Team working by group video call share ideas, global teamsTeam working by group video call share ideas, global teams

How to help your team thrive in times of change

By Lena Reinhard, VP of Product Engineering at CircleCI

Team working by group video call share ideas, global teamsMarch 1, 2020, was a Sunday. I was getting ready for a work trip to San Francisco. Just before heading to the Berlin airport, I checked my phone. There was a text from my boss:

Hey Lena, trying all channels. Don’t fly.

I didn’t fly that day and I haven’t flown since.

Two days later, as planned, I went from interim to permanent VP of Product Engineering at CircleCI. At the same time, Europe was going into lockdown, then the world went into lockdown. Life as we knew it changed instantly.

Suddenly, my new role took on a much greater meaning. I had to figure out how to effectively accomplish our business goals and support my team through incredible uncertainty.

This past year has been difficult, but it’s also taught me a lot about how to lead through change and help my team thrive.

Invest in your team

As leaders, we need to grow and invest in the people around us, in normal times but especially in times of uncertainty. This is one of our biggest tasks because it means building a team that can learn, adapt, evolve, and is resilient to change.

A major part of this work is building leaders: we need to identify aspiring leaders — team members with high potential — and give them context for growth, delegate growth opportunities to them, and set stretch assignments and goals. The successful leaders I’ve seen in my career are those who delegate and bring others with them as they rise in the ranks. Involve people in discussions without easy answers or clear paths so they can learn how to deal with ambiguity.

One way I do this is by frequently sharing notes from strategic meetings with my direct reports to give them context and exposure to these types of discussions. Another way is by regularly delegating strategic problems to them and working through the issues together.

Support your employees as humans

Maintaining strong connections and understanding the needs of the people you work with is even more important in the midst of the pandemic, as life is prone to changing frequently. But those connections need to be authentic.

Back in November, when it was unclear what the result of the U.S. election would be, many people on my team were feeling anxious. With a larger team size like mine, currently four direct and 10 skip-level reports, there is no “one size fits all,” approach — everyone copes in different ways, and everyone’s needs are different.

My approach was to share some tips on how to talk about what’s going on with your manager, colleagues, and direct reports. But I also made sure to share some cute animal videos for anyone who just needed a distraction. It’s important to offer a range of options to help your team cope with uncertainty and let them choose what works best for them.

Celebrate wins, large and small

In a fast-paced environment, it can be easy to just gloss over wins, but acknowledging them as a team ensures each person feels valued. Celebrate, even if it's in a small way, and show your gratitude to people who show up for the whole team.

There are many ways to express gratitude. I like to send notes to my teammates when they do something well or I see that they’re progressing in their career growth. I occasionally give public praise for my direct reports, but this is pretty rare. I’m aware of the power dynamics involved, and some people find public praise uncomfortable. Again, everyone is different and it’s crucial to adjust your leadership style with each person’s individual needs.

Stick to your values

As managers, we’re constantly put into new situations and we're often the first person that people turn to in times of crisis. Many times in my career, I’ve asked myself what kind of leader I want to be. This has come up in discussions with my own managers about how employees should be treated, how the company should operate, or how we live our company values.

One way I make decisions about how I want to lead is by sitting down at the start of every workday for 10 to 15 minutes to think about strategic topics and questions, and how they relate to the present work at CircleCI. I also check in with my staff regularly to understand where we're going as a team and how we’re doing against our mutual expectations. This may seem really simple and small, but it’s very effective.

As leaders, we need to ensure the present is being managed effectively. At the same time, we must anticipate what will happen next week, next month, and next year to prepare our team for the changes that lie ahead. But you can’t lose sight of yourself and your values in that work. One of the best things you can do as a leader, especially in times of uncertainty, is to use your values to guide your team through those challenging periods.

About the author

Lena ReinhardLena Reinhard is VP Product Engineering at CircleCI, the leader in continuous integration and delivery for developer teams.

In her 15+ year career, she’s been building and scaling high-performing engineering organisations and helping distributed teams succeed, starting with her own startup to corporates and NGOs.

Lena is an acclaimed international keynote speaker on topics like leadership, DevOps transformation, and organisational scale, at conferences such as O’Reilly Velocity, The Lead Developer, CTO Summit, and QCon. She is passionate about helping teams increase their effectiveness and business impact, and scaling culture for organisational performance and health. Lena enjoys spending time in books and in nature, and always strives to learn something new, currently focused on how to play the piano and keep houseplants alive.


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Lena Reinhard featured

Inspirational Woman: Lena Reinhard | VP, Product Engineering, CircleCI

Lena ReinhardLena Reinhard is VP Product Engineering at CircleCI, the leader in continuous integration and delivery for developer teams.

In her 15+ year career, she’s been building and scaling high-performing engineering organisations and helping distributed teams succeed, starting with her own startup to corporates and NGOs.

Lena is an acclaimed international keynote speaker on topics like leadership, DevOps transformation, and organisational scale, at conferences such as O’Reilly Velocity, The Lead Developer, CTO Summit, and QCon. She is passionate about helping teams increase their effectiveness and business impact, and scaling culture for organisational performance and health. Lena enjoys spending time in books and in nature, and always strives to learn something new, currently focused on how to play the piano and keep houseplants alive.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I have a background in Finance, Arts, and Media, but have always gravitated towards leadership. My first tech job was for a small SaaS startup. It was intended as a short-term copywriting gig and turned into a role as Marketing and Key Account Manager. Around a similar time, I started contributing to open source projects, and shortly after co-founded my first software company and became CEO. I started managing distributed, fast-scaling engineering teams, quickly realising that I really enjoyed this work, and that it was a good match with my prior experiences and cross-functional background.

I’ve built and scaled high-performing engineering organisations and helped distributed teams succeed ever since, now as Vice President of Product Engineering at CircleCI. In my current role, I lead our globally distributed and rapidly growing Product Engineering organisation. I am ultimately responsible for accomplishing our business goals and delivering software to our users effectively, timely, and with high quality standards – and for building an thriving organisation to help us achieve these goals.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t, and if you had asked me 15 years ago, I would never have expected I’d be where I am today. How many careers really go ‘according to plan’? My first formal leadership role was as CEO of the company I co-founded. I’d been consulting for the founding team with research and assessments towards the founding process and business setup, and one day, on the way back from lunch, they asked me whether I wanted to become a CEO. I thought about it and said yes.

My first formal engineering leadership role was more of a transition than a conscious decision. I’d been brought into the organisation as a consultant to get the team’s delivery into a better state and ended up taking on team leadership and scaling shortly after. Situations like this where the scope of my role and responsibilities rapidly expand almost over night have occurred many times in my career, and have always been exciting.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

When starting out, I learned a lot of hard lessons. I had to lead largely intuitively and in reactive ways, due to the intense nature of the work and environment I was in. It effectively meant I did not have a good sense of what it takes for others to be effective in this role and work, and what sustainable frameworks and structures I can build to help my teams be successful in the longer run. This put a huge strain on myself, as well as my ability to delegate effectively and build out better structures for the team.

A former colleague once told me - after we moved into different roles - that I didn't understand what made me good at this work, which meant I was not able to bring it out in others either. It hit me hard. I had to learn how to delegate effectively, as well as invest in developing leaders around me to be able to run teams and organisations more effectively. Part of the biggest job of being a leader is to pull people up from all around. Remaining a critical part of a technical system leads to a feeling of importance, but actually is a terrible sign. The thing that tickles our ego the most is the sign that we’re not doing as well as we could; and to me, that’s the essence of what leadership means in a nutshell.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

There are a lot of achievements that I’m very proud of: My first conference talk, my first keynote, being invited to speak at a conference; co-founding a company and becoming CEO; all the teams I got to build and scale rapidly; getting a job I really wanted and getting promoted. Any of those accomplishments were big leaps for me at the time and thinking about them still fills me with great joy.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

The foundation of being a good leader relies on building trust-based relationships. Here are a few ways that have always helped me get there:

Ask questions. This is one of the most powerful tools of an effective manager. The basis for managing well is listening, observing, taking note of what motivates your teammates, and digging into the responses to your questions.

I usually gather questions before I meet with my team members one-on-one so I am prepared and can guide the conversation toward understanding them better. Asking questions helps you adjust your leadership style to the individuals on your team. It also ensures that they feel understood and heard, which are important pillars of inclusion and belonging.

Connect to the bigger picture. Creating an impact is an excellent motivator, so make sure the members on your team understand how their work helps users or supports other teams. While goal-setting frameworks like OKRs can help with this, it is also crucial to align initiatives with higher-level goals and connect them clearly with user value.

Give feedback. One of the best things you can do as a manager is to support your team members’ growth. Give feedback regularly to help them understand where they are and how they can grow – by course-correcting where needed and setting new goals in areas in which they excel.

Also, managers need feedback too: Don’t forget to ask your team for feedback regularly, on big and small things, so you can also adjust as needed.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Look for role models. Finding people whose career paths you want to take inspiration from can be a really good thing, especially now that there's a more diverse group of people than there used to be in the past. Mentors can also be a crucial source of inspiration, experience, support and knowledge. With remote working, it makes it even harder to find one, so take a look into webinars, virtual events and LinkedIn to scope out mentors. Look for someone who you believe you could learn from, reach out with a specific request and reason why you’d like for them to be your mentor.

Staying curious and constantly learning is also important. The industry is evolving really fast and that can be quite a lot to process sometimes. There've been a lot of critical movements over the last couple of years, especially in the DevOps space, as well as other cultural shifts, and many people are still working to make this industry better, more inclusive, and more diverse every day. Stay curious and stay connected to the broader industry and to developments in the space.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

The tech industry has come a long way, but it doesn’t exist in isolation: in the same way as our societies aren’t equal to people of all genders, we can always do better. As a white woman, I have a lot of privileges, and I’m especially happy to see more women of colour and non-binary people enter our industry, many of whom have faced many more structural issues than I have. Companies need to treat diversity and inclusion as an ongoing learning process, which means listening and learning; this is true for everyone, and especially all of us who have more privileges. Leaders need to consciously think about how they evaluate applicants during hiring process, as well as their existing staff: think about the tasks they are giving employees i.e. where there are any discrepancies in how they are managed, the diversity and inclusivity of their teams, and whether all individuals have an opportunity to be heard and equal opportunities to succeed and thrive.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Hire women; train, mentor and coach women; sponsor women; promote women. After all, it’s about ensuring that all your employees get the same opportunities to succeed. In the UK alone, 90% of women experience imposter syndrome at work. Different people have vastly different experiences in the workplace, and it’s important to understand those and build systems and structures that support everyone in their different experiences. Mentorship programmes that provide support and professional guidance, can help in maturing skills and developing confidence.

There is currently only 17 percent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Increase the number of women in leadership roles.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Brené Brown: Dare to Lead: “Leadership is not about titles, status and power over people. Leaders are people who hold themselves accountable for recognising the potential in people and ideas, and developing that potential. This is a book for everyone who is ready to choose courage over comfort, make a difference and lead.”

Reply-all podcast: A podcast about tech, the internet, but also on modern life.

HBR’s Women at Work podcast: Expert interviews, and hosts sharing their own experiences, as well as practical advice.

I attended and spoke at LeadDev several times and have gotten a lot of learning out of those events, highly recommended.

HBR guide to managing up and across: It’s a skill that can transform your career, and this guide has a ton of information on managing into all directions, and how to develop the skills to do it well, highly recommend.

Kerry Patterson: Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. Good on communication when things get tough.

Lara Hogan has a great newsletter, and her blog is a great resource for leadership-related content

Julie Zhuo: The Making of a Manager. Very good primer on management if that’s a path you’re curious about or interested in.


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