Lessons learned from great leaders — part 1
If you only take one thing from this article, may it be this: Observe your best leaders, analyze their actions, and mimic.
I’ve been given the opportunity to lead at the very young age of 19. See, I was born and raised in Israel, where everyone must enlist to the army at 18. Promptly after I graduated from the IDF’s elite software engineering school, I started leading others like me. Many years later, I now lead a large software group via other managers, in a renowned software company.
You’ll be surprised to learn that leading soldiers in the army was not much different than later leading civilians in software companies. Many people think it’s much easier to lead soldiers, you know, since I could command them and they’ll follow my command, at least in theory. In practice, anyone who ever led or managed in the software industry learned this: the leader’s job is to inspire, influence and motivate people to go in the direction that the organization needs. Commanding people might get you through a project, maybe a year, but you’ll soon start experiencing attrition if you don’t adjust your approach.
The terms leaders and managers are often used interchangeably. I like this explanation about the differences (borrowed from here):
“Leaders have people follow them while managers have people who work for them. A successful business owner needs to be both a strong leader and manager to get their team on board to follow them towards their vision of success.”
You need both elements. Only having one piece (leader OR manager) does not lead to amazing results in my experience.
After a few decades of leading and being led by others, I can count the best leaders I followed on one hand. [During COVID I shared how impressed I was by Andrew Cuomo, pre sex scandals]. The gems they taught me often echo in my head as I navigate work situations, leading others. I re-play what I’ve seen them do and then analyze: what was it about their behavior and actions that made me feel happy and empowered and that pushed me to grow. As a big fan of team retrospectives I try to practice the individual version — introspection — as a method of learning.
While I have your attention, I’d like to introduce the best leaders I learned from and share those qualities and actions that left a mark on me, with you — the kind reader.
Let’s start with Mark:
Mark was an experienced leader, he left Oracle to take on a 50 person team and double its size. He was positive, energetic, and a strong and clear communicator. I took 3 lessons from our shared time together.
Doing the work, not just talking the talk. Despite leading a large team, and managing managers, Mark rolled up his sleeves and invested time in designing, documenting and implementing processes that helped the organization tick. I wasn’t just impressed with the quality of the process he set up but also the fact that he took direct action to design the way we operated, compared with many leaders who ignore operational problems or delegate them below, creating or fostering chaos. He documented the process, which is critical to influencing at scale (many leaders rely on influencing in 1:1s), and to top it all — the process actually worked (designing a process is easy, making it work is hard).
Process is just one example, the point is: many leaders say words in rooms and go on to the next meeting, to say more words.
Engage, jump in, teach and model how to lead, when needed. Show your reports how to solve problems they are struggling with, or set the skeleton of the solution, to help them. In my experience, leaders don’t do enough of that. Many leaders either micro-manage (solve problems their reports can/want to solve on their own) or leave their reports to struggle.
Continuous and transparent communication. Well sure, everyone says that. How did Mark implement that approach? We were an Agile shop (that time in my work-life still serves as my north star for Scrum and Agile), and we had 3 types of standups a day: Team standup, Product Owners standup and Scrum of Scrums — where scrum masters from all teams meet to share daily updates.
Most people I worked with would say “that’s too many daily meetings”, “it’s a waste of time” and so on, but it worked!
- It was a net positive use of time
- It fostered honest relationships among the leaders
- It enabled information flow across all parts and levels of the organization
- It helped me (and other delivery leaders) grow — thanks to Mark’s transparent and safe communication.
It was an investment on everyone’s end, but when done right and consistently and when people engage, continuous communication is a great thing.
Ensure and invest in continuous and frequent communication across the board (upwards, peer organizations, bottom->up), be as transparent and authentic as you can be, in a constructive way. The good performers will adapt and grow from it, and you will be fostering a trusting work environment.
A leader’s presence builds trust and makes people feel valued. The organization was split to three locations, NJ, Brooklyn and NC. Mark was based in NC with the largest team. He committed to traveling almost monthly to the other sites (luckily NJ and Brooklyn are close enough to hit two sites in one trip). His consistent care and presence allowed us to develop a solid relationship, which in turn enabled an open communication channel, even when he wasn’t around. All teams felt “seen” and that he understood their work and appreciated it.
Be present, meet your teams formally and informally, in small and large groups, if you can, travel regularly to the organization’s other sites. Alternatively allocate quality time to be together virtually. Presence builds trust and reliance while letting you feel teams, and individuals.
Now… we just spent two years working from home during COVID. Are there alternative ways to be present if you can’t travel? Heck yeah. The key is to truly engage with your team, in different setups: formal/informal, individual/small groups/large groups. Be there, listen, observe, show you care.
That’s it about Mark, I’ll share more lessons from other great leaders, in my next piece. Thank you for reading :)