I have been very fortunate to have both worked alongside some incredible engineering leaders, as well as lead engineering teams myself. These experiences have primarily been in the context of startups that are growing rapidly in terms of both customers and employees. The longer I have worked in these environments, the more convinced I have become that there is a singular skill that ultimately decides the success of a leader, and thus their team: pacing.

As an avid endurance runner, I am very familiar with the importance of good pacing, and the perils of doing it poorly. If you go out too hard in a race, you are destined to crash and burn. On the other hand, if you start too slow, you may have too much time to make up before the end of the race. At every moment throughout a run, you need to be in-tune with your body, understanding the limits of how hard you can push given your current position in the race.

However, when leading a team, you must not only be in-tune with your own abilities and stamina, but also that of the members of your team. Push too hard and you are likely to see degraded product quality, and eventually employee attrition. Don’t push hard enough and you’ll run out of money before you can acquire enough customers or raise your next round of funding. Either extreme can be fatal.

The key to finding the right balance is honesty, transparency, and constant measurement. Ambiguity regarding the critical metrics for the business is like running a race with a blindfold; you can’t see the competition and you don’t know your own time. You are likely to be late to make adjustments, and when an adjustment is made, it is likely to be an over-correction. Many times, the over-correction is what ultimately leads to the downfall of an organization because it compounds the issue rather than mitigating it. I have seen minor incidents cause massive upheaval in engineering process, when a small adjustment would have addressed the issue. Similarly, I have seen engineering values and rigor be thrown out the window in the face of narrowly missing customer acquisition or revenue targets.

It is not enough for leaders to be honest with their teams. They must also cultivate an environment in which the team is honest with them. I myself have been guilty of telling an engineering leader that I am feeling good, when in reality I was tired, stressed, and questioning whether I could maintain my current pace. In that specific situation, I did not feel as though there was an unhealthy atmosphere that made me fear being honest about my current status, but in many cases there is.

Frequently this pressure can be the result of a heavy emphasis on meeting a time-based goal. I am a firm believer in the importance of setting goals and delivering on time, but I also believe that the notion that this inherently leads to a more stressful environment is a false dichotomy and, quite honestly, a lack of creativity. As an engineering leader, my first step when it appears that we may fall short of a goal is to enumerate the options available to us. Often it is the case that a relatively small change in scope or architecture can get us back on course.

My second step is to name the repercussions of missing the goal. We as humans are prone to “catastrophizing”, which can lead to our level of stress becoming incommensurate with the reality of a situation. Consequences for shortcomings are real, but one of the worst mistakes an engineering leader can make is allowing for team members to feel their employment hangs in the balance when that is not the case. The inverse is also true when a team member’s employment is at risk.

Missing a goal is not necessarily signal that your pace is too slow. In fact, it often means that you simply didn’t plan well for a more difficult portion of the race. Recalibrate appropriately and remember the pain of that moment in future planning. One of the joys of working at startups is that the course is full of hills, sharp turns, and inclement weather. A leader who can pace a team through those harsh conditions can meaningfully shift the probability of success of the company.