I must confess I have met very few effective leaders in over two decades in the software industry. I use the term effective purposely; not understanding, fun-loving, friendly, sociable, or other adjectives that quantify the person's disposition but not his competence. Unfortunately, a person's disposition and competence have very little correlation. I've been managing teams and building products for a while, and I've had my share of cringe-worthy managers. I've met enough smiling sociopaths to become vary of overly friendly managers. The upside of having had bad bosses is that it has led me to think a lot about an effective leader's qualities and constantly evaluate myself to avoid becoming one of them.
There's a lot of truth in the saying that employees don't leave companies; they leave bad bosses. If you are in a position where you report to someone, I hope this post will allow you to identify an incompetent leader. The identification itself can be a career-saving.
If you currently manage people or aspire to, I hope this post will leave you with some food for thought.
What Makes a Good Leader
In my endeavour to become a good leader, I've spent considerable time reading books and blogs of inspirational leaders. There are a lot of excellent resources out there, and they are all extremely helpful( A separate blog post to list my favourites). There are entire books dedicated to different aspects of leadership from communication, people management, prioritisation and ownership, strategy, servant leadership, empathy, and leading with emotional intelligence. All these aspects are critical; however, you need to develop your leadership style. Let's start with a few basic questions about leaders.
Why do we need leaders?
What purpose do I serve?
The sole purpose of leaders is to Scale [X]. [X] represents the set of responsibilities and will vary based on your role. I will talk about a few that have been relevant from the role's I have played. A few of you might find some synergy if you are leading in a tech organisation. However, even if you are from a very different background, you can replace the set with your responsibilities.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Culture matters because organizations have capabilities that exist independent of people. One is in the processes - the methods of transforming inputs to outputs. The other is culture, which defines how people make prioritization decisions. People are flexible and can adapt to succeed at different things. For example, an employee from a large process-centric organization can transform herself to work for a startup, but processes and culture are inherently inflexible.
Whether in the small or large, culture matters. Individuals and teams align with the prevalent culture. As a leader, one of the critical aspects you need to ensure that role reverence is removed or reduced to a level so that it fosters a culture where anyone in the group can suggest, ideate, and innovate outside of their bracketed precincts.
Enabling team members to make decisions is often overlooked. I've seen multiple scenarios where the team was waiting for the leader to whet every decision. The article in Harvard Business review Who's got the monkey? is an excellent article on management time.
To be an effective leader, you have to invest time in building the culture of your team. Invest time on a day-to-day basis on fluidity, the democratization of information and processes, independence, and flattened communication structures.
As a leader, one of the most critical responsibilities, if not the most important, is to scale your team members. Your role as a leader is to enable your team and team members to succeed and grow. Unfortunately, there are no predefined formulae to accomplish this. However, there are some practices I've found useful.
As a leader, people in your team generally go through a lifecycle. It starts with hiring and onboarding, they become part of the team, and eventually, they leave the organization. Each of these stages is important for the team member and you as a leader. Having clarity for each of these stages will enable you to nurture people correctly.
When hiring, have a well-defined write-up for each role. We had write-ups from entry-level to the most senior level in the team. The write-up detailed the roles, responsibilities, skills, and capabilities we looked at while hiring. The write-up serves as a reference for suitable hires while also enabling existing team members to chart growth paths from one level to another. Having an open document enables consistency in hiring and removes bias when promoting people.
As a leader, it is essential to ensure the growth of your team members. Regular periodic one-on-one meetings are an opportunity to understand the aspirations and work on the progression plan together. Unfortunately, a lot of lazy leaders make these incredibly dull meetings. They end up asking for status updates, which they could have gotten by either reading emails or checking the project dashboards. Some ineffective and incompetent leaders look at this as an opportunity to push their agenda or gather information about other team members. Please spend time getting ready for these meetings. Don't walk into them like a zombie.
Consistency is the key when dealing with people. No one likes an inconsistent person. I've had a leader who would set up a time for a connect three times a week and cancel at the last moment. It made me feel the person did not respect my time and was not trustworthy(both of which came true).
Scale (Engineering) Maturity
Leadership is a mindset-a mindset for constant improvement and refinement. Therefore, you should constantly look at avenues of continuous improvement regardless of your leadership level.
At a team lead/engineering manager level, you want to drive engineering maturity from a team perspective. Look at aspects where you can reduce technical debt, improve the design of critical components, drive things with the team to work on scale/elasticity, resilience, and process improvements. Ask your team What slows you down? It could be cross-collaboration, organisational processes, and human threads that inhibit productivity.
As you move higher in the chain of command, your perspectives should be inward as well as outward. At higher levels, your focus should be on identifying and addressing protracted response to change, siloed work style, hierarchical structures, and a cautious regulation-driven risk appetite. To address the competition in today's day and age, you need to drive innovation. (I've talked about this in-depth at Challenges with Driving Innovation.)
Although a lot more goes into being a good leader, I hope some of the points in this post will resonate with you and help you chart your path to being an effective leader.
Pitfalls to avoid
Now that the good part is over, let's talk about pitfalls to avoid and the archetypes associated with each of these pitfalls. Most of these situations are unpleasant and can have a detrimental effect on your career, erode your confidence and leave you bitter. Therefore, it's best to ensure that you minimize your stay in such environments.
Archetype: The political warlord, Pitfall: Becoming a political warlord.
When I began my leadership journey, I heard things like
Build a personal brand. You need to stand out from the crowd and promote yourself.
Learn how to navigate the system. Create allies by doing favors, so that when the time comes, they stand by you.
You will inherit enemies. Be wary of everyone, since everyone is a competition.
Some even suggested reading books like The Art of War: Sun Tzu, The 49 Laws of Power:Robert Greene to name a few. (Aside: These are all great books)
I heard a lot of these. And to be honest, being a novice, I did take these suggestions seriously at that time. But, over time, I realized that this was an outcome of the toxicity that percolates many organizations. And it manifests from top to bottom. You see, humans tend to ape other humans who are higher in the chain of command. Thus, toxicity at higher levels tends to spread to lower levels; eventually, even line managers and team leaders get steeped into it, so much so that every leader there ends up being a political warlord, protecting his domain and promoting his kin.
Such organizations don't promote meritocracy. But, of course, no one will say that to your face. On the contrary, you will hear the opposite. The talk and the walk will be poles apart. And in a few cases, people who deserve do get promoted. However, these double standards eventually become apparent, either in you being asked in covert ways to promote someone's favorite or your recommendation being turned down in lieu of someone less deserving. That's when you realize that you cannot operate outside of the system.
Archetype: The monthly once connects on drinks leader, Pitfall: Inconsistent non-committal leadership.
There's this guy who will meet you once a month over drinks. Have no misconceptions: he has no interest in your career; you are there just because he needs company to drink. His typical leadership speech will revolve around how he is carrying the world's weight on his shoulders. It's a rant as well as an excuse for not having time for you. The only thing you can respect about such a leader: the copious amount of alcohol he can consume.
Archetype: I am the most intelligent guy in the world; Pitfall: You shouldn't be in a leadership position.
This archetype will not listen to anyone except where role reverence is required: aka his superiors. This person will cut you out in mid-sentence to voice his opinion. An inflated ego coupled with a complete disregard for the opinion of others is his trademark. Subservience is all this archetype feeds on. Ideally, this person should not be in a leadership role at all.
Archetype: The wolf pack/coterie leader; Pitfall: Preference for people, favouritism
This archetype will surround himself with a coterie. Being in such a team is like being a sheep in a wolf pack if you are an outsider. You will be the first one sacrificed once you have served your purpose. Another symptom to watch for is the preference accorded to pack members irrespective of competence. Although subtle to detect, over time, you realize that this clique has had a long association. Since they operate as a group, they have worked out a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.
In closing, I would say that although it is possible to survive and navigate bad managers, there is a cost associated with it. And often enough, it's too high a price to pay.
Top comments (1)
Wikipedia might be a good marketing plan. However, I'm not really a fan of it. As a frequent user of it in high school, I know that everyone can edit the information written there. It is not trustworthy, and thus, people don't trust what it says. When I opened my business, I started collaborations with other parties. I did it by showing them that together we can both grow. I used prendo.com/leadership-challenges/p... for it. They make different managing simulations. We were more efficient in sorting troubles together than alone by the end.