Navigating the Director Sandwich
Sonal Mehta, Director of Engineering, Intuit Mailchimp
The leap to director is often bigger than we imagine. We find ourselves with more responsibility and working at the organizational layer but also having to make sure the people doing the work are aligned. This can be challenging. I asked Sonal Mehta, Director of Engineering at Intuit MailChimp to share her experience navigating what I call the director sandwich. Sonal and I talked about how the role was different than she expected, managing expectations, the role of trusted advisors and so much more. If you’ve just taken on a bigger organizational role or support those who do, there are so many nuggets in here for you.
We met in San Francisco.
Yeah, we did. It was for a workshop that we were leading for Leading Edge, and it was an awesome workshop. And I remember us talking about what it would be like to be a director.
Thank you for the kind words. I liked how everybody talked to each other about their experience, and even folks who had a little more experience came into the room like I'm here to learn and grow.
Yeah, yeah. That's for sure. I think you learn so much more from others' experiences.
Yep. That's why those workshops are like that, so we can learn from each other rather than just telling you, "Here are my five tips." It's like, "Well, let's talk about it. Let's learn from each other's experiences." So I'm excited today about our topic. I cannot wait to get into it. But before we do, can you introduce yourself?
Yes, for sure. So a quick background. I started my career as a developer. I'm dating myself as a mainframe analyst many, many moons ago. When I think about my career, it's like I've done so many different things. If you take the software development lifecycle, I think I've played a role in pretty much every phase. Of course, that's a very waterfall way of talking. We've moved to Agile. But regardless, I've just worn a lot of different hats throughout my career and worked for different companies as well. And I think my leadership journey has led me to my current role as a director of engineering. And throughout it all, I've been very curious, curious about whatever I've done. I'm a lifelong learner. And that I think in a nutshell is who I am.
I love that curiosity. You're a Director of Engineering right now at Mailchimp. What's the area that you oversee?
It’s what we call .com. If you go to mailchimp.com, before you log in, all of those pages that you see, all of the marketing side is essentially what my team builds and maintains.
How was the transition into a director role for you? What was that like?
That's such a good question. It's like, when you think about what you think a director's role is, I feel like when you transition into it, it's kind of a little bit different. For me, I think it was the biggest leap and responsibility compared to all of the other roles that I have moved in and out of. Because now, suddenly I was no longer in the weeds. I had to learn to lead without really knowing the specifics. So I had to become very comfortable saying that I don't know the specifics, but I can get you the answer. When I think about it, it is about learning to lead through others.
What were the biggest things that you found different from your previous role? Before that, were you the engineering manager, or senior engineering manager? I don't know your career ladders.
My journey led me through an engineering manager, then a senior engineering manager, and then to a director. I’d like to use an analogy here. So I'm a mom of two kids and I recall when I got pregnant for the first time, I had this vision in my mind that when the baby comes, it's going to be perfect. The kid is going to wake up when I tell him, go to sleep when I tell him, and eat when I tell him. Right?
Well, the reality of it was completely different. He had his schedule, he did things his way. I will say I learned my lesson when I got pregnant again the second time. It definitely wasn't the case. I knew that no matter what I planned, it was not going to work. So in some ways, I feel like that is how it was becoming a director as well. There were so many curve balls that I did not expect.
There is a perception of authority and autonomy that people think you have in a director role. The reality is that, while yes you have a little bit more authority and maybe a little bit more autonomy, the fact is that you are trying to manage expectations both up and down. You're expected to get results and not necessarily have that this is how you're going to get it, this is the direction and this is how you're going to achieve it.
You mentioned something earlier about no longer being in the weeds. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by no longer in the weeds and what was the shift from in the weeds to what?
What I mean when I say no longer in the weeds is that, for me, I was one of the lucky few that when I transitioned into a director role, it was with the same team. So when, initially the first month or so, I knew all the projects that were happening on the squad because I was part of trying to get it all created. But very soon I had my managers who were leading this. So I no longer knew the specifics. So now when I have to know whether things are going well or not, I have to rely on the sound bites that I'm getting from my managers, and I have to make sure that we are very much in sync.
But I don't know the day-to-day and the details of what challenges they may be facing, what's going well, and what's not going well. I think that's a good thing because then the manager can make that squad his or her own rather than them leading it the way I would lead it.
Before this, you were close to the work. I think for some people, not knowing those details can be uncomfortable.
It's extremely uncomfortable because when you're in the weeds, you can speak to any question with a lot of confidence as opposed to when you're not in the weeds, you're like, "I think this is it, but I don't know with 100% confidence." I think you learn how to get that confidence. You learn to ask the right questions of your managers so that you can respond to situations when they may not be in the room.
Are there any other ways that the role was different than you expected?
The stakes are so much higher than what they were when I was a manager. You have so many more people that you have to know what they're doing, ensure that they're very clear on what the expectations are, and understand the vision. The way the world is today, it's a high-pressure environment. We are running at 120 miles per hour. How do you then lead through that chaos? Also, when I say the stakes are higher, because now your peers, their stakes are higher as well. And when the stakes are higher, I feel like certain stress behaviors come out. If I can say that, I think it's a lot more political than I expected.
What do you mean by political and what's hard about that?
What I mean is managing the expectations of our leaders, of our executives. A lot of time, each of the executives have certain expectations, and certain results that they have to achieve, which may or may not be in tandem. In that situation, you are now having to deal with not just trying to work through what you need for your cross-functional team, but also how you then accomplish what your leader needs.
What have you found hardest about being a director?
How little you control. There’s a perception that you have a lot more control than what you truly have control over. I think what you truly have control over is the reaction to the situation that you're put into. Sometimes it's like it comes from the left field. I think every day is a new day. And because the stakes are so high, you just don't know what's going to happen. You can plan till the end as much as you want, but when you go into a new day, you just have new challenges that you're dealing with.
I feel like the interesting thing about this is that you're dealing with so many intangibles. When I was a manager, I dealt with more tangibles. I knew that I was working on a certain project, and I knew that the outcome of the project was going to be X, Y, and Z. So I knew how to map out the success of what I was trying to do. Whereas as a director, you have multiple projects that your teams are working on and it's not about just the success of one project, it's multiple things. How do you unlock your team through all these intangibles? Each of them is their situation. It's hard to just plan. Now sure, with experience, you learn how to deal with certain things, but it's just a new adventure every day.
Was there a mistake that you made early on that you learned from?
You make so many mistakes. I feel like it's something that I just have to course-correct almost every day. As you go through things, every day, there are minor changes that you make. I don't know how many people have this thing where, in their career, they're like, "I made this huge mistake and it was such a huge learning." I think more often than not, it's the small tweaks that you make as you go through each day.
I love your point about course correcting every day. When you tell me that you course correct every day, that just tells me the way that you see it, it sounds like you're reflecting and you're just trying to make smaller tweaks as you go along.
That is so insightful, Suzan. I never thought of it that way until you said it. So thanks. I've learned something about myself today.
Was there ever a moment when you said, "I feel lost or I don't know what I'm doing in my role?"
Many times, honestly. It comes down to the expectations of the role. There are certain expectations of, as I mentioned before, where it's like there is this perception that as a director you have so much authority and autonomy in doing things. And then also it's like that you're very clear on what the vision is. I often feel I'm not clear on what the vision is because the vision is changing so often. Change is constant, right? We are just working through this constantly.
And trying to work through all the different people that you come in contact with, and each of them has their own priorities. Then putting all of them together and figuring out what truly you need to work on that is important, again, for what your team is trying to do. So figuring out who I should be going to. That's a constant struggle. Constant struggle.
Yeah, absolutely. Because you begin to work more organizationally in the director role. You're in a new landscape of people and roles. On that note, what's the biggest challenge that you found about working upward with senior leaders?
I feel like the interesting thing is that we expect our senior leaders to have answers to everything. As you move up and as you get closer to the day-to-day, you realize that they don't have the answers to everything. I mean, I've realized more than anything, it's impossible to have an answer to everything. So again, so much pressure. You need results yesterday. If you're lucky and you have a good exec, you at least know what is expected. But you don't necessarily know how to get about that. When you're working upward, you have to read between lines. Sometimes, you have to figure out what the executive wants and what is important.
I feel like you deal a lot more with the non-answers than you had to before in this particular role. I feel like what's also challenging about working upwards is, the different people you work with have different styles of how they work. Now, that is true regardless of what role you are in, but I think it's specifically more impactful when you are in the role that I am currently in, where you have to work with different personalities while you are trying to maintain your personality itself.
So you're trying to maintain your identity, but you have to change how you are depending on whom you're working with. You have to be very nimble, you have to be able to adapt. You have to know when to dial in a certain exec versus not. Everyone is different. So when do you dial in somebody and when do you dial them out? How much do you want them in the weeds versus not? So those are things that you learn as you're working with each and every executive.
It’s a good point to think about who's my audience, not just like what their title is, but who this person is, their style, and the way they process the world, process information. How'd you find that transition to having to adapt your style upward and figure out how to work with people? Did you find that challenging? Was it something you felt pretty good at already?
In some ways, I think I was good at it already where I knew how... I mean, I read people. And as I'm reading people, I'm like, I feel at least that I'm pretty adept at understanding what a person needs versus what they are saying they need. But I will say, again, like I said, because the stakes are higher, it is a little bit more challenging. Again, the expectations of you are higher. You are expected to know certain things. So a lot of it is also about ensuring that you have good cross-functional relationships so you can get the whole picture. You may not get one picture. You get one slice of it from a particular person, but then how do you ensure you know what the whole pie looks like? It's all about getting little bits and then joining them together. So knowing how much you're going to get from a particular person and knowing how far you can push to get certain answers is so important.
Yep. It’s why I call it the director sandwich. You're in between the folks who are making bigger strategic decisions, senior leadership, and working with the folks who are doing the work. Getting enough information and context is important and hard. Sometimes you get a non-answer because there is legal, confidential information and shifting plans they can't share with you but you still have to communicate with the team. How do you find that balance in communicating with your team when you have limited context?
I mean, how many times have we been in that situation? And sometimes it's, to your point, sometimes it's limited context that I have because I'm not privy to it. Sometimes, you may have the context, but you know you cannot share it. I feel like foundationally, honestly, when you are in a situation like that where you have to communicate something, the work of it starts long before you ever in a situation like that. To me, it's all about trust. It's really about building a foundation of trust with your managers, with your skip levels, so that when you go to them and you say that I can only share this much, they know that that is true.
True story. This is one of the feedback I got from one of my skip levels where we were in very difficult, it was a difficult conversation we were having. Some difficult decisions were made in the company. As soon as the decisions came out, we had to talk about it. My skip level piped up and said, "I know you can share only how much you know. In the past, you've always been transparent about the amount I can share, and once I know more, I will share more."
For me, it was huge to know that I have built that trust. It truly is about having that trust built with the teams that when you don't have context or when you're not able to share the context, they know that you will give it to them when you have it. They have that belief in you that you are giving them as much information as you can so that they can do their work.
How do you do that?
For me, it was very simple. For me, it is, you just trust somebody or you don't, right? For me, it's very much about being very genuine.
You work on trust diligently every day knowing that one misstep is going to set you back from it. You start at a certain level and then you can either go up or you can go down. Each interaction is where you build it.
Finding the right level is tricky for some people to figure out, as they get more and more information, trying to find the balance between confidentiality, also moving parts, but then also making sure that the team feels like they're getting as much information as you can give them.
Yeah for sure. And honestly, I think we can do a different podcast on how you build trust because it is so nuanced and there are so many different aspects to it as well. It's not something, again, that happens overnight in my mind. To your point, as you go through different levels, what it looks like building trust does change quite a bit. It goes back to the point where, as a director who manages managers, I cannot be in those individual conversations with everybody to build that individual level of trust. So then now you need to learn to build trust with a group of people that you may not meet, may not talk to regularly. How you show up to these meetings, how you show up matters. That's where all the small things matter in building trust.
Building trust is an important part of being a director because you have to build trust with a group of people and through other people. In some ways, the skip levels, you're building trust with the ICs through the managers. It’s because you've spent time thinking about building trust.
Yes. I will add that it is even more important when you are navigating the director's sandwich, building trust cross-functionally with your peers is more important than ever. Because if you are not able to work well, then guess who suffers the most? It's your team. So that's the reason why I do think trust is the foundation, it's the bedrock of how you get results.
I love that. I think everybody might answer that question differently about how they navigate the director sandwich. And I think a lot of people might say trust, but I love that you go through trust and that's your important foundation. I mean, for me too. But I love that you're also talking about how with peers and that you also build it with peers because you're right, if you don't navigate those relationships well, then your team suffers.
Those relationships are so important. I mean, how many times have we heard where you always wonder, how did this happen so easily for you? How were you able to get something accomplished through another team so easily? For me, it's all about those relationships. When you have a relationship built, it is so much easier.
Yep, in the workshop, one of the things we talk about is how are your relationships. People are sometimes surprised by how important those relationships with peers are.
Yeah. I mean I feel like this is probably another podcast in the making. It's like how you network and how you build that relationship in the role that you are in. Especially as you grow up in the organization, those are so important.
In your role, you have to work with people outside of engineering, right?
Every day. I think I work more with my cross-functional peers than anything else. Yeah, that is just every day. When I think of who my immediate team is, it’s my managers but my peers are also my team. We have to work together towards a common goal that we are trying to accomplish because that is super important for the company. If we cannot work well together, then guess who suffers? Everybody.
Yep. When you become a director your first team changes and you belong to multiple teams – the team you run, the engineering leadership team, and your team of peers across the company. You have to manage all of those different relationships and entities if you will, to do your job well.
You have to do it. I mean, there are just no if and buts about it.
You do. Before you got into your role, had you thought about that very much about how much relationship-building you'd have to do across the organization?
I feel like you have to do that regardless of your role. As soon as you get into leadership, I think it's super important. I was aware that I would need to build relationships but the scale catches you a bit where it’s like a constant activity. It’s not once and done.
So you’d thought about building relationships but how much you had to re-invest was different?
Yeah, it's just a constant thing. And again, you're doing one thing today, tomorrow you've got a different goal. So now you have to build relationships with people you've not worked with before. Again, we're a pretty large organization. So you can't know everybody personally. Also, we've only started meeting together in person. Before that, it was harder to do it when you were just online.
You can learn so much from other leaders. I meet fairly regularly with some of my peer leaders in engineering who I don't work with daily, but we meet probably once a month for coffee chats, whatever it is, and I'll have something on my mind and I'll be talking about it. And I've almost always gotten a solution because of their experiences, which were in a completely different situation. It's like it's a completely different place where it's happening, but the situation is kind of similar. So I've been able to use their learnings.
It’s brilliant. You’re not only learning from others but you probably also feel less lonely with whatever problem you’re solving because someone else has experienced it too.
Yeah. I'm smiling and laughing right now because I remember when I was in that workshop that you led at Leading Edge. That was the one thing, if you recall, that was resounding where everybody was like, "I'm not alone. You faced the same issue." We were not even working for the same companies. We all had different size companies. There were different things that you were doing in your role. Even though most of us may share the title, what a director means in one versus another is vastly different. But all of us shared something in common when it was dealing with that navigation, and then it was so powerful to know that it doesn't matter where you are, we all deal with similar problems. So knowing that you're not alone was huge.
Right, as a director fewer people are doing these kinds of roles so you have fewer people to talk with. The loneliness starts to set in, which, I don't know. I think as a manager, I don't know that I felt that loneliness as acutely as I did when I moved into a director role. The director role was when I felt, "Oh wait, I have to watch what I say. I have fewer peers. I feel lonely."
Yeah. Like, who are your trusted advisors? Who are the people you trust to be able to just go and talk without fear of it causing panic? Because again, as a director, I always want to make sure that my managers and my skip level feel confident in my confidence. But does that mean I'm always confident? No. There are moments where you're like, "Oh my gosh, what am I doing? Am I doing the right thing?" And at that time, having somebody to talk to through this without worrying about how it then affects them is huge.
Yeah, for sure. When you talk about having trusted advisors, are yours mostly inside the company or outside of the company, or a mix of both?
It's a mix. I'm glad I have people who are outside the company because they help me become rational about things when it's a very emotional response sometimes. But when they are within the company, we're all going through the same emotions at the same time. So it's hard to step away. Having advisors outside of the company has been so nice because they helped me step back from myself and get out of my way.
I love that you brought up emotions. When times are hard, everybody's emotions get going. We feel it on both sides when we're in a director role because the leaders are also humans and they have emotions and the people who are doing the work are humans and have emotions and we're in the middle of that and it can bring up our own emotions and it can make us a little less objective about what's going on and how to resolve some of maybe the natural tensions that come up in the course of running a company.
If I've learned anything in my career, it’s recognizing the emotion in myself and knowing when to step back. Knowing when not to respond in a certain situation because I know it's going to be an emotional response as opposed to a balanced one. It’s not that I feel we shouldn’t be emotional. Emotion is very key to the way we lead. I want to be genuine. There are emotions and it's okay. But we have to be careful. I've learned to be careful when the emotions are clouding my judgment, and know when to step away.
What's been most rewarding about your role?
Building future leaders regardless of title. That's what my purpose is in my career -- to help build future leaders, but also take it a step further. I think if anything has changed for me as a director, what's changed is taking it a step further where I want to help my future leaders build future leaders. And that to me has just been the cherry on top.
I love that you say that because that is the role of a director – building the pipeline of future leaders. It is about getting the work done, but more importantly, it's about leading and growing people who are going to then take your role in the future.
Yeah. And I love that you said getting the work done because I don't think it is mutually exclusive. When you are building leaders, the work does get done a lot more efficiently, because they learn how to do the work themselves. You're teaching them how to do the work, you're teaching them how to lead others. And to me, I feel like when you develop a strong leader, I can bet my bottom dollar that that team achieves a lot more results because they know how to get the results. It's about people first. It's about taking care of your people first. This is my favorite saying – if you take care of your people, the results will follow.
Right. Getting results and building future leaders can go hand in hand. They're not mutually exclusive, and in fact, are part and parcel of the same thing.
I think it is vital. It is vital to do that.
The more senior you get, the more important it is that you're building leaders. What advice would you give to someone who's going into a director role for the first time?
Building trust by being genuine is important. Build those relationships. Start at the beginning. If you're trying to build trust when the moment for that trust is there, then you're already too late.
Learn to lead without being in the weeds. It is very, very hard and it's probably going to be one of the most uncomfortable things you do, but it's one of those things that you just have to go through it to get to the other side, and you will. Be comfortable with that discomfort. You will get to the other side.
Get comfortable with delegating, being comfortable with saying I don't know the specifics, but having the confidence that you can get it as needed.
Give yourself permission to fail because you will fail. As long as you're learning from those failures, it's okay. But don't beat yourself up over it. This was advice I was given by one of my mentors when you're doing something new, you will fail and it's okay. Just breathe and it'll be fine. That's the best advice I've ever received. That's the advice I give everybody as well, where it's like, give yourself permission to fail. We are not perfect. It's okay.
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