I’ve spent the last few months working with a business coach, digging deep into what leadership means to me. In this article I briefly share my journey…

My views on leadership have changed dramatically since I suffered a leadership breakdown at the end of 2019. In short, back then it seemed nothing I did made a difference to the results we got as team. Wins were few and far between, and it seemed no matter what I said, nobody listened. My coach made me realise this was all down to me, not my team. I needed to take complete responsibility for our work, I couldn’t blame one team member or another for not performing or not knowing something I thought they should.

Fast forward a few months and I feel a lot better about my work and, judging by their feedback, the team does too. Our company financials are also healthier than they have ever been, which is large weight off my shoulders!

Breakthroughs

One big change is my focus on breakthroughs rather than incremental improvement (which is the default for most people, me included). For me this is largely about giving myself permission to do something different and having the courage and tenacity to follow through. My 2019 way was to work in near isolation on new ideas, explain them to the team and then leave them largely to their own devices. Not anymore, now I drive through the changes I believe in by working with the team to experiment with new ideas until they are ready to run with them.

Vulnerability is another of my weak points, and one I’ve worked to develop. Sharing with the team that I want us to try something, even though I don’t know it will work, is one way I’ve expressed this. I’ve been delighted to receive feedback that they have trust in me to work together on these things. I’m also used to being “right”, and my tendency is to take over meetings instead of listening and working together to come up with the best solution. I continue to work hard at speaking less and listening more in meetings, it’s not easy for me.

Leaders Create Leaders

What does it mean to be a leader? For me a key principle of being a leader is creating other leaders. In order to grow as a leader myself I needed to give opportunities for my team to lead. We already had a group of senior engineers identified, with some expectations beyond that of our other engineers. But these expectations were unclear, and the senior team certainly did not have the support they needed from me. So I took these engineers and structured a formal Engineering Leadership Team.

The new team has a clear responsibility: each senior engineer is responsible for the work of the engineers in their pod. And I am responsible for the work of all engineers in our organisation. My vision is for the senior engineers to completely own their pod’s work, using me as a high-level resource when needed.

I also realise I am asking these senior engineers to do something they don’t have direct experience in doing, and I don’t expect them to just pick it up and run with it on their own. I’m taking on coaching and generally working with them with the aim of fully implementing my vision within three months.

Feedback

Recently I did some reading on what it means to be a leader in a technology-driven organisation. I discovered an important part of a leader’s job is knowing when help is needed and judging how deeply they need to intervene. This is where metrics come in. I setup Velocity and enlisted my senior engineers to work with me, using the tool to identify where conversations need to happen with our team members

Another realisation I had is my tendency to make excuses for people. Instead of being clear with myself that so or so is not meeting expectations, I would make it about me: am I setting them up for success? am I communicating my expectations clearly? This meant that I would not give feedback with conviction, how could I if the issue may be with me and not with them?

This simple piece of self-awareness has made it possible for me to give direct feedback to my team. Coming from a context of caring about them (check out Radical Candor by Kim Scott for more on this), this has allowed me to have meaningful conversations with team members where we work together on their growth.

What This Means For Me

Being a better leader means we produce better work, work I can be proud of. The team is happier, they are a team I can be proud of. And I spend less time fire fighting and more focussing on things that add value to the business. Most importantly of all, I’m able to keep my work life within the boundaries it belongs – less working late or weekends, less thinking about emails or problems in my leisure time. Which means more quality time with my family.

I’d love to hear about your journey too, do please share.

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