Leadership Is Like Engineering: You Need to Start with Why

January 7, 2021 7 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In times of uncertainty, it is crucial for leaders to rally around the why behind their mission. There is a tendency to overlook the why when decisive action is needed, but it is essential to steering the course of the business. The why illuminates what needs to be done and how it can be accomplished. The why gives the whole team a sense of purpose. As Friedrich Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Over the past decade, my perspective on has been guided by one simple mantra: Start with why, inspired by the book of the same title by Simon Sinek. In my time as an engineer, starting with why was fundamental to tackling every new product or feature. Starting with why meant understanding the pain points of the user and defining the success criteria for addressing the pain points. From there, we could specify the functionality needed (the what) and set a plan for developing the product (the how). As I became a leader, I found that these same principles apply to — always, but especially in turbulent times. 

When my company, like so many others, confronted the impact of a global , we were forced to reevaluate our criteria for success, short-term and long-term. We regained clarity that our purpose is to empower data engineers in building smart data pipelines to solve the biggest problems of our generation. This clarity of purpose, our why, caused us to retool the what across the company, from our go-to-market strategy, to our product roadmap, to our investment model. This is enabling us to weather the storm.

Leaders, before solving for uncertainty in your company or industry, align with your team on why you are there. Ask yourselves, “Why will we succeed?” The answer will help determine what matters most right now and your medium-term goals. And use these three key tenets to reaffirm a sense of belonging, restate what you stand for and keep your business and your leaders on track.

Related: What the Regime Uncertainty of the Pandemic Means for Entrepreneurs 

Use the why to anchor your business and your team

At the end of the day, your strategy is valueless unless all your employees believe in it. When my co-founder and I started our company, strategy was our sole focus for three months before we hired our first employee. It was , but we converged on a belief that data engineering would be the linchpin for modernizing business intelligence. And that DataOps would be the practice adopted by data engineers. This informed our activities for many years. As we grew and things were going well, we made a number of opportunistic product and go-to-market decisions that helped grow the business but didn’t always align with our why.

When the pandemic hit, the macroeconomic uncertainty meant that we had to be much smarter about where to invest our energy and resources. Reaffirming our point of view and ensuring that it was differentiated was the first order of business. Across the industry, not everyone agrees on the essential value of the data engineering role. Some may think it’s just a little bit of busywork for an application engineer. Others may think that it is a minor roadblock to the more important task of embracing data science. Still others may think of this as a design-time engineering problem rather than a full life-cycle problem. That’s okay! We are not in the business of changing everybody’s mindset, but if an employee doesn’t believe in our why, then maybe they aren’t a great fit for the company.

The why should ground leaders and their teams throughout the execution of a plan or vision. Come back to the why when you encounter a problem, a lack of confidence, or a difference of opinion. The why will keep your teams aligned in the face of adversity and centered on the end goal.

Related: ‘The Alignment Factor’: The Keys to Internal Alignment

Be comfortable without unanimity on the what

On a day-to-day basis, the focus is always on results. More simply put, the questions I regularly ask myself and others are “What should we do?” and “Are we accomplishing it?”

The what is rarely obvious because there is more than one way to tackle a problem. While it is helpful and important to listen to all points of view on a team, as a leader you must decide because you cannot implement multiple solutions to reach one goal. The challenge this presents to a leader is the need to pick and choose the best option available and then strive to gain unanimous commitment across the team. There will be contrarians — encourage them to give things a chance, and commit to revisit your decision periodically to ensure that it was the best choice.

In times of change, the what can seem especially amorphous, at least at first, but a leader needs to be decisive in these moments of uncertainty. When faced with the pandemic, we had to act fast. I acted based on my belief that a leader must be responsive to current needs but also forward-looking about how needs may change in the future. Thinking like an engineer means being agile and amenable to pivoting your what as obstacles arise or new learnings emerge. For leaders, these sorts of obstacles might take the form of budgeting constraints, or preparing for a different business outlook as industry conditions change, or prioritizing a new set of key results to track.

Related: Why Engineers Like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos Make Great CEOs

Don’t tell your team how to do their jobs

A good leader never specifies the how. Once you specify the method for attaining success, you are taking responsibility for the success of someone else, who is actually implementing the how and getting the job done. In this situation, an employee may approach a task in a way that is unnatural to them because they are mimicking the leader’s way of doing things. When dealing with ambiguity, they will be unable to think for themselves. 

Rather, leaders should stay focused on the why and what. Staying grounded in the strategy and the results you need to achieve allows for clear direction without micromanaging the method of execution (leave that to your teams). When leaders stay out of execution, teams have the much-needed room to innovate. 

At StreamSets, for example, supporting the data engineer is a top priority; so our product team mapped out monthly releases focused on the features and user experience that data engineers love. Our team interviewed data engineers and delighted them with the resources they would need to be successful. Our team educated the champions in the company about how to enable the whole data team. Our customer success team came up with a new Academy to offer self-directed training. Together our employees were innovative, all while solving for the challenges the pandemic wrought and staying true to the why.

This sort of , this freedom to determine the how, is key because it is furthering the results needed to achieve your why. The creativity that comes out when employees improvise tactics or explore new approaches to a project is powerful. People come for the why but they stay for the how!

Using the why-what-how framework has been instrumental in guiding my leadership philosophy throughout my career and as CEO. It reminds me to start with the big picture and then tap back into my engineering background, to think critically about our goals and then to arm my employees with the tools they need to achieve them. As you get more productive with the what, you are getting smarter with the how, but it all depends on why.

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