After 22 years in the industry, 18 years as a Solution Engineer (SE), and 12 of those as an SE leader, I decided to take a few minutes to pull together a list of ten things I think you simply must be doing if you’re leading a team of SEs (and being authentic here, most of these stem from countless mistakes I’ve made myself). Honestly, there is no job on earth I would rather do, but I am always trying to do it better. I am sure you feel the same way, so I hope you find this list useful.
1. It’s about having an impact, not about having a voice
Theodore Roosevelt was often cited using the proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” While his interpretation was primarily focused on U.S. foreign policy around 1900, it has taken on a more general meaning in the last 100 years. For me, being an effective SE leader is all about the impact you have – the impact to the business, the impact you have on your people and customers, and the impact you have on developing and coaching a sales team. It’s not about how many times you speak up at meetings or how many deals you challenge on forecast calls. So often we hear that SE leaders need to have a “louder voice” and “speak up and express a point of view”. I don’t disagree with that completely but overall, I look at the effectiveness of an SE leader more by impact.
Some of the most impactful and successful SE leaders I have known in my career have actually been the most quiet and introverted. These leaders prove themselves and contribute to the business through the deeper relationships they build with customers, through the meaningful contributions they make when working on deals, and by taking the time to coach salespeople so they can be more effective at their jobs. The bottom line is, you don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room to be a great SE leader – as long as you’re carrying a big stick.
2. Take special care of your top talent
So, let me repeat this one – take special care of your top talent. And this includes both SEs and your SE Managers. Some of you might read this and think, “Of course I take care of my top talent!” The question I have is, do you take special care of them. Do you treat them the same way as you treat all of your employees? Well, you shouldn’t. And let me very clear here – I am not saying you shouldn’t treat all people as human beings and with the same level of respect, dignity, and professionalism. Of course you should – and I trust that we’re doing this anyway. What I am talking about here is that special attention you’re giving to your top talent, so they feel appreciated, cared for, challenged, and looked after. Why is this important? Because this is what top talent needs and wants to continue executing at that level.
Top talent generally thrives, performs better, and is willing to go that extra mile when they genuinely feel they are being looked after and appreciated for what they bring to the table. And if they don’t get it from you, they will eventually go work for a leader where they do get it. But taking care of top talent isn’t only about praise, awards, money, and recognition. In many cases it’s as simple as taking extra time for them, developing and coaching them, providing feedback, or giving them special challenges where they can excel.
It’s important, however, to strike the right balance when taking care of your top talent publicly. Too much public recognition can send the wrong message to other team members that they are not valued. This could demotivate them and you could be seen as playing favorites. So be smart about how you do it. Top performing SEs and SE Managers are extremely marketable resources and are in huge demand. Chances are if you know they’re good, so do recruiters and managers at other companies. It’s perfectly okay to take special care of your top talent – and you absolutely should. So, are you?
3. Build your brand too, not only your team's
We all know that as a good SE leader, you put your team first and make sure they shine. But what about you? When was the last time you put some focus on yourself to ensure that you got some recognition or did something to increase your own personal brand as a leader? Here’s a secret – it’s okay to do that. In fact, you should.
One of the most difficult things about becoming an SE manager is how quickly you get caught up in the day-to-day operations of the role (e.g. resource escalations, customer issues, hiring, career discussions, 1:1s, or that blind RFP which just landed in your inbox). It’s therefore critical that you take some time to identify opportunities where you can increase your visibility and develop your brand. Perhaps there is a keynote opportunity at a marketing event or maybe a highly visible customer meeting where you can own a key role in the presentation. Perhaps there is an enablement session or all-hands call coming up where you can support with a presentation slot. Or maybe a strategic initiative being launched in your organization, which you can lead. Key here is to ensure that you not only do the initiative but that you make some noise about as well. Let your key stakeholders know about it – including sales leaders. A great way to do this is to ask someone who worked with you to send a short note thanking you and highlighting what you did – or send it yourself. Regardless of how you do it, it’s important that you let people know. Far too often as SE leaders, we tend not to make noise about ourselves and focus on our people. Of course, that is a good leadership behavior (see Leaders Eat Last below in suggested readings), but building your personal brand is also hugely important for your own career development, so don’t be afraid to do it once in a while.
The other dimension to this is the notion of “leading from the front”. Not only does this help with your personal brand, but it also demonstrates to your team that you have the skills, the confidence, and the willingness to show them how it’s done. After all, we’re not only armchair generals in the SE world, are we? In The Prince (suggested reading below), Machiavelli writes, “Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example.”
4. Flag low-performing “frequent flyers” to sales leaders
Generally, sales leaders are aware of their low-performers. What they are not aware of is how much time and energy these low performers are consuming from your SE team (and the negative impact they have on the morale of your SEs). This is a serious problem and needs to be addressed proactively. Remember – your team’s time is valuable, and as SE leaders, we all wish we had twice as many SEs.
One of the ways to do more with less is to address productivity leaks. If you haven’t taken a close look at the data behind some of the low-performing salespeople, then you should. I think you’ll be surprised when you add it up and you may have just found an extra SE headcount you didn’t know existed. Important is to be able to have a data-driven conversation with your sales leaders. Without data, the conversation can quickly become emotional. Sales leaders can get very defensive, and it can sound like a witch hunt. One of the reports I use for these conversations measures the amount of revenue a salesperson has generated versus the number of SE hours consumed. With this, we can discuss the primary cases which are of concern. Chances are you won’t completely plug the leak, but with a data-driven conversation you might be able to implement a stricter qualification process for certain salespeople.
This is not about blame and shame. This about you as an SE leader looking out for the interests of your team and the health of the business. Viewed from another angle, the same data can also be used to identify salespeople who are closing significant business with moderate to small amounts of SE support. Cases like these are ones you can highlight as best practices (e.g. some salespeople work well with partners or maybe they’re more self-reliant and are able to cover demos and high-level technical meetings themselves). You want to make examples of these people because they help an SE team to scale. But don’t allow low-performing frequent flyers to negatively impact your team and your business – and it’s your job to address it.
5. Have meaningful C-level customer relationships
Far too often, we as SE leaders, underestimate the impact we can have on the business by having meaningful, trust-based relationships with C-level stakeholders at our customers. There are two reasons for this, in my view. First, we often think it’s salespeople who need to own a customer relationship; the SE team is here to ensure all aspects of the solution are covered and we’re “technically closed”. Second, we tend to think customers are more interested in relationships with our SEs because they are the true content experts.
A tip? On the forecast calls you’re attending, listen out for things like, “We’re having trouble getting access to this executive.” or “We have a CIO who doesn’t like us.” That is a great opportunity to insert yourself into an account, build a relationship, and have impact (see point #1 above). Important for me is that when I develop a relationship with a customer, I make it clear to the sales team that it will not be one of a commercial nature. This means I will not be calling my contact the night before quarter end to apply pressure to sign a deal. I think as SE leaders it’s important that we develop these r