Dealing with incompetent engineering lead

How do you deal with an engineering manager that is completely incompetent and unfit for his role?

I have 10+ years’ experience with managing engineering teams in agile environments and after moving to PM position, I worked mostly with engineering managers who were knowledgeable and skilled, but my latest EM is completely incompetent, and I have hard time to keep my temper with him.

He lacks deep technical skills and has no skills to manager people and grow them. He never sets KPIs for his team and never learns from his mistakes. As a former EM, I don’t want to step on his toes too often, but sometimes, I just can’t handle that. The situation got so bad that I’m actually thinking about leaving a very prosperous position and a product that I invested 3 years of my life into.

What would you recommend in such situation?

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Have you brought it up with his line manager? You should have a good stakeholder relationship with them anyway and they will know of the faults.

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@RohitKumar, I did and also included the negative feedback with recommendations for improvement in yearly reviews. The excuse was that he is learning to be a people manager, but the biggest problem is that he is not learning from his mistakes and neither his team. For example, he doesn’t know how to lead retrospective meetings (I have to do that for him) and is unwilling to learn that. The team is running in circles instead of marching forward. I see people repeating the same mistakes all the time, even though we very rigorously review our processes and execution paths.

He has been an engineering manager for the team for ~4 years and he wasn’t able to growth new leaders and now he is getting SRE inserted into his team. He has no clue, what a SRE role is about and what they are supposed to do. The engineering leadership is too soft and afraid to fire people in management positions.

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@SamanthaYuan, Retro wise, I don’t see an issue with you leading them vs him as you’re a product/engineering pair and should be able to do these things for each other. From the sound of it, it does sound like he is lacking some key skills to be leading a team.

If your Eng leadership isn’t addressing the issue after a number of years then you’ve got a bigger problem that I’m sure we’ve all faced in the past. Each time I’ve hit bad senior leadership it’s ended with me going somewhere else where I’ve not had it.

You’ve got a tough line to walk I’m afraid if you decide to stay because you can mentor him and be frank with his failings, but you might be digging your own grave, or take a sociopathic approach slowly manipulate him into being better.

Frankly if you’ve exhausted your line manager, his line manager and his line managers manager then I’d quietly begin looking for roles somewhere else or a sideways move within your current company.

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Thank you for your answers. I share your opinion on the possible outcomes for myself. I haven’t gone the full cycle on complaining to his line manager’s manager (I raised it numerous times to my manager who claimed to escalate my feedback throughout the chain of command), but I can definitely try to do that.
I’m more or less convinced to leave in next 6 months if the situation doesn’t improve (eg. he is being replaced/fired or the engineering org. restructure).
It’s really a shame. I like the product and have built solid PM team to support its growth, but I guess I should not be too emotionally invested. It’s not my company :person_shrugging:

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You can’t help being emotionally invested in a product, I found I enjoyed my roles more when I loved my products vs when they’re boring.

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I agree that you have to enjoy the product, the space and the people that you work with if you are spending a third or more of your daily life somewhere.

I am also prepared to kill features and product if it’s not working. I had to do that early in my career. I look for PM’s that are able to take an outside in view to recognize what’s not working, including people.

@SamanthaYuan, how is your approach in talking to him directly and let him know how you feel? I am generally loathe to complaining to managers about it unless you have really had a 1:1 with him and explained what you are saying here in diplomatic terms directly to him first. I am not a big fan of HR either but if its a communication problem, perhaps get a somewhat neutral party in the room during the 1:1

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I was paired with an EM as an SPM (I had direct PM reports and they had Team lead reports with Teams) who had similar issues for awhile once.

I took in upon myself after watching the interactions for a number of months to set the processes the teams would use (I have a development background originally) under the guise of product processes. I treated the TLs and Engineers as stakeholders and their Dev cycles and ways of working as a product, had 1-2-1s with them, found out what they felt was wrong, what they wanted out of their jobs and brought changes in under Software Development Lifecycle / SOC2 compliance for the products we owned. This caused the engineers and Team leads to pick up the slack that the EM was lacking and it all smoothed out, giving that EM time to learn from myself & others within the business.

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It’s not quite clear from your details but have you provided feedback directly to the EM?

This is the conversation that I would have with that person directly.

  1. Set context. Start with WHY you want to provide this EM with feedback. Focus on the fact that you want them and the entire team to get better. Clarify that there are things they do well, but that you want to really dig into the areas to get them to the next level (figuratively and literally).
  2. Broad themes. Clearly articulate the broad themes (no more than 3) that are holding them back. This will set the roadmap for the feedback.
  3. Detailed feedback. Use specific examples for each theme now. You need to make sure you detail out the specific behavior that occurred and it’s impact on the team. It’s very important to focus on the impact of the behavior. This will bolster the fact that you’re providing this feedback to make them better.
  4. End on optimism. Give them time to process but clarify that you’re committed to helping this person and the team get better. That you’ll be there to support them and that you have their back.

Every time I’ve had this type of conversation, it’s been productive. It’s not always a success long term but approaching the situation with empathy and being direct will go a long way.

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Sometimes the path is from bottom up. What is the quality of the team? Does the team feel that they are being most productive or are they also feeling the same frustration? If they are feeling like they can be better, it’s important that the team raise that with their manager. It would have more weight than if it’s coming from an “outsider” especially if he’s only worked in environments where PM and Eng have contentious relationships.

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I have been in the same position a few times.

My last move was to raise red flags to CEO as soon as possible and let him or her know what are the consequences of having a not valid engineering team.lead.

Point to key product goals or indicators that will not be acomplish

Use agnostic data to point how the engineering team is not performing well.

Also try to gather feedback from key people in the engineering that will back up (not cover up, backup) your conclusions.

Keep all your conclusions pointing not to a person but to what is expected from a role.

The CEO must then take a decision.

Also suggest a plan B.

In my last situation I suggested to create a product squad, like scrum of scrums, so that other people from the engineering team can step up and they can manage the process as a team.

This will avoid removing one person and introducing a new one (or worse, promoting another not prepared person) and could be a softer movement.

Also, it could be a good moment for others to show up that they are more prepared and to gain respect from everyone else.

If not, it could be a good transition movement if that guy is finally replaced.

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What’s incompetent about them? So many questions about this post.

OP sounds judgy but never posted any facts. All opinions

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I’ve dealt with this. It’s not as simple as I’m about to suggest it is, but it always comes back to this in my experience.

What can you offer them?

Thats an intentionally open-ended question. But what can you add to their situation that turns them into something (anything) productive and useful for the product, even if it twists their role into something unrecognizable? For example, I ended up with one doing market research, and the lead under him basically managed the dev team with some guidance from myself and his manager. It’s nothing I would intentionally put together, but it was less bad than what I started with.

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This is so familiar is painful to read. Sorry that you have this situation, in my case I deal with a know-it-all, so trying to be constructive and talk, it just doesn’t work. But well sometimes things are what they are and need to evaluate your options for the future. I hope you can get to reason with him

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Oh my! I read this as “dating with incompetent engineering lead” and had a mini cringe attack. In retrospect “dealing” is much better than the “dating” situation haha.