By Jesal Gadhia
My part-time job in college made a profound impression.
On my first day, my manager asked me to build something new on my university’s website 一 and it was way out of my comfort zone. I panicked. I told him I hadn’t finished all my classes yet, so I didn’t know how to create what he requested.
Calmly, my manager said, “Give it a shot. Don’t be afraid of failing; just try your best.” He walked away, and I sat there stunned. I never thought failing was an option.
That encouragement gave me the psychological safety that I didn’t know I needed. I got to work, reading up on how to create what he wanted. He checked in with me at the end of the day, and lo and behold, I’d sketched out a rough solution.
That one experience changed me. I didn’t need to wait for my manager to tell me what to do next; he clearly believed in my ability to figure things out. And that drove me to action.
I didn’t know it then, but that experience instilled a deep sense of agency that has served me well in entrepreneurship and beyond. Below, I will take you through how I practice high agency and cultivate an agency mindset on my team at BetterUp.
What “agency” means to me
Someone with a high sense of agency has a natural bias toward action rather than waiting to acquire the perfect skills and knowledge.
Talent is partially innate. You can develop additional skills, and with time and practice, your expertise grows. But talented people don’t always take action.
Initiative is something people have full control over. If they identify a problem, they’ll put their talent to use. They don’t think, “I can’t do this because of x, y, z.” Instead, they think, “What can I do to help resolve this issue?” They’re proactive 一 focused on the levers they can adjust.
As you can imagine, a high sense of agency is essential at a category-defining company. When there’s a lot of ambiguity, talented people are valuable, but people with an increased sense of agency are invaluable.
High agency is key to engineering success
Engineering is a very creative field. There are so many ways to solve a problem. And people with low agency tend to slow the team down.
Rather than tackling a problem head-on, people with low agency wait for their manager to tell them to work on it. Building a category-defining product is hard work, and time is of the essence.
By contrast, engineers with high agency practice radical curiosity and bias toward action. They take the time to understand the nuances of their environment and actively look for ways to fix what needs fixing. They see problems as opportunities to shine and ask for feedback so they can do better next time.
People who lead with agency are critical to fast-moving companies like BetterUp, where priorities are in flux and commitment to our customers is high.
What I look for when hiring new engineers
…You guessed it, a high sense of agency and ownership. I like to ask situational questions, such as:
Tell me about a project with high ambiguity. What did you do to create structure?
When they answer this question, I pay attention to their plan. What were their first steps? How did they execute?
Their answer tells me how they might operate in a fast-paced startup environment.
Tell me about a time when a project didn’t go well. How did you deal with failure?
This is an opportunity for me to gauge their self-awareness. For example, if candidates can’t think of a time they failed, they might be afraid to take on tough problems.
I also check for a growth mindset. Did they ask their peers or leadership for feedback? What did they learn?
Candidates who are flexible, open to challenge, and learn from their mistakes, likely already practice a sense of agency 一 and those are the people I want on my team.
3 ways I encourage high agency on my team
At the end of the day, my direct reports are in charge of their own destiny. But as a manager, it’s my job to ensure that my team feels comfortable and inspired to take action. There are a few ways I do this:
- Promote reflection - When someone new joins my team, I ask them to write down what they want to do in 2 - 3 years if there aren’t any constraints. Getting them to dream big and work toward something they’re passionate about promotes a sense of agency.
- Create plans of action - At this point, I weigh in, suggesting materials to read, people to meet, and activities to build their skills in the right places. Getting them to think about their career path critically inherently makes them think about new ways to take the lead in their development.
- Check-in regularly - These plans are loose on purpose. My direct reports may find that what they thought would drive them doesn’t. So I meet with my team members often to see how we can adjust their plans and ensure that what they’re working on isn’t impossible; it’s just hard enough to make them stretch.
Leading with high agency
At BetterUp, I celebrate my team members practicing high agency in the engineering org by giving them new challenges they find exciting and that I know will accelerate their career growth. Because without it, we couldn’t become the conscious business we are today, nor could we lead it into its next chapter.
Think you have what it takes to make an impact with high agency? I want to hear from you. Apply to one of our engineering roles today.
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