Engineering teams with too many leaders tend to fight about direction, vision, and control; as a result, they get very little done. The work environment is crippled by turf wars and constant attempts to reach consensus. Whatever they ship, ships late and looks and feels bland and designed by committee. Thankfully, having too many leaders is not a common situation.
Engineering teams with too many doers can't stay on track and spend much of their time in technical disagreements, sidetracks, distractions and misalignment problems. Everyone makes decisions in isolations, and chaos reigns. The resulting software products feel like a collection of features stuck together with no vision and significant integration and usability issues.
Given the need for leaders, it is essential for engineering managers to learn how to spot and coach people into leadership roles.
In this article, I am not going to discuss what a leader does. I already wrote about their responsibilities and the most common mistakes they make in a post titled "11 Top Responsibilities and 10 Common Mistakes of a Technical Leader." Instead, I am going to examine how to spot software developers with potential leadership skills, and how to coach them into technical leaders. The topic is vast. In the limited space of this article, I'll just scratch the surface.
First of all, let's examine the three fundamental personality traits that a leader must either have or acquire. A leader must be calm, confident, and assertive. Those qualities are as necessary for a leader as water is essential for human life. For this reason, I shorten the Calm + Confident + Assertive formula with C2A, as a play on H2O, the chemicals formula of water.
Leaders don't force others to follow them. Those are dictators, and dictators are a different breed that has no place in the software industry. Instead, leaders possess characteristics that induce others to trust and follow them because they choose to do so. One of the requirements for that to happen is for a leader to be calm.
A calm person is composed and does not show nervousness, anger, loss of control or other overwhelming emotions. If a leader is not calm and composed, people will tend to abandon them or not follow them in the first place. Exceptions occur if some other skill makes up for it. We have seen examples of exceptions of this kind in people like Steve Jobs. His lack of composure was made up by his product vision, business insight, and understanding of the customer.
People do not follow an angry or emotional person because such individual cannot be trusted. A person who is not in control cannot direct others, and thus cannot be an effective leader. Note that this does not mean that a leader should never become agitated or show emotion. A leader does not have to be a robot. However, a leader should be calm most of the time.
A leader must act with confidence; that is, they must show certainty and determination in their interactions with others. Calm confidence is a powerful magnet that attracts a following and inspires trust.
A confident person does not have all the answers all the time. However, a confident person knows when he or she has a solution with facts and information to back it up. A confident person is also ready to change answer when a better one surfaces.
People do not follow people that lack confidence. It is a demonstration of a weakness of character or knowledge, and it is not a characteristic that inspires trust.
Being assertive is a necessary ingredient of leadership. Leaders who navigate difficult situations must be able to deal with dissent and disagreement. Being assertive allows a leader to break through the waves of chaos, and set a direction for others to follow.
Assertiveness doesn't need to be forceful, aggressive, pushy or loud. Assertiveness can and should be gentle. Together with a calm and confident demeanor, gentle assertiveness is a powerful tool to influence others, gain trust and direct a group in a particular direction.
Assertiveness is also not a characteristic reserved for extroverts. Many introverts are assertive, and their hallmark gentle, calm and confident type of assertiveness makes them strong functional leaders.
Being C2A is such an important thing for me to remind myself every day that I created the following iPhone lock-screen background.
My iPhone lock-screen background.
If you want to use it feel free to click on it to download a full-size version to put on your phone. Once it is your lock screen, you'll see it every time you access your phone. Also, feel free to share it in any way you'd like. You have my full permission.
- Naturally possesses one or more of the three fundamental characters traits of a leader: calm, confident, assertive (C2A)
- Is engaged and sees achievements through the prism of company growth.
- Is a catalyst who make things happen, as opposed to being a watcher and just observe.
- Others listen to them when they speak, and take their word seriously (this is often a natural side effect of C2A).
- Takes full responsibility for their decisions and never blame others.
- Can function and make decisions in situations where there is not enough information.
- Can operate and stay productive even in conditions that cause a lot of context switching.
- Displays empathy and emotional intelligence toward others.
- Has excellent communication skills.
- Can influence others.
When you see someone who displays at least a few of the ten patterns described above, coaching them to be a leader should start from helping them learn to be calm, confident and assertive.
Eventually, a leader needs to master each of the patterns. However, if they get the first one, the rest will tend to come more easily.
Here are other things you can do to coach them:
- Let them know that you see a leadership spark in them. If they are interested in becoming leaders, make sure they want your help. You should never attempt to coach somebody without telling them exactly what your intentions are. It is important that they work with you deliberately.
- "Leadership," in many software engineers' minds, sounds like a buzzword. You should ensure that it is well defined and characterized. Talk to them about the responsibilities of a technical leader, and don't make them guess what you mean by "leader."
- Help them understand that success for leaders is measured through their ability to help the company grow; this is a big point of view switch for some people so it might take some time to sink in fully. An engineer is often measured by the quality and velocity of their output, while a leader is measured by the impact of other people's output.
- Help them understand that leadership is a game that requires active participation. They can't just sit and watch. Leaders carry the ball and get bruised in the process, if necessary. They also watch out for their people, protecting them from getting bruised too often.
- Help them understand that leaders are entirely responsible and accountable for the results that their people achieve, and the mistakes they make. At the same time, leaders must be maniacal about giving full credit to their people for excellent results they deliver.
- Help them realize that there is never enough information to make perfect decisions. Leaders must be able to use the information that is available and determine a course of action. Always waiting to have more data results in paralysis, and it is not a desirable or acceptable behavior for a leader.
- Help them accept that interruptions are a fact of life for a leader, and they need to become pretty good at dealing with it while remaining productive.
- Leaders must display empathy and work on improving their emotional intelligence; this is an area where a coach can help by pointing out issues. An important point distinction here: someone who simply lacks empathy cannot be coached in any reasonable timeframe. However, someone who has empathy but fails to display it can be coached to open up.
- Help them with their communication skills, by pointing out problems in that area when you see it; this is a sticking point for many people. I have seen countless potentially good leaders not able to leap to leadership because they were unable to communicate clearly.
- Results ultimately measure success. Help a potential leader know that they are expected to learn how to influence others.
Helping somebody grow into a leader is an art form that requires time and focus. However, when you are working with the right people, the satisfaction of growing their skills pays off for itself. If in the process you feel like you are teaching somebody to do your job, you are on the right path. In fact, to progress, you need to coach someone to take your job.