I Went From Individual Contributor to Director in 3 Years — My Best Advice For Aspiring Leaders

Sponsored by UnitedHealth Group

I Went From Individual Contributor to Director in 3 Years — My Best  Advice For Aspiring Leaders

Photo courtesy of UnitedHealth Group

April 15, 2024 at 10:2AM UTC

In her three years at Optum, part of UnitedHealth Group, Kate Agnew has grown from individual contributor (IC) to Director of Software Engineering, now managing a team of 20+ software developers.

It’s quite the jump — and Agnew was kind enough to share the steps she took to take her career to the next level. Keep reading for insights into the talents and mindset Agnew activated to be seen as a leader, her tips for how women can do visible work, and the leadership qualities she tries to live out each day, along with what has made Optum such an amazing work environment for growth. 

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How long have you been with your company? What about it made you first want to join? 

Three years – I was excited about helping the healthcare industry get more value from the data it already had. 

Tell me about the roles that you’ve held at your company, as well as your current one. What about this role most excites you? 

I started at the company as an individual contributor and have grown into being a people manager of over 20 software engineers. Starting as an IC allowed me to get deep into the problems and really craft architecture and solutions that met internal customer’s needs. Now, my favorite thing about my job is helping those on my team grow, as well as removing the things that are blocking them from being successful. Sometimes a large organization has hoops to jump through and my role can be guiding them through that. 

What’s something at work you’re especially good at?

I’m very good at public speaking. I’m still navigating how to be good at it while we are all remote (it can be hard not being able to read the room!) but consistently the feedback that I get is that I give off a great, strong energy that keeps listeners engaged.

What’s the first (and/or last) thing you do at work every day? 

Email. It’s always email.  

A lot of people believe that developing your career means changing companies, and not infrequently. What has enabled you to develop/advance your career without job hopping? 

I keep asking for more challenges and look for ways to grow in my role. As the products in my portfolio grow, my team needs to grow as well, and that has opened up opportunities for me to create layers and help others on my team grow into managers. I also think your internal network is really important. Even if I’m staying in the same organization, I want people a few rings out to know who I am, and internal public speaking is just one way to help with that. 

Ultimately, what has led you to stay at your company? 

I continue to love the people I work with (first and foremost) and I keep getting new challenges. 

What was the best quality of the best boss you’ve ever had? 

Specific feedback. I recently read Carol Dweck’s Mindset and it really helped me re-frame the way that I take and process feedback. I didn’t become a Director of Software Engineering with my manager expecting I would be able to do everything without fail. I was promoted into this role because I’ve shown how I tackle challenges and learn from my experiences. Specific feedback shouldn’t make people think “I’m a failure!” It should help people see: “Oh, I wasn’t as effective as I could have been there, I can learn from this and iterate for next time.” 

What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received? 

There is no limit to what I can achieve. 


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