5 mins

Navigating the challenges of going from a boom time to a downturn is demanding, especially if this is your first time as a manager experiencing this sort of environment.

Economic downturns aren’t often regarded as periods of opportunity. Many people in tech are focusing on surviving rounds of layoffs and juggling full plates. But, there is a silver lining.  

Changing leadership tack, finding ways to bridge team and business needs, and helping grow individuals looking to advance in their careers are all possible with the right framework.

Ahead of her talk at LeadDev Berlin Smruti Patel (SP), VP of engineering at Apollo GraphQL, talked to LeadDev's Scott Carey (SC) about how to successfully lead your team through a downturn. The below conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. Smruti’s full talk will be delivered at LeadDev Berlin on December 6.  

SC: What will you be speaking about at LeadDev Berlin?

SP: My topic will tackle thinking about growth in a downturn. We’ve all grown used to a glorious decade in tech, and the last year has looked very, very different. So how do we adapt ourselves? How do we show up for our teams? But how do we also leverage this period in tech history to think about enduring growth?

SC: What's the difference between managing in the boom times to managing during a downturn?

SP: For me, it starts with survival. Survive first, then thrive. It's a shift in mindset – how do you work with a scarcity mindset where you once worked in abundance? And what does that mean in how we lead our teams?

A big part of my journey going through not just the current downturn, but also 2001 and 2008, has all been about starting from within; how do I adapt my leadership style? And before I even go there, how do I acknowledge what I'm going through? How can you start to feel secure, be vulnerable, and know where you are at on any given day, so you can then lead your teams? 

The biggest thing here is being transparent with your teams on how things look different. For instance, when we think about what we should invest in versus what we absolutely need to invest in, how do you drive efficiency, and drive leverage? A lot of that starts looking very different. 

Think about how you spearhead clarity and focus while balancing tactical short-term engineering needs, but also leverage this period to drive that strategic long-term innovation. Some of the best startups that we know of, or the big companies we know of, started during a downturn.

SC: Do you have a framework for how you work through a downturn when big changes like this take place? 

SP: My framework starts with mindset – driving self-awareness, adaptability, and resilience. That's where you should start with yourself. 

When you're thinking about your team, how do you drive clarity and set expectations and what is truly needed? And a lot of that comes down to the impact; how can you and the team drive the most leverage for the business? One of the biggest things about hypergrowth is that it’s all about saying yes. Nowadays, it’s all about how you’re intentionally and strategically saying no. This means that you need to rethink your opportunities and drive more value with relatively less. 

What do I mean by that? It's a lot about how you think of capping your risk or your unknown unknowns and better aligning with leadership to figure out if you are driving the most leverage for the business. 

And the last thing to think about is culture. These are hard times. You're not playing in easy mode anymore, you're playing in hard mode. How do we create that culture to truly hone the craft of engineering or engineering leadership, and create more space to be creative about individual growth and team growth?

SC: Have you figured out any way to bring people up with you on this journey? 

SP: I think, when the periods are as hard as they are, the biggest thing as leaders we can do is create psychological safety. And a big part of that safety is having empathy for your own teams. Knowing where your team is at and what you can do to lead with trust and be transparent about where the business is headed. 

Have intentional conversations with individuals on your team to let them know if they’re getting more scope or if they’re losing scope because, perhaps, the business has pivoted to new opportunities. Even here, you can still think about how to create space for innovation. Economies are cyclical, and this too shall pass. You want to know that, when the good times return, you’ve made the right investments. 

When we think about rebalancing scope with folks who are eager to grow, I think there’s no time like the present to be building those skills. 

Find ways for team members to help out on projects that have become a business priority, thinking about how to tailor the new environments being thrown at us to give those people who want to stretch themselves and expand their toolkit new opportunities. 

The last one here for me is helping our teams build an extended network. And here's where I've often found that underrepresented folks are over-mentored but under-sponsored. In these periods, you can really help open up those doors by connecting the right person to the right opportunity – even if they may not report them to you. It comes down to not only being creative about new opportunities but also being very intentional and transparent with individuals about where they are in their careers. 

SC: What do you hope the audience will take away from your talk? 

SP: I truly hope that they walk away knowing that they aren’t alone. Each of us is in this and we're in this together. 

I'm hoping our audience learns how to build some of that adaptability and resilience into their own toolkits, such that they can take their teams through some of this chaos.