What it meant for me to give away my Lego

I joined as employee #2 in August 2021. At the time, we were a company of five working out of a small office in an old fire station—fitting, right?

Anyway, fast forward a year, and now we're a product team of ten, our CTO Pete goes on paternity leave, and I'm suddenly a Tech Lead.

To complicate matters, I also become the de facto PM / EM, supported by Chris (CPO), who is now stretched in Pete's absence.

Luckily for everyone and me, we quickly found a great product and engineering manager to bring onto the team. That meant figuring out how to give back all my recently acquired Lego from the PM and EM roles I'd been covering.

This wasn't always easy, so I've written a few things that worked well for us to help the 'next me'—maybe that's you!

The challenge: splitting a role

Joining a company as the first [x] is never easy:

  • There's no example to follow: You've got to work with the team to define your role and figure out how your skill set is best matched to those around you.
  • Building confidence is hard: While the team you're joining probably isn't perfect, they have been operating without you. That means it's easy to feel like a spare part. You've got to work hard with the team to find where you can add value.
  • You have to bridge the context gap: When you join, you start with almost zero context. No matter how impressive your skillset is, you can't use it to have an impact without context.

Conversely, the person currently covering the role (in this situation, me) has tonnes of context. You've got to find a way of building that context to deploy your skillset to its full potential.

What did "giving up my Lego" mean for me?

We discussed this as a team and tried several approaches with varying degrees of success. Here are a few things I learned along the way:

🤝 Collaboration is a spectrum

The first decision you'll have to make is, 'what should I ask this person to do.'

That can feel really scary.

Here’s when the intrusive thoughts begin:

💭 What if they don't do a good job, and I have to provide difficult feedback, or worse, re-do it myself? What if that knocks their confidence? What if it makes the team lose faith in this person?

It's easy to fall into the trap of feeling this is a binary choice: either I do it, or you do it. But that's not true: there's a lot between 'I do the thing' and 'you do the thing.'

That might be having a long brainstorming session upfront to get on the same page or going through a few cycles of 'I write, you review, we iterate.'

This way, you can be clear and upfront about expectations and who's doing what!

💪 Help them build from a place of strength

Whenever you hire someone into a leadership role, you want to give them a win as quickly as possible.

💭 When splitting a position, that's even more important. It's a way to have them build confidence in their ability to have an impact and demonstrate it to the team.

One example might be running a meeting or owning a tightly scoped deliverable; find the low-hanging fruit!

You also want to find something that can become a 'comfort zone,' which they can build on. That means spending a lot of time transferring context about a specific problem space they can start owning.

Again, this is about building a place where they can demonstrate value and impact to themselves and the team.

📄 Write things down

Writing down processes is an excellent way of helping someone jump on the fast-moving train that is an engineering team.

When preparing for our first EM and PM joining, we created a "how we work" space in Notion, which covered topics such as how we run projects and what rituals we use.

This is useful as it gives someone an entry point into the team—whether understanding acronyms or learning about what we think good looks like.

It also gives someone a clear place to go to challenge things that don't feel right. It's often easier to collaborate on a document as it feels less like a personal attack, vs. having to say to someone, 'I think the way you are doing this isn't right.’

😶 Finding just the right amount of humble

If you've hired someone with a new skill set, they'll likely start challenging the status quo in your organization. That's a very positive sign! You can learn a lot from them.

💭 You've got to strike a balance between being humble (and listening to their recommendation) and having the courage in your convictions of what you've learned about your specific organization so far.

If you're too humble, you'll lose the benefits of your experience and make bad choices, and they'll burn a lot of social capital in the process. If you're not humble enough, you'll lose the benefit of hiring them in the first place and undermine their confidence in the process.

⏰ Make time and space

For this to work, you must give yourself enough time and space. Splitting a role in two will increase coordination overhead—more meetings to schedule and more documents to create.

So will onboarding a new team member.

Particularly early on, you have to communicate a lot to stay on the same page and continue making good choices. That can be frustrating since, again, there’s a lot of overhead here.

This is hard at a startup when setting the pace is everything, and you're trying to go at 100 miles an hour.

But it's also critical: if you don't go slow in these moments, you'll never get to a place where you can go fast.

💭 The game of building teams is all about people and the relationships between those people. If you can create a solid interpersonal relationship, that'll help you build trust and safety in your working relationship. Finding space to build those relationships is critical: finding time to hang out and be silly and relaxed.

🤸‍♂️ Be comfortable flexing

As a small company, everything changes quickly. What a tech lead, product manager, or engineering manager needs to focus on will change week to week.

As a leadership group member, you'll constantly flex on each other's roles to fill gaps and move fast. This requires a lot of trust and confidence. For example, when someone does something I would typically do, that doesn't mean they don't think I can do it—it just made sense at that moment.

Don't be afraid to let go

At some point, especially if you're in a fast-growing company, you'll probably go through something similar where you have to split up your role and "give away your Lego."

Hopefully, the above experience will be helpful when you do. If it is, let me know!

I'd love to trade notes.

Picture of Lisa Karlin Curtis
Lisa Karlin Curtis
Technical Lead

Operational excellence starts here