size, the reason people join is because they’re excited to work across different areas of the business and learn about how companies work and get their hands in a little bit of everything. And so having their opinion asked about all these different business things, even if there’s nothing I can do about it, just having someone ask them what they think, is really good. And that has all sorts of benefits, too, because it almost gives them permission to think more about that, and gives them permission to come up with ideas. And you know, we have an ideas channel for every department in the company. And people start more and more posting ideas in there. Because they know oh, people care, like I have something to say. So that’s really my favorite go to is just, I was having the back of my mind, like a list of questions that I’ll go to and like, ask people about so that we can get those kinds of discussions going? Because it’s rare that a question like that gets no answer at all.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  43:11

Yeah. I mean, what you’re saying, you know, I love it. There’s so many benefits. And I love you just have this backup list of questions. And but I think the thing that maybe you’re not saying but you’re implying, which I think is very important is that when you ask these questions, you also care about their responses. And you are very curious, and you want to know what they think. So it’s not just and I think this is, you know, I guess you vary, of course, that’s why I’m asking the questions. But I think it is very important because everybody has different perspectives. They see things in different ways. And if you have a diverse team, it’s kind of silly not to take advantage of all the smart people that you have. And yeah, you can learn so much by asking these questions and getting people engaged. In a very passive like comment, you just said that every department in the company has an ideas channel. What does that mean? Maybe you can talk a bit more about that.

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  44:05

Yeah. So I think this started a few years ago with the engineering team, we had a asked Developers channel in Slack where anyone could like if they found a bug or had a question about how something works, they could post something in there. And one of the developers would answer. And that idea started coming up in other teams. So we have an ask marketing channel and ask Design channel as sales, like all those different areas. And then those channels started getting cluttered with everyone posting ideas, too and be pre faced with like, not a question, but I have this idea for something. And there were so many of them, which is so great, and we wanted to make sure they’re getting the attention they deserved. So we created ideas, products, ideas, marketing ideas, design, like all these different areas of the business so that anyone in the company can contribute to those channels and talk Questions and the public within the company so that absolutely anyone like it doesn’t have to be just designers giving other designers ideas. The whole point is that everyone across the company is always thinking about how everything works together. That feels very nice and unique to fellow. But I would love to think that every company can do that, too.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  45:19

Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of benefits to this, right? I mean, it’s a lot of the things that you said, which is everybody kind of feels like their voices heard that they can have an influence. And if you have a lot of people thinking about your problems, like that’s always really good. But I think it’s also tying this with a culture of short toes. We originally heard this term from from the folks at get lab. But basically, if you have short toes, nobody can step on your toes. I think this ideas channel stuff goes hand in hand with if you have a short toes culture to where it’s not about, oh, that’s not your department, why are you commenting on this, as opposed to the other way, which is no, bring it on, we want to hear all your ideas. I mean, we’re not going to act on everything. But it’s important to get the opinions and information from really smart people. So these two things work very well together. And speaking of this, because you also said that these channels are public. I know you think a lot about and I think this goes hand in hand with trust, too. What are your thoughts on just transparency, how you approach it, what you share what you don’t share? Like, what are some norms that you’ve established in your work and with your teams,

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  46:33

I am really big on being as transparent as possible with everything probably a little bit more transparent than people might be, might be used to or my white. But I think that keeping information private when it doesn’t have to be, it’s creating such a big missed opportunity for growth for everyone. And what I mean by that is sometimes, once in a while, I’ll get a message from someone, and it’ll be a direct message. So only mean that person can see it. And it’ll be a question along the lines of how does this process work? Or what’s the status of this? And every time that happens, it bugs me a little bit. And I tell them, like actually please post this question and like ask dabs or ask whatever channel and I’ll reply to you there. And the reason is, if I was to reply to that question and the direct message, the only person benefiting from that answer is the person who asked it, nobody else gets to see what my answer was, and nobody can search for it in the future when they inevitably have that question again. And so it just becomes kind of lost information. And so there’s that that aspect of like asking questions where that I feel for 99% of cases has to be public. And then the other thing too, is, I’m really big on public channels for pretty much every aspect of work. Like we have a channel for every project, the engineering team is working on different, like marketing initiatives, I know to where there are public channels that I’m a part of there. And I think that it’s really important to talk about status and post questions and discuss those things in public on those channels. So that if anybody else is interested in what’s going on, they don’t have to ask anyone, they don’t have to just know that the channel exists, they can just go there and read through the history. And that gives a lot of important context on the business. So I as a senior engineering manager, like work a lot with prioritizing things based on what the customer success team is saying, and sales and all these people. And a lot of where I get my context from and what helps me make decisions is looking at their channels that are public and reading through the issues they’re encountering, and the things that they’re working on. And just gathering all of that information over time so that I can better make a decision about my own work without necessarily even needing to involve them because I have access to so much more information that really helps me in my job.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  49:10

I think that’s very well put, many people can learn if you speak in public, and I think a lot of things or need the sea captain private and having this default open mentality, I think goes a long way. And it probably speeds things up across the company builds better culture, there’s so many things. And I really liked the way that you explain that. Before we go to the I mean, I know you’ve listened to a bunch of Supermanagers episodes. So you know our last question and we’re gonna get to it. But I did want to ask something before we get to our parting words question. So Chris, on your team submitted a question. And his question was, can you tell us about something that a manager that you’ve had has done that really helped you grow?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  50:00

Yeah, so I’ve been really lucky. And I love every single manager that I’ve had. I’m still friends with all of them. I love my my current manager, Sam, who’s a really great friend, super great. Like, can’t imagine someone better to work with. And I swear you didn’t plant this question. It really did come from Chris. But that when I think back over my career, like who had the most influence? And who helped me grow the most, that would be

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  50:25

you know, wow, that’s very kind of you.

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  50:28

Is it? Yeah, I swear, I’m not not just making that up for the show. But when I first got my first ever programming job, I had just turned 17. And I knew like nothing about basically anything, like I didn’t know about web apps, I just started learning how to code at school. And I remember you took a chance on me and gave me my first job. And because I was 17, you told me to like, go ask my parents and make sure it’s okay. I didn’t, I like went home and said, Hey, you have a job. But I like the whole time that we work together, you have given me so many opportunities, and given me such good feedback. And you’re like, definitely one of the more honest direct people who was like giving me feedback was really helped me grow a lot. But I think that there is nothing that you’ve said, I can’t do. And like every time I like when I told you, I was reading a book, I didn’t have a contract or anything yet. And you just basically acted like, of course, of course, you have a book, like we’ll do it, we’ll help you with everything, we’ll help you promote it, like it was the most normal thing in the world, when I was freaking out a little bit about it. So things like that. And then you’ve given me so many opportunities, where it’s like, here’s this really hard thing that has nothing to do with your job. But I bet you can do it. And I’ll do it even though I don’t think I can. And so all this to say I think a lot of the growth that I’ve had in my career has come from the opportunities that you’ve given me and like the the trust that you’ve had and my ability to get those things done.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  51:58

Well, thank you. That is I have to say that is very kind of you to say. And I will also say you make it really easy, because every time we do have a discussion about something really challenging and impossible, you do end up doing it. So it just becomes a self reinforcing thing. So yeah, look, I’m very excited for this book, everybody should go and buy it remote engineering management, we’re going to include the link, a wealth of wisdom. And even if you’re not a manager or leader in engineering, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in there. I think a lot of the concepts apply. So definitely something that you should all pick up. And for final question, Alexandra, for all the managers and leaders out there constantly looking to get better at their craft. What are some tips, tricks or parting words of wisdom that you would leave them with?

Alexandra Sunderland (Fellow.app)  52:48

My final tip is to ask your team as many questions as you can even if you think you know the answer, and this always gets me and I always think obviously everyone thinks this way. I’m just gonna do a quick feedback survey to make sure everyone aligns with me. And then I’ll find out No, like nobody does, like everyone’s opinion is totally different. You got to me every single time no matter what it is. So I think if there’s anything you can do to build trust with your team, collect really good feedback and show that you’re listening is ask as many questions as you can and really make sure that you listen to what people are saying.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  53:24

That’s great advice and a great place. And it Alexandra. Thanks so much for doing this.

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