I’ve evolved my approaches to team-leadership over the years (as to be expected), but I’m not sure I’ve ever sought to explicitly write down a These Things I Hold To Be True. Many of these are fairly office-directed, but most apply to my approach when I’m team captain or kids’ coach too.
While writing this, I realized how much of what I consider to be important leadership activities are not things that come naturally to me, but are rather trained skills that I work at consistently. So please consider this a living document too: I’m always looking to improve both this and myself.
- A successful leader creates more leaders. Remember you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. You don’t become a leader just because of your skills, but also everyone’s around you. Your teachers, your mentors, your peers, your reports – they all help make you a leader. Respect that continuum and play your part to carry it on.
- Expect to learn from those you lead. This builds on the first idea, but is more explicit. Just because you’re in charge, doesn’t mean that you’re right, or that you always know better. Ask questions. Be curious. Respect opinions. Corollary is to try to hire people who have something to teach you, whether those are hard or soft skills.
- Facilitate independence. Don’t be a roadblock for your team. Create structure and process that lets your team explore on their own. Encourage decision-making & independent thought. Provide scaffolding for them to stand on while they work. Be a safety net (or rope-and-harness?) if they fall. Transparent, living documentation of process & procedure is good for all.
- Do the things that don’t scale. Alternate: sweat the small stuff. Remember birthdays. Remember family names. Ensure the pens work. Have the one-on-ones. Make sure the environment is solid. Clean the white board. Show up a little early to the meeting to make sure there’s water, chairs, whatever. If someone mentions something in an off-hand comment, follow up. Pay attention.
- Own your team’s failures. When something goes wrong (and it will!), take ownership. Don’t pass blame down the line. Be the shield for your reports. Within your team, don’t point fingers. Post-mortems are your friend. Understand what went wrong, and look for how to prevent that in the future.
- Let your team own their victories. This is the corollary of the last item. Chances are you’ve had plenty of opportunity to shine on your way up. Step aside, let them accept credit. Better yet, go out of your way to give credit to your team-members publicly for their effort. Related to this: celebrate milestones.
- Be decisive. You need to be ready to make the call when asked. Or step in when something isn’t working. Do your homework, read up, be ready. Trust your instincts. Remember that *most* decisions are reversible. Be ready to provide a path, a solution, or just an affirmation when needed.
- Be deliberate. A corollary of the previous point: sometimes, a decision is paradigm-shifting – *not* reversible. So take the time you need, but be firm and committed to the path chosen.
- Practice and encourage self-care. Your manner, your tone, your emotional state has an outsized effect on your team. If you want your team to be their best selves, do what you need to be your best self. Demonstrate this so your team knows it is ok when they need to do it.
- Experience the front-line. Participate in pager duty and answer support calls. Push code. Whatever the most junior among you, or the most publicly-exposed experience, make sure you have a reasonable understanding of their day-to-day.
- Advocate for the Customer. That customer could be yourself, a client, another department, whatever. Chances are your team is delivering something to someone. Be the voice for the customer internally. Talk to the actual customer. Keep the relationship between your team and the customer healthy.
- Earn your team’s trust every day. Listen actively. Believe, and believe in your team. Be right. Be focused. Be honest. Be self-critical. Be ethical. Default to openness. Give trust. Support your team-member when they need it.
- Embrace Constraints. It is almost always worth figuring how to do more with less. Optimize where possible. Lean on limitations to see where they lead you. Create limits and boundaries where they are otherwise unclear in order to provide direction & guidance.
- Confront your bias. You’re human. You have blindspots. You have biases. Keep these in mind. Build a team that helps you reduce, confront and account for these. Find mentors, peers, advisors to explicitly work on these.
- Fight Culture-fit. This both seems counter-intuitive and oppositional. But “culture-fit” is a step on the path to homogeneity. Diversity of people leads to diversity of opinion & thought. It leads to better compromise and outcomes. Culture-fit is not the same as team fit. The former is an ephemeral, subjective judgement of person. The latter is a quantifiable, objective judgement of skill, role, expectation.