A Memo on Leadership by a Colleague

I regularly ask other people for their advice, insights and knowledge about leadership and management. The following is a memo a colleague recently wrote for me on the subject.

[memo begins]

Loose your ego

Leadership isn’t about you or what you can do and rarely are people motivated to make you look good. It’s all about what you can do for your team. The team needs direction and something to achieve for you. You could almost think of yourself as the helpless grandparent who has work to do and lavishes accolades whenever one of those items gets completed. It may strike some as odd, but most people are eager to please and get a great deal of satisfaction knowing they completed something of meaning. Often the work you have to offer can lack significant meaning in and off itself. So, as the leader, you can provide meaning or significance where none exists. It can also be your responsibility to paint a picture or create the mission.

In the past, when faced with an impossible task of creating meaning in completely insignificant work, I found I could inspire the team by getting them to focus on creating very elegant code. Since the result of the work was clearly not fulfilling, I reasoned with the team that producing the most elegant code would be fulfilling. The tactic got the team past the barrier and gave them the motivation to finish the required work. I really doubt I could have had the same success by appealing to get the work done just so I would look good.

Get to know your team, learn about them

It’s really important to take the time to know the people who work for you. Even if you have a hard time opening up to people, you need still to make the effort. Generally, people really appreciate that you actually take time to get to know them. For each person that reports to you, do you know if they are single/married? Do they have children, grandchildren? What do they like to do outside of work? What is the person passionate about? All of these are really good, safe questions to get answers to. The more you get to know the person, the more of a connection you will have. Essentially, you are building a bond of trust and mutual respect and maybe even friendship.

Listen and listen well

Listening is one of the most important skills you can learn. Yes you can learn to be a good listener with practice, patience and perseverance. Never, ever listen to formulate an answer for someone. I’m sure you can remember more than one time when you raised an issue or made a statement and there was that genius in the room who retorted a quick “You should just do ….”  Personally, people like that are never ever helpful and worse yet, they get me upset and I instantly loose a percentage of respect for the person.

When someone else is speaking to you, make every effort to understand what that person is saying to you. Try not to interrupt and let that person complete their thought. When the person has completed their thought, try and repeat back to that person what they said e.g. “So, what you’re trying to say is…” or “If I heard you correctly, you’re saying…” The general idea is to repeat back to the person what they said thus making a reasonable effort to demonstrate that you have heard and understood. By asking, you give the person you’re speaking with the opportunity to clarify their point to their satisfaction.

The next step in listening is to make that split decision to offer a suggestion or sympathy. What is often missed, is that many times someone is raising an issue in an effort to find someone who can sympathize with him or her or offer a little empathy. They may feel they are the only person with the current concern. Most people aren’t usually looking for you to give an answer either, so it can help to ask additional questions for clarity after you have communicated that you understand how they feel. e.g. That’s got to be really frustrating.  Yeah, that would upset me too. Those types of statements can really help communicate a level of understanding or empathy, and that may be all the person is after.

Always take the blame; never take the credit. Take the heat for the team and give the team all the credit.

Nothing makes a group despise their leader/boss/manager more than watching them take all the credit and blame anyone else for the failures. Maybe that’s a little harsh, but it’s really important to create a safety zone for your team where they know that you have their back. I like to think of this as the “obsessive parent” sometimes. My kids can do no wrong when their exposed to the world, but when we get back to the house we talk. In much the same way, taking the blame for your staff does not mean letting things slide. It means that you take the blame in the eyes of your boss but take the team or the team member aside to coach and mentor. When addressing issues, it is often better to address the issue instead of assigning blame e.g. “Our last release had too many bugs that could have been caught that is causing too many distractions. What can we do to improve?”

If you have a team that is struggling to succeed, is it really the team’s fault or is it your fault as the team leader? If you’re honest with yourself, the problem always lies in the leader. It’s your responsibility to identify the problems, come up with remedies and implement. Until identified problems are resolved, you are better served by taking the blame. It will give you credibility with your team and those you report to because it shows a level of maturity, competence and sacrifice.

Treat everyone with respect

This isn’t limited to your team in any way. Its important to treat your team with respect and dignity all of the time. Do not belittle them. Do not disregard them. Do not take them for granted. When you treat others with respect and dignity you are then seen in a positive light as someone who is respectful.

When looked from another angle or from the negative, you want to avoid being known as someone who has no respect for others, you will be avoided like the plague. Disrespecting or disregarding people is a recipe for failure.

Find someone and something to praise every day

People have a natural desire for recognition. They want to know that the work they perform has meaning and is valued. Most will not come out and ask for praise, but everyone, no matter how much they profess to the contrary, actually appreciate recognition and genuine praise.

Sure, there may be people who are so upset or jaded that you begin to doubt if it matters much if you give thanks or congratulate them. However, I would argue there is simply more work to accomplish before praising offers any significant value to them. That jaded person is simply the result of previous leadership failures and requires a lot of effort on your part before this tactic works.

Use constructive criticism. Never shoot down ideas

Really, don’t ever just tell someone they’re wrong or what they’re thinking won’t work out of hand. That kind of behavior will just kill a person’s desire to think outside of the box or to even come up with anything creative. They will quickly start to think, “Why bother?”

I once worked with a boss who was masterful at getting me to see the flaws in my plans without ever telling me something wouldn’t work. Whenever I came up with an answer that had a flaw, he would ask me questions about my direction that illuminated a problem I was unaware of e.g. “How will your solution stay within constraint…?” It was a really powerful technique that provided many additional benefits. I usually learned something I wasn’t aware of, maybe in the business or the platform, I was able to “save face” and wasn’t put off or discouraged from trying to solve a problem or be creative.

Offer up challenges and don’t do the work

Software developers like to solve problems and I will bet that most of them actually love solving problems. It’s your job to give them something to solve and follow the advice on constructive criticism. Whenever you have something that needs to be done, try really, really hard NOT to come up with a solution. No one likes to be given something to implement – there’s no fun at all and it does very little to stimulate the team. It may take a little more effort on your part, but instead of giving them something to build, give them a challenge with measures of success. They may or may not come up with the solution you thought or be done in the way you would do it, but if it solves the problem with all of the constraints you listed, then let it go (see first point on ego)

Help everyone

I have found nothing better to gain influence like helping others. A good leader is always looking to help, to be a person of service. Nothing is more indispensable like a helpful person. Help usually does not mean doing someone’s work for him or her, but it can be, especially if the team is on a tight deadline. When leading a team of software developers that has too much work to do, I recommend taking on all of the worst tasks. Aspiring developers want the cherry work, the stuff that will get them noticed. If you take that work away and leave them the drudgery, it won’t make you any friends. Remember that it’s not about you, it’s about creating a team that loves to work for you. So, if you take away the garbage and leave them the fun stuff, you’re definitely helping.

[memo ends]

(Posted with permission.)