When folks read the title of my blog, I’m guessing the first thought that comes to mind is management. A manager leads the team and the team members follow. While that is certainly my current role, being a manager doesn’t qualify you as a leader, nor does it fully define what it means to lead. Leadership can happen at all levels of an organization and in all functions. This is especially true in technology where most teams are not staffed to their full compliment and individuals are often expected to operate with a fair degree of independence. Leadership opportunities arise within projects, through subject matter expertise, and even through attitude and mindset. Simple acts can make you a leader and it is in these moments that I see leadership.
I’d like to define leadership by describing some qualities that make a good leader. These can be applied no matter your position, you just need to find the right opportunities. I’ll also get into some examples of poor leadership techniques that we all can fall into. Understanding and correcting improper tendencies as as important if not more so than demonstrating good qualities. I’m going to describe what I feel makes a good leader in many different posts because I believe that each quality is nuanced enough to warrant a lengthy discussion. I don’t think there’s any Top 10 list that applies universally so I’ll tackle them over time.
One quality that I feel is critical is the ability of a leader to listen to his or her team. Leaders like to talk. Generally speaking, those that gravitate to leadership roles are expressive and willing to share their thoughts and opinions with others. While this is certainly a positive trait, good leaders also know when to keep silent. The ability to listen and respond thoughtfully to your team is critical. People want to be heard and respected. If you are constantly talking through, over, or around people, you’re not leading, you’re babbling. Opening your ears comes in handy in many situations. Listening to a peer vent, discussing career aspirations with a report, or understanding the amount of risk in a project timeline as a team member are all examples. Too much can be missed when your mouth is moving.
I struggled with this early in my career and still do today to a certain extent. Too often I wanted to make sure that I was heard and didn’t take the time to truly hear others. I had many a manager, project manager, or peer pull me aside and tell me that I was too brash or came on too strong. Normally they respected my opinion but didn’t appreciate how I had conveyed it. It took quite some time for the advice to sink in (and I’m no master of it now) but I’d like to think I have grown a little from that young man right out of college who knew everything about everything.
The practical applications of this trait are numerous but I’d like to focus on a few techniques that I have found effective. As a manger, I schedule 1:1’s with nearly everyone in my organization that wants one (and even with some that I’m sure don’t). The frequency isn’t too high but I treat it as the other person’s meeting. It is his or her time on my calendar and I set that expectation right up front. If I control the conversation, I believe I’ve failed. I want to hear how that person is doing, how their work is going, how they’re enjoying it, what they want to be doing more of, what they can’t stand, and most importantly, what I can do to help. I want to understand “the pulse” so to speak. I’m very transparent about the process, telling the individual that this is their opportunity to tell me what’s going well and what isn’t. Not everyone engages and that is fine – the fact that they have the opportunity is the point. Too often, managers simply dictate because there is too much work and too little time to check in and see how the team is doing. This can lead to low morale and in the worst case, attrition. Too often in large corporations (which is the entirety of my professional experience), that fact that we work with human beings is lost amongst the huge machine that surrounds us. While changing corporate culture is beyond my skills, I try to humanize my small space within it as much as possible.
Another technique I use is a round table at the end of every team meeting that I hold. I leave time in the agenda for open items that anyone can raise. It can be a question for someone else on the team, an accolade for a peer, a concern someone has, a question from an earlier portion of the meeting, anything at all really. It is a time where each team member has the opportunity to take the floor and be heard. Sometimes it causes the meeting to run over, other times there’s complete silence. In the latter case, I will sometime ask someone who I know is comfortable with the spotlight if he or she has anything to bring up. Be careful about who you do this with as folks with more reserved personalities can feel very put off by it. This can get the discussion rolling but doesn’t always, and that’s OK. The result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the chance to speak is there and that I, as the leader, am stepping back and letting other dictate the conversation.
The first two approaches can be applied broadly across industries but the third I’d like to discuss is applicable directly to a technical environment. As a manger, there is a tendency to move away from the day to day of your organization. This is especially true the higher that you go in the food chain. It is a fact of the managerial career path that you lose your technical depth. It is a decision we all need to make in our careers. In general, management (if they are focusing on managing) can’t stay up to date with all the newest technology that their team employs. While this can be disappointing for some, I embrace it and am very transparent with my team that I rely on them for the technical knowledge. I don’t have the answers and need them to lead me to the best technical decisions. In this spirit, I periodically take the time to attend deep technical meetings (the ones the team has without stakeholders so they can actually be productive). I use it as an opportunity to educate myself and to switch roles with my team members. They become the leaders and I the follower (a certain Star Wars quote comes to mind here). I ask questions, not to challenge the ideas being presented, but to truly understand the topic being discussed. I take note of the participation of each team member and may follow up if I sense someone was drowned out by louder voices. For me, this achieves two things. I stay in touch with the technology to a depth that is required and I also get to hear the thoughts, ideas, and interactions of members on my team. Some may argue the point over the technical knowledge required to be a good manager of a technical team (I’ve got a post about that in the hopper so I’m not going to dig into it here) but reading manuals and configuration guides is something I gave up long ago. For my purposes, gaining technical information is secondary to listening to the team.
While I’ve described these practices in a managerial context, they can be applied generally. I openly encourage my team members to hold 1:1s with each other, especially if they have frequent interaction. If both parties go into that meeting wanting to hear the other, great communication and collaboration will happen. Similarly, PMs, technical leads, or anyone facilitating a discussion can leave room for the table to be heard. Take the time in the agenda to allow for it – don’t skimp. And finally, anyone can take the opportunity to expand their knowledge in a new technical arena. Ask to attend a technical discussion outside of your comfort zone. Ask questions and learn from your peers. This may not seem like leadership but letting someone know that you are interested in what he’s doing and want to better understand it is very powerful. You will earn respect and trust – two things critical to being a good leader.