Don't Wear Too Many Hats

There are 24 hours in a day. That’s one of the universal constraints that exists for everyone no matter how gifted, talented, or hard-working. How can an engineering leader deliver consistently high-quality work within the natural constraint of time? Focus. That’s how. How can a leader focus, when they have many, many different job responsibilities? Read on to find out.

What does an engineering leader actually do? I covered that in some detail in my previous blog post. There are at least 20 different types of work that an Engineering Leader is tasked with.

Too Many Hats - Representing the Many Responsibilities of an Engineering Leader

What we know from the research on Productivity is that you get the best results in anything when you have focus. Focus, as a technique where you remove all distractions and direct all of your energies towards one specific task or problem, is what yields the best work in all cerebral and creative domains. A person who is focused and dedicated to solving a focused set of problems yields the very best results. This has been one of the massive learnings of our age and why both specialization and expertise are so strongly rewarded.

What are the enemies of focus? Split efforts. Context switching. Distractions. Too many types of work. Overcommitment. Overextension. Lack of margin for physical and mental wellbeing.

How do we set up our Engineering Leaders for failure and burnout?

  • We set up our leaders to fail by expecting them to be top performers in all their different work areas.

  • We set up our leaders up to fail by expecting them to personally be the experts in each of those different work areas.

We may have leaders who are good at all these different things. It’s unlikely for one individual to be good at all these things, but it’s possible. It’s even possible, but extremely rare, for one individual to be great at all these things. However, what virtually never happens is for an individual who is personally dedicated to doing all these things to also have enough time and energy to do them all well.

When you try to do too many different things in a fixed amount of time, it’s possible for them to happen (again, unlikely), but if they are done, it’s at a reduced level of quality.

This is one of the reasons why the Peter Principle applies to engineering leaders – even fantastic and talented ones. You can take a very talented engineer or engineering leader, and if you promote them to a role and task them with too many types of work along with the expectations that they will perform at a high level in all of them, you will find that they are no longer a top performer. That is unless they are savvy enough to apply prioritization, delegation, and strategic communication of their focused strategy. Engineering leaders cannot personally shoulder all the different types of work they are tasked with at a high level.

How can we set up Engineering Leaders for success?

1. Setup clear expectations on work task priority

With clear expectations on the most valuable and important work areas, a leader can ensure they are performing at peak in the most important parts of their jobs. Since top quality on everything isn’t possible, this will mean that the tasks which aren’t the most valuable and important may fall through the cracks, or be completed at lower levels of quality.

The key advantage of explicit prioritization is that it won’t be a surprise or a burden. Not every work task requires the same quality and attention to detail. With explicit collaboration on this, there also is no surprise factor. Maybe we don’t need to give A+ Expert-Level interviews. Perhaps Product Direction is more important. Maybe we don’t need perfect world-class documentation. Maybe subpar documentation is totally fine, but a subpar User Interface might be really bad for the company and customers.

The truth is, a few things matter the most. The other things matter, but not very much. Explicit prioritization is the key to ensuring that the most important work types receive the best focus and work effort.

As we know from the Pareto Principle, 80% of the results are derived from 20% of the inputs. Find that most critical 20% and don’t sweat the rest.

2. Encourage leaders to rely on team members for expert advice

While leaders are the ones guiding their teams down the proverbial business trails, one of the primary benefits of having a team is that you can have a variety of diverse specialties complementing each other and resulting in a team capacity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

To capitalize on this, we should expect leaders to direct the work, but we do not need nor want them to be the key decision-makers for everything. Instead, the best leaders know the specialties of their team members, and great leaders delegate and empower their team experts to take charge and make all the key role decisions in their area of specialty.

Most of you are probably familiar with the various Star Trek TV series. In that TV show, there are top officers in each different specialty. The captain makes executive decisions, but they rely on their top experts for information and guidance on how to handle scenarios. The chief engineer is better equipped to make engineering decisions (and especially low-level ones) than the captain. The chief medical officer knows more about human health scenarios and people’s physical conditions and limits. The chief scientist knows more about planets, atmospheres, space anomalies, and other physical phenomena. A great captain empowers each of their chiefs to act as the experts in their respective areas of expertise. The same is true of an engineering leader.

A leader should cultivate specialized expertise in his team, and rely deeply on those experts for specialist decision-making. A leader should rarely overrule the advice or guidance of his experts, as that erodes team cohesion, trust, and hamstrings team functionality.

3. Grow the team size

For smaller team sizes, more types of work will inevitably be left to the leader. If the quality of the work is good enough, and the key tasks are performed satisfactorily, then the team size may be fine. However, if there is too much work, or the quality is too low, it may be a sign that the team simply doesn’t have enough members.

Provide your best leaders with more people and the quality bar will rise. Simply having fewer tasks delegated per person naturally results in higher-quality work output.

A team with more members with assigned areas of focus will typically outperform a better-funded, more talented, or larger team that is unfocused or overburdened.


Leaders are crucial for the success of a team and organization. Most Engineering Leaders are tasked with at least 20 different types of work. Trying to be a top performer at 20 different kinds of work simply isn’t possible for anyone I’ve ever known.

Instead, we can set up Engineering Leaders for success by clarifying their key work tasks, and aligning those with business KPIs and metrics so they can track how they are doing as they go instead of relying on slow human feedback cycles.

Furthermore, we will have stronger teams by distributing roles and areas of expertise. A great team has a diversity of specialties and is best able to grow in effectiveness through complementary skills and collaboration. A great leader will rely on his team members as experts in various areas, and also try to help each team member to develop specific and differing specialties.

TL;DR Principles:

  • Engineering Leaders should not be expected to be fantastic at everything.
  • Engineering Leaders should be steered towards specific areas of focus.
  • Engineering Leaders should cultivate and rely on the expertise of their team.
  • Engineering Leaders should have a team large enough to handle the workload.

Micro-TL;DR: Don’t Wear Too Many Hats