My 20-month Leadership Journey

“Director of Engineering” / DOE. What does that actually mean? What does it mean in the specific context of the company I work for, MOIA? And in the context of who I am, Finn? With my strength, my weaknesses, my education and my past experiences?

I am in the Role of the DOE for 20 months now. Good enough a reason to reflect on the journey until now.

  1. How did it change my view on “Leadership”?
  2. How did it change my view on teams?
  3. And how did it change my view upon myself?

Find those three reflections in the three sections below.

Leadership

I like servant leadership. Some people also call it host leadership. And maybe the second expression fits even better to me. If I am host a party, I invite a lot of people. I host them and welcome them when they arrive. I am typically not their servant. Instead, I make them feel comfortable and see to their needs. I try to accomplish something (a party) by connecting people and make sure they have a good time.

If you ask leaders, especially in modern Product- / Software-Development, I would dare to say that 90% of people would attest to themselves that they are servant leaders, that they are not micro managing teams. When people ask me, I do state the same. However, despite good intentions a lot of people are micro managing, certainly waaaaaay more than the other 10%. “Managers” are interfering with daily tasks of teams or team members. Managers are telling teams and people what to do and how. So, am I part of a group having a wrong self-assessment?

Looking into Wikipedia, I find:

In business management, micro management is a management style whereby a manager closely observes and/or controls and/or reminds the work of their subordinates or employees.

If I translate that to the software building teams, then I would state:

A micro manager is a person, who closely observes and/or controls and/or reminds the work of a team.

If I want to ensure a servant leadership style, I must work hard to not closely observe the work of the team. I shall certainly not control their work nor remind them what to do. Hence, I have to: look away, have a loose contact with the team and when I see something is forgotten: not remind them.

That is sometimes really hard.

I am not just a DOE. I am also a person with 10+ years of experience improving the quality of the software and entire product a team is contributing to. And I do know for a fact that there are a couple of points, where the teams I work with can improve, in parts significantly. The problem is: if I “go into details” ( = closely observe ) and start to coach teams “hands-on” how they can accomplish a certain thing better ( = control ) and “iterate” with them on it ( = remind), then I am the very definition of a micro manager. Huh.

So, what to do instead? As a first simple approximation: Training and/or Empowerment.

Sometimes people know how to work smarter, they just do not feel a mandate to spread the word and go change the world (or their team’s process, if not the world). If I am lucky, they share their idea in a random water cooler conversation or scheduled 1:1. For that case, the matter is rather simple: I can offer my knowledge and support in individual coaching and mentoring and encourage / empower the person to “Go. Do it!”.

However, if people and teams are not aware of the room to improve… then the only lever I have is to influence them = to give them structure and culture. And both things take a long time. “Giving structure” relates to the roles we have and how they collaborate. What leaderships roles do we need in the team? Who is responsible for what? How shall those abstract roles communicate and interact with each other? I can then postulate an abstract model and hope (fingers crossed!) that many or most or maybe-maybe all teams interpret it in the right way and actually do it. Structure set.

Afterwards, I can offer trainings. With recommendations how to approach an abstract problem or generic situation. How to write stories. How to conduct event stormings. How to create story- and service maps. How to take full days for occasional team alignments before the next-big-thing on the roadmap comes. And then I can hope (fingers crossed!) that many or most or maybe-maybe all teams interpret it in the right way and actually do it. Culture set.

I just need to be sure to build something resilient, yet flexible for our business model into culture and structure. If both is too weak it will topple and create chaos on the next stress point. If it is too rigid, we loose our ability to adopt.

All of this led for me to the interesting revelation, that I sometimes have to not help a team or make a decision for them, even if they want it. I would, upon request, become their micro manager. Which, in the long run, does not serve the team, the product or the entire company.

20 months into this journey, I got the ropes a bit. I failed, too. But I hope to learn. If there is one recommendation I can give, it is a quote from a character in a 60 year old novel:

Give as few orders as possible. Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.

Leto Atreides

In conclusion, it means that if you have to look away, have a loose contact with a team and when you see something is forgotten: not remind them, then you mostly have to deal with yourself: with the unease in your chest. You have to let go of control. You have to fully submerge into trusting many people you maybe do not even really know. And then wait and see and observe wonderful things to happen.

Teams

Autonomous Teams for the win!

I studied physics. And back then, in the working group where I was, the two professors gave all folks full autonomy on conducting experiments, measuring, improving and – obviously – writing their own theses. On the one hand I learned to motivate myself towards an abstract goal early on and work towards it autonomously, also without external pressure. On the other hand, I learned to value managing priorities, time, workload and work packages myself.

After studying I started to work in a startup that was way too chaotic that anyone would have started to manage my work directly (see part of the tech department in the picture above). And then I joined a consultancy that specialised on building autonomous product- and delivery focused teams. One could say that I got a really great education on the values of autonomous teams that decide for themselves, how they fulfill certain requirements and/or business goals. What became tedious for me in the previous company was to always work on an autonomous team and setup from my traditional QA Role. On top of that, once we got a desired autonomous-teams setup into place, naturally, my impact or contribution was limited to this single one team.

With the move into the DOE-Role, I finally had the chance to just give this autonomy to teams without them having to convince me of it. How cool was that?

Rather than giving specific lists of tasks […], I gave broad guidance and told them to prepare the task lists and present the lists to me. Rather than telling everyone what we needed to do, I would ask questions about how they thought we should approach the problem. Rather than being the central hub coordinating maintenance between two [teams], I told the [team leads] to talk to each other directly.

Things did not go well.

L. David Marquet – Turn the ship around!

The very same thing was true for me. What I failed to realise was, that not all teams and people where ready for this. In fact, in one team I lost two Backend-Developer over it. Later, I had an explicit conversation with the Technical Lead in this team about the issue. The person shared that they and, by extension, the team never understood the tasks they should do with the open questions that I asked. They shared their frustration of how hard it was to always interpret my questions so that they could derive the ToDos for them. How tedious it was to collect my exact expectations of how to conduct a specific task.

That was very eye-opening and a true learning for me. After taking some time to talk about it, we were able to resolve this “small” šŸ˜‰ missunderstanding. The Technical Lead – and by extend – the entire team afterwards took more ownership over their roadmap, their technical debt – and a meaningful way to combine the two things into a sensible roadmap. Autonomously. Empowered.

I learned yet again how important explicit expectation setting is, even if you only give room and space for people (and do not restrict it). Since if they are not aware they can walk into this room, it may very well be, they never will.

Looking at the teams I work with now, I believe we are all setup to embark with an autonomous setup. Which is the true hard requirement to creatively build a society-disrupting fancy new technology.

Myself

Sometimes, I feel lonely. Sometimes, I feel frustrated. The quality of Feedback that I get went down once the word “Director” moved into the title of my role description. Apart from my peers, there are very few people in the organisation that (still) give me true feedback. Constructive feedback, the difficult stuff. I am very grateful to them. Amongst other, this is especially a shout out to Stef, Roza, Julez, Alina, Roya and Laurita. Thank you, for your candid and helpful feedbacks. They are the foundation for the growth that I still hope to experience ā™„

Interestingly, while I get less feedback and less often, people obviously expect me to reflect even more than everyone else on every word or sentence, eye-contact or other day-to-day interaction that I write, have or do. It took me a while to realise that this is not my personal experience but part of “becoming a leader”. That is a part of what I, as anyone else, have to cope with. And the only way to “mitigate” the lack of feedback is indeed to reflect more and deeper than before. To no real surprise, this leads to actually gain a better understanding of ones strength and ones “learning opportunities” (a.k.a. weaknesses).

I am energetic. And positive. And I inspire people. Apparently. I never interacted with myself. It is hard to understand how a group of 50 people observes and actually sees me in a remote meeting (with 20 cameras off) when I share something. Being “energetic” is typically associated positive and seen as a strength. Unless people feel a pressure to behave the same way. I learned to walk this line a lot more careful than in the past. I also learned to share in which context people should understand something that I say. Do I give advise, recommendations or do I want people to do specific things in a specific order? (mostly it is one of the first two) I take more time for it now, which in turn leads to some people being annoyed by my constant disclaimers. Well…, there still is some learning opportunity for me, I would say. šŸ™‚

And then there are days, where I just want to go back into one single team. Become their Quality Specialist. Tear down the “QA Column”. Delete all tasks (just keep stories!). Write awesome Acceptance Criteria. Introduce strict but fun WIPs. Convince people of more pairing. And in this way speed up the delivery and increase the quality of the product of the team. As I did so many times in over 20 teams before.

But then also, I want my kids to not have to do a driver license. I want our society to advance to a point in their mobility where no one does driver licenses any more. Where we do not need to privately own a car- and by extend have to occupy public spaces with those huge chunks of metal. And I know, I learned, that I can have a much larger impact in a position that scales across teams. Which enables others. Where people are empowered and trusted. Hence, I am in fact truly motivated to continue my current journey. To do the very best that I can in the role I am currently playing. I will do everything to the extend of my skills and abilities, with the knowledge at hand to make my vision, MOIAs Vision, become reality. It is not yet time to rest šŸ™‚

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