If I could have Tanisha as my mentor, I would jump at the chance. The Senior Director of Engineering knows how to get to the core of what people need and champion their career growth even if it means losing them to another team. Here she shares how to give people the freedom to explore learning experiences while being the kind of manager that creates opportunities and spots potential before even you know what you want.

Hi Tanisha, welcome to the CTO Craft hot seat – I’m really excited to be here today and chatting with you. I understand that you are the Queen of learning and development in the engineering space at Mailchimp!

I don’t know about the Queen! But it’s definitely a major part of what I love about my job. I used to be an engineer but I really loved helping people grow their careers, learn more and develop themselves. I was just talking to someone I’m starting to mentor right before this interview and the fact I get to teach and support others is such a great part of my job. It makes me feel good.

I totally understand! And we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, our colleagues, and the way we work as a result of the pandemic and the way it’s impacted working practices – especially as we’ve all experienced it so differently. For some, a changeup is really exciting for them and others are facing really dire circumstances. How has your focus shifted both business-wise and as a leader from where it was pre-pandemic to now looking forward to 2022?

Pre-pandemic, it was easier to see someone and just say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and create that relationship naturally. So that when they saw you later, they had that connection and could think oh, I know this person or leader, maybe I can ask them if I need help or have questions about things. Since the pandemic, it feels like I have more of a duty to be purposeful about reaching out to people and make sure things are okay, versus having people feeling like they can reach out to me. Sometimes, titles get in the way and people worry that because you’re senior, you’re so busy; your calendar looks so crammed, you can’t put in another meeting or those sort of things. So I think it’s on us as leaders to be the ones to make the first move. 

One of the things I do when I first pick up a new team is meet with people one-on-one. Because if I don’t, and they need something from me down the line, it would be weird for them to be the first to initiate that reach out. If we had already talked about things and what they want/need from their roles and me, it’s much simpler. So I spend 15 minutes with each of them and ask them to tell me about how they got here and why they are still here. I want to know those details because it helps create an authentic connection. 

In terms of any adaptations that have been made within Mailchimp over the last 18 months, has the culture been impacted? 

One of the biggest things that MailChimp did was push to make sure that leaders touched base with their teams every week. It was important before, but it is even more so now because that’s how you stay connected with your people when they’re remote and distributed. Even if you’re busy, you make the time because it’s important for the organisation as a whole. 

The other thing I do now is one-on-one meetings while walking along the BeltLine, (I’m in Atlanta). So we have calls while I’m walking around my neighbourhood and my team member is walking their dog around theirs or that type of thing. In a nice way, we’ve been let into people’s homes and permitted to see the things they do on a normal, daily life basis, but we’re doing it together while we’re at work. And it’s okay if the video is switched off and/or they’re going to the store to run errands. People are being allowed to do what they want and also say when they need a break. We weren’t doing that before and it’s been a nice, natural progression.

As a woman in tech and a leader in the learning and development space, how do you spot and nurture engineers with management or leadership potential when it may not be explicit? And how do you also make sure that the voices that aren’t always heard are brought to the fore/platform and progress those people who haven’t had the same opportunities as peers whether due to underrepresentation and accessibility or inclusivity reasons? 

One of the things I’m really keen on in leadership is those soft skills. As an engineer and a manager, I know how to get engineers to do those things and get work done. But those soft skills around working with people, understanding how things happen and are influenced, you often start to see those things in people before they see it in themselves. 

Right now, I’ve got senior managers reporting to me and it’s interesting to watch it play out; some people want to be promoted because that’s the natural next step. Others just really enjoy their job and love working with people. You start to see leadership traits in the latter group that make them better candidates for moving up within the organisation, because the execution of their work is more manager-like.

When you get further up the chain, it’s less about you and more about the people and the work that has to be done. It’s about recognising that as a manager, you’re not going to be the smartest person in the room – nor should you be. The people that work for you? They are the smartest people in the room. So when you find somebody that can identify people first versus just the work, that’s when you start to say alright, that’s someone I need to nurture and encourage and show them different paths they can take. Because not everybody wants to move up, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be a great leader.

That’s so true and so who should take ownership of a person’s learning development: Is it the person, their immediate line manager or leadership? Or is it everybody? What’s your view on that?

I think it’s everybody. It’s interesting because I get to talk to a lot of people about where they want to be career-wise. As I mentioned before, some people don’t actually want to move up in the organisation and that’s okay. And so I feel like that’s on the person to understand whether they really want the additional responsibility that comes with climbing the ladder and moving into management. But it’s then the responsibility is on the leader to talk to them about what that looks like. Because I’ve had people resist it and say, ‘No, I’m not ready’ and then come back sometime later and say, ‘Okay, now I’m ready’ But that’s the two sides of it, because you don’t want to put people in a position where they’re not comfortable or don’t want to be there. 

For example, someone may say they want more work-life balance, and so their balance may be at a point where they don’t want to put more into it yet because of where they are in their home life. Where they are commitment-wise is important for people to understand for themselves. But everybody should still be learning regardless of whether they are seeking promotion or not. 

If somebody feels like they aren’t being challenged in a certain way in their role, how should they go about changing that? Or how should leadership and the wider organisation ensure those opportunities are available or if not, are being created?  

I always ask people: ‘Where do you see yourself in a couple of months/a year?’ and ‘Do you enjoy what you’re doing now, and if so, what part?’ I take those nuggets of information and ask myself, how do I stretch this person? How do I give them more opportunities, and most importantly, different opportunities for growth? Because I can hear what they’re saying and I have access to what’s coming. So I can take that and run with it and say, ‘Hey, I have an opportunity. Is this something that you’re looking for?’ 

I also am really open to people moving around within the organisation. It’s the best thing in the world not to lose the person outside the company, but it happens. So I love being able to offer them another position within the organisation that allows us to keep them and them to grow. While they are no longer part of my team, I still feel like I have access to them because I’ve made that connection and can continue that relationship in a new way. 

Being open to that also gives someone else an opportunity within your team. When I’ve had people move to other departments, other team members naturally step up and take advantage of that space even if they weren’t the loudest person in the room like you said. Having that ability to move people around and give them opportunities and be able to see room for development in other people is very helpful.

How do you ensure that any development and training opportunities are inclusive for people but also beneficial and meet people’s diverse needs? I.e. you could send 10 different people on the same course, some will excel and some won’t benefit as much due to various things (i.e language barriers or imposter syndrome), how do you tackle things like that so the process is fair?

One of the great things about MailChimp is we give our engineering department the ability to seek out whatever training they feel like they are in need of and/or whatever they want to learn – so it may be a skill or tool they know anything about. We also share a lot of the training opportunities and conferences across the whole organisation so learning is open and accessible. It also creates teaching and knowledge-sharing experiences where people can say: ‘Hey, I’ve been to this conference where I learned this and brought it back to help others’. 

What do you expect to be different in terms of the business outcomes from those who actively pursue development opportunities? 

Honestly, I see a lot of great creativity and innovation coming back. I see a lot of people feeling open to suggesting things and coming up with out-of-the-box ideas. If they hadn’t been to the conference, if they hadn’t talked to different people, they may get stuck in thinking there is only one way to do XYZ. But because we’ve given them that openness and that freedom to explore and learn, I see a lot of different ideas and perspectives that may not have been brought to the table before, simply because they’ve had the ability to go out and to learn from others. 

That’s great to hear and so flipping that on its head, what do you feel are the biggest challenges for people when they are trying to develop their own skills? What kind of obstacles do you think they might face?

I think a lot of it is within yourself and related to limiting beliefs. People sometimes block others from helping them navigate their needs and wants. A lot of the time, people don’t get it or don’t know what it is we’re exactly looking for unless we say it out loud. I think the biggest challenge is that we hold back, because we don’t always feel free to advocate for ourselves.

For me, I’m more of an introvert. So it takes a lot for me to step out of my comfort zone and speak up. But I do it because I feel like if I don’t do it for myself, then who will? And if there’s something we really want then that’s something we have to do. So I try to make it super easy for people to talk to me and ask open questions so that they feel comfortable doing that type of thing more and more, because overall, it helps us all.

Yes totally, a sort of pay-it-forward approach! Mentoring is so important, and obviously, we’re a community of peer mentors and coaches. In your eyes, what are the benefits of mentoring and why do you believe everybody should have a mentor and at what stage should they get one?

You know, ‘mentor’ is such a heavy word. It’s more that you have to have your community of people – whatever that means to you. When I first started at MailChimp, I got connected with another manager and that was my person – the one that I could just ask questions of and it wasn’t even about career growth. It was more about having someone to discuss the things that I was seeing or hearing so it wasn’t a formal mentor/mentee relationship but it was great having a person alongside a group of people that you can utilise to help you navigate you career, personal issues, work/life balance, all those different things. You have to have those people around you at all stages. 

Do you think having that person and that kind of pastoral rather than managerial support from the outset was pivotal for you in terms of climbing the ladder in leadership and being as successful as you are?

Definitely. Because I could just run things by them and say ‘This is what I’m thinking, am I on the right track?’ Because sometimes you don’t have a view of where everybody is coming from, you may just say things and they come off wrong. Or you may say something and it isn’t received like you’re expecting it to. So being able to have that person to have as a sounding board as you’re navigating leadership is really helpful. Even when you’re navigating any kind of growth actually. 

Rewinding slightly, you mentioned Mailchimp is really flexible in terms of the training people can seek out and undertake. For a lot of organisations it often comes down to a focus on shorter-term costs, rather than the longer-term gains of developing staff. And so how do you budget for learning and development at MailChimp? And who owns that budget? Is it defined by each team or a wider budgetary consideration? 

Currently, it’s more at a department level. One of the things that we’ve talked about is that if we’ve got a number of people going to conferences, can they bring something back so that not everyone has to go but that everybody benefits? We also do a great job of bringing people in-house to talk and share knowledge and have Q&A spaces that connect people to different things. So we bring up ideas and concepts we want to learn about and our departments will go out and find those experts and bring them to us. We look at different ways to do things because not everybody can travel or take the time out of the working day to attend week-long conferences. Also, it’s about recognising that some people learn better in that one-on-one space and so being able to choose different types of classes or learning environments is great.

That sounds awesome. Last but by no means least is: Can you recommend a book or a podcast that every technology leader should read or listen to either in the space of learning and development or leadership in general? 

Yes! It’s How to be Great At Your Job: Get things done, Get the credit, Get ahead by Justin Kerr – it’s a short book but a powerful one. It’s more related to leadership than learning and development, but it’s so insightful that I was like: This. Is. Amazing. Every once in a while I go back through it. I’m all for short snippets of useful information and getting what you need, versus having a long drawn-out book. It’s the concise, quick ideas and suggestions that are useful. And this book was like wow! And an easy read so I recommend it because it’s super helpful. 


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