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You built a talented QA team. Here's how to keep them

Jess Ingrassellino Engineering Manager, InfluxData

As a New York City public school teacher, I taught general music classes to up to 50 students, each with varying degrees of ability and readiness to learn. Fast forward 12 years: As a new people manager, I had to hire 25 QA engineers at Salesforce.org, all with varying degrees of technical and domain experience

I knew this would be a challenge. How would I address the unique needs of my team while building everyone's competencies? 

My answer: Go back to my educational roots. Reading articles about management reminded me that I had many effective strategies in my toolbox to deal with just such a situation. Differentiated instruction is an educational method practiced for a century (formalized by Carol Ann Tomlinson), proposing that students do best when classroom instruction is adjusted based on their needs. 

To meet the diverse needs of my new team and help them grow, I drew on this work, as well as communication strategies from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT, developed by Marsha Linehan), and developed a strategy I call "differentiated management."

This strategy will help you keep valued team members on board and help struggling members become better, all while continuing to manage your organization and meet deliverables. Here's a crash course.

How to practice differentiated management 

Differentiated management is based on the assumption that every team member comes to work with her or his own experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. The strategy works by helping managers learn how to differentiate content, process, and products by learning more about their employees. Of course, the workplace has a different dynamic than the classroom, so implementing these strategies requires a more nuanced approach. 

On an engineering team, content is the information and materials we provide the team to do their jobs. Process is the means by which the team accomplishes the job, whether it's a design, bug fix, built-in testability, or wholesale process changes to make working easier for all team members.

Product is the outcome of the work, and it's the area where we as managers can be flexible. This may include more agile approaches around work planning to deliver smaller pieces more quickly; it may also include flexibility in reporting or documentation.

    The difficult part of practicing differentiated management is not what to change; what you can change in the content, process, or product is somewhat limited in a software delivery context. However, the difficulty lies in knowing how best to make changes for your organization and the unique team environment in which you work.

    Traditional people management strategies tend to focus on a one-size-fits-all approach, or tend toward stereotypes of employees: the difficult employee, the workaholic, etc.

    The differentiated management strategy focuses instead on complex, multiple aspects of the individual within the context of the other people on the team, in the current working environment.

    Learning three elements about employees

    Knowing how to make changes that will strengthen your team while getting maximum effectiveness requires knowing about three elements—employee readiness, interests, and lived experiences—to help you make the right choices for each person and for your whole team, in nearly any situation.

    Gauging employee readiness involves taking the time to assess your team members from the first moment you meet them, and ensuring that you know where they are with their personal and professional skills. Then, you can provide advice when they are struggling, and give appropriate stretch challenges for their growth and development.

    Knowing about employee interests can help you to motivate employees when they are stuck, and to work with employees on stretch assignments that will help them to strengthen their skills while remaining motivated.

    More now than ever, understanding and creating safe spaces for your team to share their lived experiences is critical to helping team members achieve their highest potential. Some aspects of the lived experience are very difficult to address in a work setting, and it isn't necessary to do so in most cases.

    However, understanding the physical, emotional, mental, or social challenges an employee may be facing can help to resolve interpersonal difficulties or other nuanced aspects of people management that are frequently ignored because they are difficult. The differentiated management methodology provides strategies to address more personal aspects of the work environment with empathy and compassion.

    Benefits and challenges of differentiated management

    There are many benefits of differentiated management. With my teams, I have observed increased personal and professional growth, as well as increased resilience in the face of the health, social, and political pressures we have all faced over the past year. 

    However, this management technique is not plug-and-play. The hardest part of differentiated management is that it requires an investment of time involving effective and intentional communication strategies. Regular communication, empathetic listening, and strategic problem-solving are all skills reinforced in my workshop, and you must practice them regularly and consistently if you want to succeed.

    During my STAREAST Virtual+ conference session, I'll offer more details on how you can use differentiated management. The conference runs October 5-8, 2020. I hope to see you there.

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