Tech Leader Chats: How to deliver well without burning people out with Ian Yamey

Title of talk with photo of speaker

With the market contraction increasing pressure on teams to deliver, more and more engineering leaders have been considering how they can deliver well without burning out their teams.

While the pressure to deliver faster can feel perpetual, we know that burnout can lead to longer-term problems with reduced productivity, decreased motivation on the team, and even mental health issues for team members.

So how can we meet delivery goals while still supporting our team to thrive over the long-term?

About the speaker
Ian Yamey (co-founder and CTO at Retirable, previously CTO at Quadpay and founding CTO at Policygenius) is a product-oriented CTO and entrepreneur with a passion for social impact in financial accessibility and building high-performance teams. Ian has launched industry-leading consumer products and has scaled three startups from 3 to 60+ employees and over $200m in venture funding. Throughout it all he's maintained a strong focus on people – how to support the holistic wellbeing of individuals and teams.

How to deliver well without burning people out

See below for:

  • Key takeaways from the talk
  • The recording and slides
  • Resources noted in the talk
  • A transcript of the talk
Key takeaways
Mitigate burnout by getting out of your teams way

Coach sets vision, mitigates burnout by defining culture, via, for example decision-making documentation

General manager controls time, mitigates burnout by managing workload via, for example, sprint or cycle times

Trainer monitors wellbeing, mitigates burnout by consistently checking in via, for example, 1:1s

Recording and slides

You can view the slides from the talk here - and see below for the full recording



Transcribed by software, please forgive minor errors.

Lauren Peate  0:01  
Thank you. So a big welcome. This is our first tech leader chat of 2023. We're very excited to be kicking off with Ian, who we'll introduce in a moment, just in case you're new to these tech leader chats, our goal is to create a space for engineering and product leaders to learn and grow together. And specifically to create a space where engineering leaders who care about people, who care about equity and diversity and inclusion can learn and grow together. So you'll have seen the sort of questions that we have in our meetup group around that.

My name is Lauren. I'm the CEO and founder of Multitudes, we do engineering effectiveness metrics, minus the creepiness and and we care a lot about supporting happier and higher performing teams. So this topic is both very dear to our hearts. But it's also something that you all in the community have been asking for, quite vocally. So so we're very pleased to be rolling this one out. And I'll just briefly introduce a couple of the other Multitudes team members who are going to be doing various things and helping out. So James, he'll be doing all the tech stuff in the background and filtering through your questions and seeding them at the end. And then the Vivek will also be jumping in particularly around the breakout groups at the end. So that's us.

And and I'm going to wrap up my bid, then jump to the fun bit, which is introducing Ian who I met in a couple of years ago, actually, time is kind of fly flown through mutual friend, and have been really fortunate to get some coaching and mentoring from Ian along the way. He also I know coaches and mentors, lots of other folks, including lots of other engineering leaders. And, and something that's always struck me about him is his commitment to people and caring for people, even as he's held what I know are some very high pressure and intense roles. So his current one is co-founding and acting and being the CTO of Retirable. He's held the CTO role of other quickly scaling startups and so that the juggle and balance between delivery and well being is something that I know, he knows, all too well. He has also shared that he's experienced burnout himself. So he's got that personal side of it there. And then the last thing about him that might be of interest to this group is that he's an Aussie who has been living in the States for a while. So I'll wrap it up. I know. We're all here to hear from Ian. And so let me jump and hand over the screenshare to you.

Ian Yamey  2:21  
Welcome. Thank you, Lauren, and hello to everybody. Absolute pleasure to be here. What's up, everyone can see this. Fantastic. So as Lauren said, my name is Ian, I grew up in Sydney, Australia, I moved to New York for one year about 14 years ago. Absolutely love it here and had been in the early stage venture backed startup scene, mostly in FinTech for the last 14 years. Teams I've managed range from three people at the earliest stage up to teams of 50 plus. And as Lauren said, you know, this is something that is important for any team, but particularly the last few years have shown an even greater light on the need to focus on wellbeing, while also delivering on what we always want to do.

So I thought I'd start with just a bit of a introduction to what burnout is, the World Health Organisation actually recognises this as an occupational syndrome, and have produced some guidelines about how you might characterise it. And some of this shouldn't be too much of a surprise, feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion, feeling mental distance, cynicism, or reduced professional efficacy.

Here are some indicators that you or your team members might be burned out, you know, splits into the emotional and the physical. You know, there's this not feeling connected, being lonely and wanting to give up, but also manifests as physical symptoms, fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, lowered immunity, inability to sleep, changes in appetite, are all signs that you your teammates might be burned out. There is a fantastic researcher, Christina Maslach, I hope I'm pronouncing her name close to correctly. She's done a lot of research on what are the causes of burnout. And she identifies six main areas that I'm going to go through.

The first one is probably the one we think of, most commonly, which is all about workload. So this is the balance between finding time to get things done, finding time to actually rest, recover, having a life outside of work, and also finding time for professional growth. When we have these times that there is a consistent heavy workload, it's really just that these things aren't in balance, and one or all of them suffer. And it's a bit of a cycle that makes it worse and worse. You have less time to do this. You have more burnout, which leads to less or more more stress and less ability to get stuff done or find that time for a break.

Second one is control. So this is where you really lack some autonomy or influence on your assignments on your schedule. But it also might be that you lack the skills or the support or the resources to actually work efficiently. And typically, you might feel this very strongly if there's a culture of everything that you're doing has become very reactive. And there's no time for proactive and really, how do you shift towards this proactive end of the, of the way that you operate.

Third one is about reward, and really lack thereof. And there's really two classes of this. The first is the intrinsic rewards. So feeling like you have professional growth, feeling like you have a purpose, feeling like you have an impact really contributes to that sense of well being. And there's also the extrinsic factors. So the financial, the social reputation and these rewards. And if you think about things like there actually is a much stronger effect of the intrinsic rewards that has the effect on wellbeing, particularly for people that are already on your team already in this job. So solving, solving the intrinsic ones is actually much more important than the extrinsic, often harder to do.

Community, I think this is the one that are now semi remote or fully remote lives, we've really seen the effects of this. So not having that social support structure, not having trusted relationships at work, are some of the strongest predictions of exhaustion. And this is not just for extroverts, this is for anyone across the spectrum. There's some obvious ones, which would signal some some much more serious cultural problems in your workplace, bullying, feeling of being undermined being micromanaged, feeling isolated, unsupported, very clear that this would lead to those feelings of burnout.

Fairness, so we all want to feel like we're treated equitably. We want clarity on what is expected of us. If you are always worrying about if you're doing the right thing and the right way, and you don't have any sense of if you're doing things correctly, you're really not going to feel connected to your job, you're going to feel some of these extra stresses. The fairness is really in comparison to my peers. So do I have a similar workload? Am I being rewarded? Similarly, am I being supported to the same level of my peers? If not, that's a strong cause of stress and uncertainty.

And finally, values. So we know that engagement to our jobs is going to be much higher when our own personal values match those of what our job and our company our teams share as values. These ones can bring considerable stress and very, very hard to solve if there is a mismatch. So knowing some of the stresses of what causes burnout, how do we deliver high quality and as engineering leaders, as product leaders, as team members, it's our responsibility to have our teams perform at their best, consistently and over the long term.

And I want to point out that burnout isn't something that can be entirely eliminated, you know, it's you're going to have shades of burnout at various stages. And each individual's time at the company at companies cycles is that goes up and down. And it's your role as the leader of the team to continuously and actively manage, making sure that your team is performing at their best.

So this one is going to be funny for my co workers who are going to look at this because they would know that I have not much interest in elite elite sports like they do. But I like to think a lot about think of like an NBA team or a you know the All Blacks since we'd have a lot of New Zealanders on the call. And the front office of these teams, there's a few different roles.

There's the coach, they're responsible for the strategy for the vision for the culture for the game day decisions for a lot of the decision making. Behind the scenes. There's also often a general manager responsible for the personnel decisions for the structure. And then there's usually a much larger team of trainers across different disciplines. Think of the physiotherapists think of the sports psychologists, really these are the folks that are responsible for wellbeing, making sure people are prepared for that game day and that they can last the whole season.

If you think about what are the principles that you know, a front office is trying to do, they're going to want to enforce the basics, they're going to want to make sure expectations are set clearly that there's this framework for excellency, you know, we want to win that championship. And also insulating people from a whole lot of decisions that they might not need to make so that they can do their job in the right way. And they should really be thinking about investing in this championship winning team. And the caveat here is that you've got teams that might just be wanting to win the championship this year, but also teams that might be in a rebuilding phase, and are thinking about how do we win this championship over the long term? How do we get to a point where we're succeeding, even if we're not, you know, a playoff team this year. And lastly, like the role of the front office is in a way to stay out of the way you've created the system, the structure of the culture, so that your your stars, you know, your athletes can actually be great, they can shine, they can do what they do best.

So what does it mean to be a general manager in the context of us as engineering and product leaders, I like to think of it as what are the heartbeats that act as your team's training schedule. So these are the markers throughout the week throughout the month, that your team members really use to kind of know how they're progressing. And your duty is to control that time to control that focus.

So on that little screenshot there, that is one of my engineers calendars for, I think, two weeks from now or a month from now. And you can see some of these rituals that we have as a team on his calendar. That is kind of our operating system for what works for our team. And so some of the interventions that you can consider for your team are things that you've probably seen elsewhere, and various agile practices and lean startup ways of doing things.

But it's really important to think about using the right intervention for what it's trying to solve. So for example, we do a product team, all hands, you know, that is just time for our team to get together to be a community. We do icebreakers we do fun sessions, our team knows that we've got that all hands every week, at a certain time. When we do backlog grooming, we're really focused on that. And how can we make sure that everyone has a good sense of workload that engineers have control maybe over that workload, they're choosing which tasks they're going to commit to shout outs, many companies do this, I would strongly recommend that if you're doing shout outs, tie these to the values of your company, so that you're shouting out Lauren, because she exhibited our value of x that we have as a company.

Weekly demos are going to be one way of showing that reward or building that community. And retrospectives are a way of giving your team a sense of control for changing how do we operate? What are the ways that they want to change how we operate as a team.

I am a big believer that the length of your Sprint's or your cycles or your releases is something that people don't think about enough, you often choose oh, we're going to do two week sprints. And you do that for the life of your company. Just because that seems to be the way that many other people do it. But I'd like all of you to think about how might that length of time whether it's a one week sprint or two week sprint, or it's a six week time box cycle, how does that contribute to burnout, if you have one week sprints every week, and everyone's committing to all that work, and they must do it by Friday, you know, doing that every week, every week every week, can start to really make that impact on workload. It also might be the exact right thing for your team. The way we do things at Retirable. We follow a lot of the guidance from the team at Basecamp, who follow a six week cycle, where we're timeboxing it giving the team a little bit more control over what they're going to do when expectations are set clearly.

Speaking of expectations, that is now your role as the coach coach's role is to really set that playing style, that vision, that strategy. You can't reinforce this enough. Repeat your values, repeat your team vision in a written way, in a verbal way. And make sure that expectations are set at the company level at the team level at the individual level.

Some of the interventions that I would suggest to consider being really clear about your company's mission and vision. Maybe you're not in control of that. So you could think about your team mission and identity. What is your team's purpose? Let's put that on paper. Let's really talk about that and define that. So that we can align individual values to the team values to the company values. Have the measures of success for the team, maybe for an individual sprint, for an individual about their performance really clearly articulated so that they feel that they can be measured fairly. product vision principles, and pillars are the same thing for maybe a more product oriented role.

I've talked a lot about documentation, this is probably the best thing that you can do in both an asynchronous culture, remote culture. But also you're investing in your future team. You know, a new starter doesn't rely on the two years worth of all hands where they've heard these things repeated, they can go to a handbook, or they can go to one place, and they can have the same access to the things that your current team does. This one, where possible, like how can you as the coach distribute decision making ability to to the edge, think about the sports team, again, you know, LeBron James is going to be making decisions about which place to call, the coach might be setting some of the overall offensive strategy.

And then finally, what is your role as this trainer? How can you create this high performance culture of feedback, so that your team is prepped, they're at a healthy level, if there are injuries, if there is burnout, that there are systems and processes for recovering from that, at retiral, we have a little slack bot that does a daily wellbeing check in. It's just a red, green, yellow, and it just says, you know, how are you feeling and you'll get a yellow, I didn't sleep well. So last night, or, you know, read maybe someone doesn't say why but it's a good cue for a manager even for colleagues to know how to interact with someone. And it's a good long term way of checking in if there are signals that maybe you can help out with someone's well being we do one on ones skip levels are a great way of checking in with people that are, you're not directly managing.

Similarly, with engagement surveys, and pulse checks. All of these things are part of a programme of making sure that you know how your team is operating. Again, to use the sports analogy. You know, this is why like, athletes at the end of the game, they have someone that is helping them with their recovery with checking in with injuries with constantly measuring their, their well being blameless culture,

I highly recommend you read up on this, this is a big factor in psychological safety, we know that you're going to make mistakes. But if someone makes some mistakes, it made a mistake. Because they're human. It's because the system failed them in a way that wasn't enough training. And it wasn't something that was a backstop there. And it puts the ownership on the whole team to help prevent mistakes. And finally, think about how pairing and collaboration can both foster some of that community aspect. It can help reinforce fairness and values. It's it's a great thing that make sure this workflow, sorry, this workload is really shared.

And so finally, just a note of, you know, where should you start? Start by asking, start by finding out where you and your team need the most work. You could run an anonymous survey, you could do a little listening tour with one on ones and skip levels. I guarantee you, if you don't have a burnout problem, and you run one of these things, you'll realise that there is some level of burnout that you're in, you're in your control to improve. And if you do think you have burnout, this will help focus on where the lowest hanging fruit or the highest expected impact of changes that you can implement incrementally just to see how they're working.

And finally, over the long term, you really want to invest in resiliency. So what can you do to create that culture that when burnout occurs, people are aware of it themselves, managers are aware of it colleagues are aware of it. And people are have some of the tools and frameworks to be able to handle it themselves. So I know that was a lot. But I wanted to make sure we have plenty of time for questions. So thank you very much. And I look forward to hoping hopefully seeing what I can answer.

Lauren Peate  19:21  
Awesome, thanks

Transcribed by

James Dong
James Dong
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