Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash
When speaking with or interviewing other leaders and managers, I’ll sometimes hear someone proudly state that they have an open door policy. This is one of those statements that are meant to sound positive and make the speaker seem approachable but I’m not sure that this is always the case. Don’t get me wrong, the intent behind this notion is positive and worth understanding, but my sense is that if you’re bragging about the “policy” and not the results, something may be amiss.
To start with, for many of us in a leadership position, stating “I have an open door, come in any time!” is easier said than done. Our jobs as leaders and managers often requires us to be heads down in a problem, spend time in deep strategic thinking, and to fill our calendars with planned interactions. Given that, how easy is it for your team to actually find time with you? Can people really walk in throughout the day and chat?
Also, how comfortable are your people in taking up your time? Role power will naturally make people hesitant to speak to you no matter how much you tout your open door. Even people who are naturally approachable can suffer from this as people in your teams might feel that no matter what you say, you are too busy to actually listen to them. And when you have role power it’s really easy to inadvertently imply that you’re too busy.
The next thing to consider is how do you react once people walk in the door and tell you something you don’t want to hear? If you are dismissive, unreceptive, or even worse, aggressive, how often do you expect people to come back? Do you actively listen and even empathize? Do you just nod your head, say “thanks”, and let them walk away? Again due to role power, people may fear the reaction of their leaders for adverse opinions so it takes more than just saying you have an open door to get meaningful input.
I feel that sometimes we as leaders encourage feedback on the belief that we’re mostly going to hear positive things or at worse we'll here about the need for a few minor changes that we already had in mind and the feedback we receive will reinforce it. However, if you’re not truly ready to hear contrary opinions and criticism, be careful what you encourage!
Given the challenges in actually getting people through your door and having meaningful conversations, I have to wonder what claiming an “open door” actually accomplishes. My fear is that all it may accomplish is giving us the illusion of thinking we know what’s going on in our team. It’s easy to claim “no one has come in and complained” and therefore assume everything is fine, but that’s likely not true. Our teams are always talking about something. Us not hearing it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
A Better Way
If we take a step back and look at why someone might have a positively intentioned open door policy, I’d say there are a couple key goals: fostering communication and collaboration, and knowing how your people are doing. Again, I’d offer that simply having an open door or talking about having an open door will not accomplish these goals.
A good leader doesn’t wait for people to come to them. We should actively seek out feedback instead of waiting for it to trickle our way. We need to build trusting relationships so that our people feel like they truly can talk to us. Getting there requires reciprocal transparency. In other words, we can’t expect people to tell us everything on their minds if we keep the reasoning behind all of our decision-making a secret. It requires being able to hear things that make us uncomfortable, that may make us question if we’re actually doing a good job.
Also, depending on the size of your organization, you may need intermediaries that are trusted and can bring information to you. Then if you hear of a problem, don’t just say “let them know they can talk to me”. You’ll run into the same issues associated with an open door: people think you’re too busy (and maybe you are). Instead, make time, seek the people out, and let them know you are interested in learning more.
Put simply, these are the key ingredients to having open communication across your team:
This last point is what makes it the relationship really work. If people see that positive changes come from providing feedback, they are more likely to speak up again. This is a good thing.
Finally, in an even moderately large organization you’ll need intermediaries, so make sure every team member has a relationship with someone that is trusted and seeking feedback and who will bring concerns they can’t resolve to you.
If we do this right by actively driving open conversations and taking action, instead of saying “I have an open door policy, people can come in any time” we can state that we have a close relationship with our people and can work with mutual transparency to collaborate on even the most difficult issues facing our organization.
Leadership Is About Responsibility
I am often asked questions along the lines of “do I need to be an expert in everything that my team knows in order to lead them” and “the development team has more experience than I do, how can I be an authority to them?” In the latter case, it describes a difficult situation where someone with less experience than the bulk of the team members has been promoted to a leadership role. A similar scenario is someone recently added to a team that has been working on a product for years and the newcomer architect, product manager, or project manager has little depth of knowledge. In either scenario, the new leader needs to gain credibility in order to be effective or risk being undermined by the team. More broadly speaking, there can be a lot of discomfort in being a newly minted leader trying to tell a team what to do.
And that’s exactly where the problem comes in: we as leaders shouldn’t think our job is telling people what to do.
Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a 19th Century Nova Scotian politician and author, observed that “Wherever there is authority, there is a natural inclination to disobedience”. It sounds a bit like he’s worked in today’s software development teams! In fact, it can be fairly common among knowledge workers in general to question authority and to sound out the depth of a new leader’s knowledge, then use their “superior” knowledge to discredit and / or disobey the leader.
So what’s a new leader to do? For me, the answer forms one of my core principles of leadership:
Leadership is responsibility, not authority
In other words, we as leaders have a responsibility to make our team members succeed, not an authority to make our ideas hold.
This can be a hard lesson. Some seek leadership roles because they believe it’s about authority. And sure, organizational authority is a thing. Authority can come with hierarchy and with depth of knowledge. Role power is real and can be used for good or ill. Indiscriminate use of authority and role power will often not yield durable results, and worse, can’t be used in situations where you don’t actually have hierarchical role power over the people you lead.
Looking back to the question that started this, the architect that first asked me this didn’t have role power over the development team, which is often the case for leaders in flat organizations: the people they lead are matrixed in from other parts of the organization. She also readily admitted to me that she had less experience and technical knowledge than the average team member.
And so the answer to the question “how can I be an authority to them” is often “you can’t, but don’t worry about that.” Being a leader doesn’t mean being the best “doer”, it means being a leader. So instead of trying to wield authority, I’d encourage you to tell the team you’re leading simply and directly that your responsibility is to help them succeed at their jobs. Get into a dialogue and find out what they need from you to succeed and help them help you by giving you what you need to succeed. For example:
It takes a little humility to approach leadership this way and perhaps even some rethinking of your role, but if you see leadership as a responsibility to help others succeed and take that responsibility seriously, you’ll be one of the best leaders your team has ever had.
"Is it better to be feared or loved?"
This is a somewhat cliched interview question for potential leaders that is intended to try and capture how a leader wants to be perceived. There are die-hard advocates of each answer as well as people who are deeply opposed to one or the other. I like to dissect this in terms of the goal of a leader, which I believe is to influence individuals, teams, and organizations to effectively deliver durable results.
Fear can certainly be a motivator to complete tasks. Team members who are afraid of some form of punishment, be it being yelled at, losing a bonus, or getting fired, will absolutely be motivated to avoid that negative outcome. There are leaders who take some pride in this - that their team members fear them a little bit. Again, this can drive people forward and get them to complete tasks and meet deadlines, but if we look at the “durability” goal for leadership, this approach ultimately fails. Most people don’t want to work in fear; the stress and unpleasantness of that kind of environment will lead them to find an opportunity to get out whenever they can. Even short-term results can be jeopardized because people are doing whatever they think will let them go unpunished rather than what they think is right! I’ve always felt that the moment someone fears losing their job is the moment they stop doing their best work.
Does that mean that it’s better for a leader to be loved? In truth, team members that love their leaders are often willing to do whatever is asked, and likely on a much more durable basis than when fear-driven. But sometimes this love is based on attributes that are somewhat tangential to our work - some of us love that leader that always brings in doughnuts, that’s ready with a quick joke and a pat on the back. This isn't necessarily bad, but if a leader is more focused on doing things to be loved than on delivering results, a happy team may meander through their work without a clear outcome. Also, as the saying goes, love can be blind. We can see this in the way people in the tech industry exhibit a hero worship of tech leaders that we don’t even work for and have a belief that they can do no wrong. At some point this is unhealthy, particularly within an organization. I know I make mistakes and I want my team to point them out to me, as unpleasant as that can be.
So where does this leave us in terms of the initial question?
Simply that it sets us up with a false dichotomy.
If there’s one thing I want my team to feel towards me, it’s trust. Trust isn’t easy to come by, and for a leader it goes deeper than simply being trusted that you’ll do what you say. As leaders, we should be trusted that we have our clients’ and/or organizations’ best interests in mind, trusted that we have our team members’ best interests in mind, trusted that our team members can come and speak to us when they have new ideas or concerns, especially if they have concerns with what we’re doing. Developing this kind of trust takes work, it takes relationship building, it takes consistent active demonstration that you can be trusted in these ways.
As a leader, I personally am not looking for my team to complete tasks (which can be driven through fear) or to simply do whatever I ask (which can be motivated by love). I want my team to deliver results, I want them to grow. I want them to succeed. I want them to challenge me and each other and make all of us better at what we do. Neither fear nor love can consistently create this kind of environment. In my experience, only trust can do this.
Ultimately, cultivating this level of trust gives you the ability to more effectively influence team members and organizations, and will drive truly durable results.
Communication and Ownership
As often as not, when I get asked for advice on how to handle communication in difficult situations and walk through my approach, the person asking for help is a little disappointed. To be clear, they understand the approach and can see that it will work but they are hoping for a silver bullet to magically make it easy. The reality is that good communication takes work, practice, and most of all, it takes ownership.
If you accept that the role of a leader is to influence others to take action, communication becomes more than an optional “soft” skill; it’s essential to the success of any leader. Yet all too often I encounter people in leadership roles that give it little thought.
As an example, at conference sessions I’ll ask for a show of hands for how many people regularly have meetings where everyone leaves the meeting with truly a common understanding of what was discussed. The results are grim - most of us feel that this seldom occurs. Why do we let this happen? Why do we accept that we’ll walk away with different interpretations and just hope for the best?
We often put the blame on others for not “getting” us. Sometimes it’s a bit of ego or taking pride in the fact that not everyone can understand us. Sometimes we blame the listener for not understanding this and believe we couldn't be any clearer.
These attitudes all reflect a lack of ownership. Sure, there are some situations where a person simply can’t understand what you’re talking about, but that’s arguably rare. We use excuses and blame the listener to protect ourselves from thinking that the fault is in ourselves. The reality is, communication can be a tool, a skill, even a strategy, but unfortunately effective communication doesn’t come from a magic bullet or a mystical cure-all.
Successful communication comes through ownership
We need to be able to listen and hear what people are telling us: their concerns, their needs, their expertise, their perspectives. We as leaders own understanding them and asking questions to make sure we’re clear before trying to get them to understand us. And that’s the second half of the ownership; making sure we’ve been understood. Communication is more than just sending an email. It’s more than giving a single speech. It’s verifying that people actually “get” you, and finding different ways of communicating when people don’t understand you.
Some people that I've coached have felt that this isn't fair and ask why should they be expected to own both sides of communication if other people aren't expected to? The answer is that this isn't about fairness, it's about your success. If you want to be successful in any kind of leadership role you need to be able to communicate effectively, and doing that takes ownership.
It’s hard work at first but it’s worth it.
This is a well known phrase, dating back in one form or another to at least the late 19th Century in the English speaking world and perhaps going much further back in Chinese culture, that is often used to promote the notion of making people self sufficient.
I like to interpret it through the lens of leadership. Looking at the first line, you can micromanage (give someone a fish) and make them dependent on you for success. In other words, if whenever a team member asks a question or has a problem your reaction is to tell them how to solve it, all you’ve done is taught that team member to be dependent on you. This isn’t even always about micromanaging; I’ve seen this with one of my leads who was working with a developer struggling to learn a new technology. Every time she had a question, the lead found it easiest to simply give her an answer. Eventually the lead realized that he wasn’t doing her any favors and indeed had made her dependent on him.
So, true to the adage, a better approach is to teach, which in the example above would involve teaching the team member how to use the new technology. The problem is that we often simply do just that: teach the “what” or the “how” of things. Doing this certainly solves near-term problems. Imagine as a CFO you have a bookkeeper that had to ask you every day how to enter items in the ledger. You would quickly switch to teach mode and make sure the bookkeeper knew what information went where, how to enter receivables, and so forth. However, if you didn’t teach why the ledger was set up the way it was in the first place, why specific accounts were created for example, the bookkeeper will still not be able to solve next level problems.
Or take the fishing example. What happens when the particular fish you’ve been taught how to catch doesn’t go for the same bait anymore? Or that species dies out? Or the riverbed dries up? Or you move away from water? While in some regards this seems remarkably trivial we do this all the time: we focus our teaching on what and how, and yet wonder why people can’t solve problems without us.
Thinking About "Why"
This is where principle-driven leadership comes in. Principle-driven leadership is all about teaching the “why” of what you do. Leading through principles gives your team members the philosophy to make decisions in your absence. It’s teaching people how to think, not how to do.
Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, talks about the difference between algorithmic and heuristic work. Algorithmic workers essentially follow an established instruction set that leads them to a conclusion; in other words, there’s an algorithm for getting the work done. Heuristic workers are attacking problems that may need experimentation, research, creativity, etc. to reach an appropriate outcome. In other words, they are often dealing with a level of unknown.
I believe that knowledge workers are firmly in the heuristic category and as such require more than simply being told what to do (and for what it’s worth, I think algorithmic workers can benefit from principle-driven leadership as well). Your heuristic workers need enough autonomy to be creative in how they approach problems but tempered with principles to guide their experimentation in a meaningful fashion.
Don’t get me wrong, thinking about why you do things is daunting. That’s why most of us shy away from it. We might not know why we do things, or we might not want to explain it, we might even think we act solely on instinct. Digging deep into ourselves can be uncomfortable.
However, there’s no way a senior user experience designer could think of every scenario a junior designer will encounter in their career, nor could an experienced software developer explain every possible combination of code a junior developer will use in a lifetime. So we shouldn’t pretend we can.
Instead, we should lay down the principles that guide us in our decision making and use that to steer our teams along with clear guidance on the expected outcome of their work. If they understand where they’re trying to go and why you think the way you think, you’ve enabled them to accomplish great things in your absence. You might even be able to take a vacation without worrying!
So to embrace principle-driven leadership, I’ve revised the opening adage:
Not particularly catchy, but I believe this is the most powerful way to lead. If we arm our teams with well-thought out principles and set clear outcomes to guide their work, they will exceed our expectations.
what is leadership?
Leadership is an overloaded word. It can be used to simply refer to people in senior level positions in an organization, to describe a certain kind of extroverted bonhomie that makes us feel good, or to describe what’s missing in an organization when things go wrong. Sometimes it’s simply defined as “I know good leadership when I see it’!
The problem with having such ambiguity is that it’s difficult to focus on improving our leadership skills if we don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to lead. Sometimes we’ll get advice like “be more like ‘Somebody Else’”. But in what way? What if ‘Somebody’ dresses nicely or always buys doughnuts on Fridays...is that what’s expected of us? They’re always punctual to meetings and return phone calls...is that what’s expected of us? I’ve even heard of someone telling their people “We need more cowbell! You know what I mean.” And aside from knowing that it’s an SNL reference, my friend had no idea what was meant.
In my years of coaching other leaders I’ve developed a simple definition that helps frame what I consider the right way of thinking about leadership:
There’s a lot going on in that simple sentence that provides good guardrails for developing leadership skills and will serve as a foundation for future blogs. For now, I’ll parse out a few important details to hopefully remove any ambiguity:
Good leadership doesn’t come from role power. You don’t magically become a leader just because you were given a title or assigned people to lead. Quite the opposite; leadership is sometimes best demonstrated in the absence of hierarchical control. A good leader is able to set a vision that influences people, teams, and organizations to take action and create desired outcomes regardless of where they sit in a hierarchy. Developing influence skills is a big success factor for leaders.
This is key to the definition of leadership: being effective simply means being able to successfully bring about intended results. This is different than efficiency, which is about maximizing productivity and minimizing waste. Those are good things to do, but the first goal of a leader is to get results. Leaders in the digital world are often faced with things that haven’t been done before or at least that they themselves haven’t done before, and so the focus needs to be first on delivering positive outcomes, then efficiency when you get into a repeatable process.
Thinking about durability of results and outcomes can really set you apart as a leader. Conceptually, it’s easy to accomplish a specific goal or deadline by forcing the team into a death march or threatening (and delivering) some form of punishment for missing the target. This approach can certainly yield a specific KPI but in my experience is not a durable approach to leadership. Said another way, durability is taking the long view; thinking about the team you lead and how they can continually grow and deliver results over the course of time. Of course near-term goals need to be hit, but if done with an eye to the future you’ll create strong teams that can take on anything.
All of these ideas bear further exploration but this should serve as a good foundation on what leadership is, and it’s been my experience that embracing these notions can really transform the way your organization operates.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.