In The Engineering Leader Within, authors and WeWork members Jean Hsu and Edmond Lau—the co-founders of CoLeadership—interview engineering leads from companies like Etsy, Interstellar, and Splice to get their best strategies for being effective leaders. This wisdom goes beyond engineering—it’s actionable advice for anyone leading a team, or at a startup or an established brand. In this excerpt, the authors interview Camille Fournier, head of platform engineering at Two Sigma, former CTO of Rent the Runway, and author of The Manager’s Path, on why and how to prioritize your emotional energy.
Startups are constantly in a state of transition. One of the main contributors to success in such an environment is how well you can navigate all the intense emotions those transitions evoke.
Camille Fournier has a lot of experience in this domain. Drawing on her own experience as well as research she conducted for her book, she’s identified a key skill for leaders: the ability to prioritize your emotional energy.
“Anytime you take over a team, you’re going to have some transitions,” Fournier says. “You’re going to have people leaving. So that’s already stressful. And if you don’t have enough people to begin with to do all the work that you’re being asked to do, that’s stressful. When you don’t really know how to manage, that’s stressful. When you’re dealing with figuring out also how to deal with a senior leadership team who’s asking you to get various things done, that’s stressful.”
Rather than exhaust your emotional energy, direct it to the right projects and problems. “Figure out what’s important for you to be feeling about,” she says. Not only do we have limited time, we also have limited emotional energy. When we worry or stress about things that aren’t important, Fournier says, it’s like giving someone else “free rent” in your mind.
Notice and manage your own emotions
The first step toward navigating those strong emotions: being aware of and acknowledging them.
When someone quits, for example—even if you two don’t get along—there may be some sadness, guilt, pain, frustration, and even anger.
When you’re not aware of the emotion, you might end up acting out your anger. It’s a pattern Fournier notices in new managers. These managers think, “You’re quitting on me? How dare you. You’re a bad person. Here’s all the things that you’re bad at, or that are wrong with you.” They don’t want to blame themselves so they end up blaming the other person, possibly burning a bridge in the process.
When you become aware of your own emotions, you can start to notice the impact they have on your behavior, and how you might adjust the behaviors. You might be aware that you don’t want to burn bridges—and that intention will shape how you act.
Other times, you might hold strong opinions about the way something should be done. Perhaps you believe that the interview process should be run a certain way. Or that a peer isn’t managing the team effectively. Or that the company is following the wrong strategy.
When we’re too attached to the way we want things to be done, we burn through significant rations of our emotional energy fighting uphill battles. Fournier says it’s important to ask, “Is this impacting me right now? Is this impacting my team right now?” That lets you zoom out and understand whether this is actually a place where you want to be intentionally spending your energy.
But perhaps the area where it’s most important for leaders to notice and manage their emotions is during hard conversations. Fournier continues to be surprised that many people are reluctant to disappoint people or have difficult conversations with them. But she emphasizes that leaders know the harder conversations are often the most important ones—and that they get harder the longer we play through those conversations in our minds.
Help others prioritize their emotional energy
As a leader, you need to help your team manage their emotional energy, too. One way is to provide input to others so that they can more effectively choose how to spend their energy. This may look like providing an external perspective, reassurance, or context for a situation.
“Sometimes it’s literally just being like, look, this sucks,” Fournier explains. “It sucks that this person is leaving, or that this system failed or whatever. I don’t blame you for that. I know this hurts and you’re unhappy about it, too, and you feel responsible for it, but you really aren’t responsible for it, so don’t beat yourself up.”
Being curious and asking questions can help them zoom out from the issue they are feeling intense emotions over. Camille recommends asking questions such as:
- Is this really the important thing?
- It’s bothering you, I get it. It bothers me too. What impact is this actually having on you right now?
- Given that there are only a certain number of hours in the day, do you really want to try to fight this battle, or are there better things that you could be spending your energy on?
Build an external support group
It’s important to have external sources of support—people you can vent to, get third-party perspective from, and lean on when your emotional energy is drained.
Fournier worked with several coaches and had a peer group of newish CTOs and VPs of engineering to bounce ideas and situations off of.
As leaders, we all want to have a big impact. And it’s easy to believe we need to do all the things, which can result in overextending ourselves and burnout. “A lot of management and becoming a good manager is developing awareness about yourself in general for all kinds of situations,” says Camille.
Figure out what you want to spend your emotional energy on, focus on that, and let other things go.
Photograph by David Grizelj for Getty Images