Mentoring Young Talent to become Leaders

How can small companies/startups build world class products and reach their ambitious goals?

How can small companies/startups build world class products and reach their ambitious goals? Sometimes market dynamics, cultural norms and other expectations price smaller companies out of great talent needed to reach ambitious goals.

Startup founders have no real way of knowing whether or not the talent they're bringing in will meet expectations until they spend some time on the job. This sometimes leads to disastrous consequences, which can divert a founder's focus from building and scaling product to putting out fires everyday.

Companies often look for more senior talent when deals close and new products are added to their plans, or when more junior talent on the team needs a guiding hand in their tasks. Often, this search means delaying plans until that talent is found, sometimes for months on end.

Founders and executives usually overlook internal talent (within the company) as potential leaders as they are in their earlier stages of career. Often the assumption is that fewer years of experience makes them less suitable for a role with more responsibilities. In many cases this is true, but there are some key characteristics that can indicate whether or not a more junior level resource has the aptitude to grow very quickly into senior roles.

Being able to easily identify and tap into these skills gives a founder/executive an easier way to find capable talent when you need it - without going outside your company to find it.

What do we really want?

Why do we need a senior engineer? Are we looking for someone to build a company from ground up? Or simply someone who doesn't need handholding for months on end?

Often, people assume X, Y and Z  years means that that they'll know what they're doing. Anyone who has been hiring engineers for some time knows that this isn't always the case.

In my previous experience, a "senior architect" with supposedly 10 years of experience would give the least pragmatic solutions to any technical challenge. One such example is proposing a solution that would require an additional full-time engineer versus purchasing a 3rd party service at $20/month.

In other cases, one of our junior engineers with only two years of professional experience proposes solutions that are pragmatic, and fast while ensuring housekeeping in the codebase.

Think in Advance!

Starting search for senior talent way in advance. Look at your junior resources as future leaders your company and actively treat them as such. Discuss their hobbies, interests, future plans etc.

  • Use weekly one:one's to identify resources that are showing potential. Oftentimes they might not be proactive in finding out what it takes to be a senior - not everyone knows what it would take to be one even if they want to. Some gentle prodding over time can determine interest level.
  • Give them small projects that they can build on over time and measure week by week how they perform.

Your current team has the most knowledge of the problems and what needs to be done to fix them.

Are they Fast Learners?

If someone has the ability to:

  1. Absorb knowledge quickly
  2. Take in constructive criticism
  3. Learn from experiences and
  4. Apply the knowledge they've acquired

These are all great signs that someone has the aptitude to progress quickly in their career. Observe how they apply their acquired knowledge by giving them projects they can take the lead on. Observe how closely their application and solution aligns with the thinking of a more senior engineer.

  1. Are they able to connect the dots between different parts of the application?
  2. Do they come close? How far off are they, really?
  3. How much do they differ from what you would have done? - This is very important

Give them feedback on how they can improve their solution and explicitly tell them how someone who is further along in their careers would approach the problem. Give them resources they can turn to and encourage them to ask for clarification and feedback when necessary.

Fast learners are also eager students, they are looking forward to solve problems and embrace challenges, which in turn improves their skills.

Technical Communication

Train them to communicate ideas clearly. This is another place where weekly one:one's come in handy.

Asking them to walk through how they recently solves a challenge/problem, this can encourage them to refine their thinking and be more confident in their skills.

This will also give you more confidence that they can walk the walk and talk the talk. Have them do presentations periodically to the wider team on new features or processes. Give constructive feedback on where they might have fallen short, and how they can improve their skills for the next time.

Do not hesitate to use a buffet of tools

If you're not sure that the talent you currently have can be up to the task, trust your gut and go ahead:

  1. Use Loom videos to walk through a solution for your engineers for faster, async collaboration - eventually you can build a library that engineers can reference for future use to help them grow in their role.
  2. When someone is fully onboarded and gets more independent, encourage them to propose ideas during the critical weekly 1:1's, setting their own deadlines and adding it to their backlog. Notion is also a great tool for documentation and async collaboration, while Linear helps with keeping track of tasks.

No matter what you use, the above strategies can help you spot talent with leadership potential without the need to look outside.

These require quite a bit of effort, but the rewards can pay dividends over time. Always look within your organization to nurture junior talent into leaders.


Press Release