I started writing again in order to get some of those 1:1 conversations and email threads out into the public where some of the conversations, learning and titbits of information can be useful to others. On that same theme I wanted to write down some of those learnings I’ve had building teams over the past 5 years.
Grow mentors, coaches and champions
This is something I’ve had learn as my teams have grown. When your team is small you are the mentor, the coach and the champion all rolled into one and that’s ok because with less than 10 people you can get away with that. At that scale you can invest in all of those activities with each member of your team; playing different roles at different times. As the team scales however, and as one team becomes multiple teams, you need to find those individuals that will do this on your behalf. Who are those individuals that people automatically look towards and who are those people who verbalise your vision and values when you’re not in the room? These folks you need to grow. I’ve also learnt that not everyone is going to be suitable for all of these positions. Your mentor is not necessarily your coach and your loudest champions might not have the experience or influence (yet!) to be your obvious mentors (although I’ll talk about reverse mentoring more later).
What you want to do here if find a good mix of people to take on each of these roles - be deliberate, be diverse in your selection and write it down. Then invest your time and energy into these people. The more you invest now - the more likely you’ll be building a team and an organisation that can out live you.
Understand the sub-cultures for each of your teams
Teams are made of people and therefore each team is going to be very different and have different sub-cultures. That means different habits, behaviors and rituals that might not be found in other teams. For the leader of any team - you straddle this divide between the culture of the team you’re a member of and the culture of the team you lead so you need to adjust accordingly. For those of you managing multiple teams the real challenge is understanding the differences and adapting your style and approach accordingly - some teams will need you be an Authoritative/Visionary leader showing the north star, others need a more democratic style. My default style is the Coach - somewhere between visionary and democratic but more often than not I need to choose the style that best suits the team and situation. By understanding the differences of each of my teams and by staying close and connected to them, I’m able to do that.
Org design is imperfect because people are imperfect
Engineering managers (like me) are engineers first - which means we always want to have the perfectly designed solution, something neat and tidy and easy to manage. Well people are people and therefore org design is always going to be imperfect. This is especially true if you’re in a fast growing organisation where you’re forming new teams and structure on a regular basis - you’re always going to find yourself half-way through a change.
But don’t just listen to me on this - the legendary Camille Fournier has an excellent post on this exact subject.
One additional take-away from this is don’t over-index on systems thinking. It’s easy to try and build the perfect process or the perfect structure - but it’s never going to go like that anyway (whether it’s visible to you or not) so take a breath and get comfortable with imperfection.
Communicate inclusively through mixed-mediums
Leading is communicating. Listening, coaching, mentoring, decision making, managing change - all of these are tools in the toolbox of a leader and all our built on the foundation of communication. Every person has their own style of communication. I’ve mentioned in one of my previous blogs on remote working that mixed-medium communication is vital. What I failed to mention in that post is that it’s not just important to be effectively remotely - it’s also imperative to be an effective and inclusive leader. Making sure your videos have transcripts, making sure your emails include clear TLDR and actions, ensuring you’re using slides that still make sense without colour. Use all the mediums to covet your messages and ensure each of those mediums is inclusive to whomever may be reading them - you may want to make a point, but you can never be certain on the needs of those people consuming it and how best they would like to receive your information.
Mentoring is such a powerful tool for growth but it’s often assumed to have a very specific power dynamic: one person has knowledge and context and/or is one step further along in their career and the other person is there to be supported, challenged, learn and grow. But read that last bit back again … is there to be supported, challenged, learn and grow … surely any leader is also aiming for those things too, no?! Well this is where Reverse Mentoring comes in - building a professional friendship with someone more junior in their career and changing the dynamic. You’re there to learn from them rather than the other way around. What’s working in the organisation? What are they interested in, what are they learning for themselves? Also choosing someone from a different background or different experience from yourself really helps with building your knowledge and fostering a culture of inclusion.
I think reverse mentoring is a great way to keep close to what’s new, improve digital and technology skills, be more inclusive and feel more connected to the culture that you’re helping to build.
Support people with change
We’ve all gone through a period where we’ve been told to build resilience, learn to build resilience or you should already be resilient. As an individual, these blogs, articles and podcasts all make some sort of sense. I summarise those like this: things out of your control are going to happen in the world, some of that is going to be bad, therefore you need to have the emotional tools to handle it. Great. Useful. Sort-of. As as leader however, does my team want to hear this from me? The answer is no, probably not. For this reflection I have to quote my wife: “you shouldn’t need to be resilient, you should just make sure that bad stuff doesn’t happen in the first place” - and I think she’s right. We put the emphasis on the individual rather than focusing on (either individually or collective) stopping the bad thing happening in the first place.
So when it comes to change in organisations, don’t focus on making your teams resilient to change, focus on making sure the change is a positive experience for them. Change in organisations can come from many directions: org structure, new products and services, new roles, changes in strategy. All of these sorts of changes impact the individual and trigger that deep emotional response if not handled effectively. In organisations where this is not handled effectively without proper change management you’ll get those who resist (fight), those who leave the business (flight) and those who stay but hold in their feelings (freeze). This is a trauma response.
By using the language of resilience you’re saying to your team(s) that change out of their control will be a normal part of their life and they need to adjust to it.
Instead of telling your teams that they need to be resilient, maybe you as the leader need to be more transparent. Traditional change management focuses on the what and the why a change is happening. But instead there should be a focus on how a change was made in the first place. In software development there is the example of architectural decision records (ADRs) that record when, how and by whom a decision was made and details the context in which that decision was made. Applying a similar approach to all organisational change you will allow a level of transparency that means folks don’t need to be resilient to change because they know how and why the change happens.
A byproduct of the decision records is that is forces a level of clarity that might change this outcome. This is probably another blog post on it’s own.
The last item I wanted to put on this list was probably the most simple to write but hardest to execute. Being genuinely vulnerable with your team is a hugely powerful thing in building confidence and trust. It’s important for your team to know you don’t have all the answers, that there are things that worry you, that you’ve made mistakes and that you have different moods that impact your judgment. It’s important because by being open and vulnerable about these things means that you’re telling your team that they can also be open about these things with you. It’s easy to read books on management and leadership and become a bit of a systems-thinker about it all. Being vulnerable is just one of the topics under the wider narrative that it’s always important to remember - that we’re all just imperfect humans trying to do the best we can.