“How am I doing?” He was with the company for 2 months by then, with his team leader located abroad. For some reason, unrelated to his work, we sat down to talk – he and two of us team leaders. We finished a topic and then he started: since he was already there with us, maybe we could help. Nobody gave him any feedback regarding his performance.
Moments like these make my brain form a couple of new neural connections. There he was, a young software engineer, with decent experience, not merely interested but desperate to get some evaluation of his work. Many like him never speak out. Whom else have we been neglecting?
And so I set out to meet every one of my team members in private once a month, just to talk out how we feel about each other’s work and performance. Not formally, not in a framework, but openly and candidly. Beginnings are awkward, because people aren’t used to being able to speak freely. You see them sweating and avoiding eye contact. So you, the superior, start talking about yourself and your own mistakes. Then you make space. They will follow. And they will tell you what’s been wrong, often things you haven’t noticed at all.
Once you show yourself open to their criticism, they will open to yours. Turns out, they really do want to be better, and do want to stay on course of your expectations. While it’s inevitable that they’ll be drifting apart once in awhile, when you explain yourself and your motivations properly, they’ll quickly change and you can continue sailing at full speed.
I’ve yet to see a company that, having sound leadership, failed. I’ve also never seen one to succeed with bad leaders. And the surprise is that being a “good” or “bad” leader has nothing to do with how you treat people around you. You can be a tyrant (Steve Jobs), a bully (Bill Gates), a corsair (Larry Ellisson) or a friendly, passionate geek (Larry Page, Sergey Brin) and succeed nonetheless. But if you lead in the wrong direction, then boy, you’ll hit an iceberg sooner than you can spell “Titanic”.
This isn’t to say that you should immediately burn your copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and start screaming around at your team like a drill instructor. But it does mean that if you’re not naturally a social, likeable person, trying to change yourself is probably a misallocated effort. You may rather want to spend time getting to know your market and learning as much as you can about your domain. Put a lot of work into becoming the best expert in your field.
Being a great leader may motivate people to row faster, but it won’t help anyone if you’re all heading for a cliff.
“Eat your broccoli!“, “Clean your room!“, “Brush your teeth!” Sounds familiar? It’s the tune of the past, when your parents controlled each and every aspect of your life. With the exception of toilet use, perhaps. For many people however, the past lives on. Parents turned into line managers, while kids remained kids, but with fancy titles: Senior Software Engineer, Enterprise Architect, etc. “Send that e-mail“, “call that guy“, “re-estimate that plan.” Smart managers turn orders into questions: “can you send that e-mail, please?” Sure, boss.
Parents order their offspring around assuming that children don’t have the required knowledge and experience to decide what to do, when and how. Many managers think along the same lines: if I don’t tell them what to do they’ll surely do it wrong. Great intentions with lousy results:
A manager is not super-human. He makes mistakes just like any other bloke and there’s absolutely no guarantee that his procedures and decisions are in any way more effective than anyone else’s. Managers are there to set goals and provide their subordinates with resources to move forward as they see fit. Any other form of management is just a waste of brainpower.
You cannot build a team merely by replacing “me” for “we” in communication. You won’t get there either by placing people in one room and giving them a common name. A team is much more than a group of individuals sharing the same space and some characteristics. What binds a team is spirit, not labels.
A leader’s role in team building is defining and distributing work in such a way, that naturally requires team cooperation to achieve goals. Ideally, failure to cooperate should result in failure of the whole team. Remember the movie “300“? Leonidas explains to the deformed Ephialtes how Spartans fight: as a single, impenetrable unit. Arm to arm, fighting the same enemy, protecting each other. That is team spirit.