A while ago I was asked the following at a conference: "I’ve had a mentor suggest that given my style is very direct to learn how to hone that into its most effective form. Is this a good idea?" My answer was not a direct yes/no because there are several things to consider.
First, we need to have a good definition of leadership. I’ve posted this in the past, but my definition is:
Next we need to consider leadership styles. Finding a leadership style can be challenging, especially if you are just emerging from being an individual contributor, but even long-time leaders struggle with finding the right style. A leadership style should balance: adapting to what’s most comfortable for you, close alignment with your principles (which isn’t always the most comfortable!), and being the most effective with the people you lead. This can be a juggling act that has factors that can seem at odds with each other.
We can categorize leadership styles into three broad categories: Boss, Mentor, Servant.
The Boss style tends to be more authoritarian: telling people what to do and how to do it, micromanaging, and things of that nature. On the positive side, there is often a lot of clarity with the boss type.
The Mentor style tends to be more one of coaching: providing guidance and teaching as a way of instruction. At its worst, it can still have an underlying message of “there’s one way to do this - my way” and that is what needs to be taught.
The Servant style tends to be more one of empowering and enabling: setting goals with your team members, letting them reach success through their own means, and removing barriers to their success. At its worst, this style can be too hands off or mistaken for simply doing whatever your team members want you to do.
While I am a huge proponent of the notions of servant leadership, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes it’s not enough to set goals and let people run. Sometimes people need to be taught, and sometimes people need to be told what to do. The challenge is knowing when each is needed. I use the following principle to help guide:
Hopefully you'll find that a simple mantra to remember the tools in that order. Meaning, we should focus first on enabling people - making the desired outcomes clear along with any constraints and context and give them the autonomy to decide. If that isn’t working we should teach people how to reach those outcomes, and if they aren’t able to pick up on the learning we need to tell them what to do and how to do it.
So to bring it all together, I look at that initial question as “will being very direct enable me to influence individuals to effectively deliver durable results?” The answer is “yes, but it depends on what you’re being direct about.” Your first priority as leader is to enable, in which case you should be direct about the outcomes they need to achieve (e.g. “handle 100,000 transactions per minute”). If that doesn't work, you switch to mentoring / teaching, where you should be direct about what they should do to reach those outcomes (e.g. “Think about elasticity and making sure you don’t lose any of the requests”). And when that doesn't work, you have to tell - to be direct about how they should reach those outcomes (e.g. “implement a queue and multiple processing servers”).
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Conflict is often seen as a bad word, yet conflict is a necessary component of high performing teams. Part of the problem is that conflict is an overloaded word which can mean anything from simple disagreement to an all out screaming match.
Let’s get the bad type of conflict out of the way first. We’ll call it friction. Friction refers to the conflict of people, and is often based on history, personal biases and dislikes, or ulterior motives. Friction is often negatively intended, or perhaps more generously, friction has an absence of positive intention. Regardless, friction is the type of conflict we want to avoid. It drives dysfunctional team behavior and is costly to let it run wild.
The good kind of conflict can be thought of as the conflict of ideas. We’ll call this type of conflict tension, conceptually similar to any good movie has a source of tension that needs to be resolved for a positive outcome. Our teams should absolutely have the conflict of ideas when problem solving. We should each be bringing our unique insights and experiences to the table for a fair consideration. When guided by positive intention to reach the same ultimate goal, this exchange of different points of view can push all of us to create something better than we would have if left to our own devices.
I feel it’s useful to clarify the different types of conflict because I believe that many people and organizations are conflict-avoidant, but organizations with a low tolerance for conflict of ideas will ultimately reduce the height of their achievements. When there’s a low tolerance for conflict, team members stop wanting to deliver bad news or contrary ideas and it becomes easier to just declare victory instead of dealing with the tension. All of this ultimately lowers our standards.
Our organizations must embrace healthy tension to bring out our best results.
This doesn’t mean we have to fight or bicker - healthy teams can and should resolve conflict without friction. As an example, team members have commented that a colleague of mine and I always seem to agree on things. I’ve explained to them that nothing could be further from the truth. We disagree a lot, but we’ve worked together long enough that our conflict doesn’t appear to be anything other than a normal (and often quick) discussion. This is a pretty ideal state for any long-running team.
Said another way, we have a responsibility to raise our hands if we have a different point of view. Nodding in agreement with someone when you really think that their idea will never work just for the sake of “team harmony” is bad. False harmony is just as destructive and demoralizing as friction. Sometimes this can manifest in teams that profess to really like each other. I’ve seen teams go on about how great everybody is, which is a good thing up to a point. But when they go past the point of being positive to a culture of falsely avoiding disagreement they are hurting themselves.
It’s natural for human beings to disagree with each other, especially at work, especially on cross functional teams. Suppressing that doesn’t make any sense. The quality of all relationships, work or otherwise, is ultimately driven by how they handle conflict. If our teams tend to avoid conflict they will be rewarded with mediocrity.
This is why team composition is so important and warrants careful consideration. If I surround myself with people who thought like me, why would I need them? How would I get challenged and continue to grow? How would my team be anything but a monolith of singular thought? No single one of us has all the answers. We achieve excellence when we are surrounded with good teammates pushing and pulling each other to reach our best.
We all want to get better at what we do, and as leaders we should all want our teams to get better at what they do, both individually and collectively. However, a pattern I have seen at many clients is that they focus on “improvement” to accomplish this rather than “development”. On the surface this probably sounds like splitting hairs, and perhaps it is, but I believe that the underlying philosophy behind each approach is fundamentally different.
When I hear about “improvement” efforts, they typically involve implementing new processes, new measurements, and new overhead. There’s also an implicit drive to create efficiency for its own sake, but often in the absence of a more meaningful business goal. I believe that the urge to add or change processes when we want our people to get better at what they do often only creates a distance between ourselves and our team members that will worsen the problem.
A big challenge is that it’s hard to define what “better” means when we are talking about our team members. And so we often lean on the things that we can measure and decide that’s what we need to measure.
Measurement can be a powerful driver for behavior, and so it should be used sparingly and only when well-aligned with meaningful business goals. Said another way, measurement and improvement efforts aren’t bad per se, but should be used to address systemic problems. It’s my belief that more often than not individual and team performance issues aren’t systemic but rather localized, yet we nonetheless throw process at the problem.
Development, on the other hand, is a focus on continually getting better at what we do. It’s laying out a clear path as to what “better” actually means and ideally is driven by outcomes more than task proficiency. It takes a real relationship to achieve this rather than simply a measurement that is viewed in a report.
It has often (although not always) been my experience that poor performance is directly tied to a lack of understanding of expectations. There have been several times in my career where I’ve had to put someone on a performance plan and in the process discovered that the team member didn’t understand what was expected of them. Once expectations were made clear, these people turned around quickly and became highly functional members of the team. There was no process improvement effort that could have changed that.
Even clearly documented expectations aren’t typically enough. The best way for knowledge workers to learn is by doing and by getting coaching when they struggle. I’ve seen places where team members have struggled for years because of a lack of attention. Their leadership knew they were struggling, but not until the leaders spent time working directly with them did they suddenly flourish.
In all of these development cases, there wasn’t a systemic problem that required a new process for how the team members did their work. If anything, the systemic problem was that a leader didn’t spend enough time with their teams and the people their team members work with to truly understand how the team members were doing, nor were the making an active effort to help their team members. So if a process “fix” was required in these cases, it was not in how the team worked day-to-day, but rather in how leadership performed their work.
Leadership is a human skill, not an abstracted, number-driven process. If we truly want to get the best out of our teams we need to know them, support them, and coach them to success.
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.
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.
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.