Updated: Sep 25, 2020
By Elizabeth ONeill
I remember my very first job like it was yesterday I worked on Saturdays in the local sweet shop and I loved it. That was until a new guy started as a supervisor and for whom there are words to very aptly describe, but perhaps not in polite company. You know the type that thinks a badge and a title give them the right to order everyone around and be obnoxious.
After about 2 months I left, although I loved the job, I couldn’t work for this manager. I’m not proud of it, but on my last day I spat in his tea and smiled as I watched him drink it. My only defense is that I was very young. However, this experience has stood me in good stead my whole career.
As a manager or leader, you have the most significant impact on how engaged and fulfilled the people around you are. We’ve all experienced managers that have had a detrimental and destructive impact. The reality is that people don’t leave bad companies or bad jobs – they leave bad managers and bad teams.
Given that each of us has an impact of between 30 and 50% on how engaged the people around us are and that employee engagement is at an all-time low and it is clear that we have to do something different.
Too many technical people are promoted into management positions because they are great with technology and not given the support or development required for this new role. This can and does cause devastating results for the individual and the ripple effects through the team, and department are far-reaching.
I believe that you (yes you reading this) have the potential to be a great leader and have a positive impact on the teams with whom you work.
I know this for 2 reasons:
1) Leadership is a skill everyone can learn and
2) You already know the method to learn these skills because you have used it to become the fantastic technical geniuses you are.
However, be under no illusion being a leader is hard and it’s thankless most of the time. When you get it right no-one notices but when you get it wrong boy does everyone bitches at you.
Leadership is not a position; leadership is attitude and action. Leadership is about consistency not big or grand gestures once or twice a year. It’s about showing up every day. It’s about the little things you do every day. It’s about consistently saying and doing the right thing even what you don’t want to. Add to this your team’s dynamics and all those quirky personalities, after all we are talking about techies, and some days it can just all seem to be impossible.
However, as I have already said, you do have transferable skills that you have learned from your years of working with technology and this can be applied to improve your leadership skills.
And I am now going to give you 3 example to prove it.
People aren’t computers. However, when you learned about computers you invested time in learning and practising your skills; being a leader is the same.
There is a reason why on an aeroplane you are told to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. This is not a selfish act; you can’t help others develop if you don’t develop yourself.
Working with people and understanding them can be learned using precisely the same steps you used to learn your current technical craft.
Step1) We all started by getting our hands dirty, the best way to learn anything is to actually get stuck in. You didn’t learn your technical skills by just looking at a computer you had to do something. Leadership is the same you have to start actually doing something. You have to interact with people. You can’t just rock up to work tomorrow and say hay I’m a leader. It will be your actions that determine this not your words.
Step 2) You started with the fundamentals, for coders that is usually a simple line of text that reads “hello world”. For the hardware guys, it’s usually building a home PC. In a leadership context, this means building trust, putting the team first, collaborating and showing your team that you care. These fundamentals will take you a very long way where people are concerned and will build the foundations.
Step 3) Once you had the basics mastered you started to look at what others were doing. That may have been looking at code snippets or exploring how others had tuned their server to improve disk I/O. In simple terms, you took what others had done and tweaked it to your own needs environment. Leadership is the same there’s a lot of information out there; read it and then tinker until it fits with your team, your company and most importantly your style. There is no one size fits all, take the bits you like and make it your own.
Step 4) At some point in your journey to becoming the technical genius you are today, you asked those people around you with more experience, to render their assistance. Guess what, leadership is the same, find a leader that you admire and then ask them for their help and advice. Find a mentor or a coach to help you get there quicker.
Step 5) You became really good a debugging, not just your mistakes, but other peoples too. From a leadership point of view, this translates neatly! You and others will mess-up, even when you’ve tried your hardest. Apologise when you’re wrong, fix it and learn from it. None of us are perfect, and people are a lot more forgiving than computers.
People aren’t computers however the principles of good code management still apply.
The practices you follow when managing code directly translate to the practices of being a great leader. Here are 3 examples to illustrate my point.
1) Commit early and commit often – We all know this, it’s a universally agreed fundamental of code management. From a people point of view, this translates to making small check-ins as often as possible with your team. Stop by their desk, say hello, ask what people are working on, ask questions, make the tea. These things make a difference, remember leadership is about consistency.
2) Don’t commit half done work – We have all broken the build by checking-in half done work. From a leadership point of view, I should have really put this one first as it’s the most important. To translate in simple terms, don’t do half a job and never be half-arsed about things.
If your only doing what you’re doing to tick boxes on the “how to be a great leader checklist”, please take my advice don’t bother. Your team will smell the BS a mile off, and it will do more harm than good. You will come across as being unauthentic, which is one of the worst things you can do in my book, when becoming a leader.
3) Write valuable check-in comments – We’ve all seen check-in comments like “fixed a bug”, “sorted a typo” or my personal favourite “done some stuff or something else beginning with S”. Comments of this nature are completely useless to anyone else as they are actually totally meaningless. From a people point of view this point is exactly the same, make sure what you are communicating is useful and valuable to the team. Please, please, please stay away from corporate management speak and abstract terms. No-one knows or cares what “credibly strategising the interoperability of meta-services on a hybrid shared n tier architecture” is and to be honest you will sound like a complete …… I’ll let you fill in the blank.
People aren’t computers however like computers getting the syntax correct is vital.
In this context I don’t mean grammar, I mean how you structure your communication. Like computers and programming languages, each person has a way of accepting and deciphering information that works best for them.
So in the same way that you learned where to put the curly brackets and semicolons to make the program compile or configure a firewall correctly. The same applies to people for example.
Some people are big picture, and some are detailed Some value stability and some love change Some are, and some are not risk takers
Understanding each person’s preference will help you get the syntax correct and enable you to communicate better with them.
So in summary, if you can learn to program you can learn to be a great technical leader. If after reading this you think you or your team would benefit from more support and guidance, please connect with me via Linked in.
(Helping Technical Leaders Build High Performing Teams So They Can Stop Fire Fighting and Deliver Real Value)