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In an industry roiled by change, IT leadership is crucially important. A veteran executive urges his peers to thoughtfully assess their leadership strengths and weaknesses.
I recently received an email from someone I have mentored over the years, in which he described what he liked about my approach to leadership. It’s not every day you get fan mail from a direct report, and this note from Raghavendra Manavalli, our Director of Development in India, prompted me to stop and really think about my “leadership style.”
I’m a senior executive at a $1.8 billion company, and anyone in my position clearly has done some things right to reach this level. But I had never really looked at myself from the outside and identified what had made me a successful leader. Raghu’s email led me to consider what leadership principles I have made my own and should continue to reinforce and refine. It also got me reflecting on whether I sometimes have fallen short of adhering to those principles.
Because I found this exercise useful, I thought that others might benefit from a similar selfassessment. We’ve all read helpful books on leadership, but you can’t adopt every good piece of advice. You must develop your own approach, honing it over time. Identifying and articulating the leadership qualities that are the source of your success can lead to even greater success in the future.
As I pondered my leadership style, I realized that it is defined by several factors, all of them governed by an overriding “mantra.” I hope this story about my identification of my leadership traits will serve not so much as a leadership template but as a catalyst for others to think about what makes them effective leaders.
Consider the following situation, which may have a familiar ring. A software architect has developed a solution that is technically elegant but falls short on performance. You tell him that, no matter how beautiful the software design, the performance is unacceptable: the screento-screen change time must be reduced from 10 seconds to two seconds. He digs in his heels: “There’s a lot of data involved. I can’t think of any way to shorten that process. It can’t be done.”
Now consider an alternative approach. Instead of going to the software architect with a demand to reduce the time, you take him inside the customer’s problem. There’s a pediatrician sitting in front of a patient, trying to call up the patient’s growth chart. The doctor clicks on a button. The patient is waiting. The mom is waiting. Ten seconds pass (one-one-thousand, two-onethousand, three-one-thousand…). Finally, the growth chart appears. By putting the architect in the doctor’s seat and creating some empathy, this becomes a problem for the architect to solve rather than an order from you on how to do it.
People Support What They Help Create. The phrase, generally attributed to Edward Deming, the father of the “Total Quality Management” movement, serves as the foundation of my leadership style. The best way to build a motivated team is to allow them to set the direction their work will take. I believe this with all my heart.
It’s easy for most of us to slip into micromanagement, to prescribe a task rather than describe a desired outcome. We’re particularly vulnerable to this when we’re under time pressure. And in fact, there are situations when you need to dictate what an individual or team needs to do.
But dictating action, rather guiding people toward an outcome, runs counter to “people support what they help create.” Even in those few situations where you know exactly what you want your team to do, taking the time to explain how you reached that conclusion will increase their engagement with the task.
The benefits of this approach go beyond engagement and motivation. Your trust in the team increases members’ trust in and respect for you. Furthermore, you’ll often find that a team empowered to chart its own path to a desired outcome will add value to the process, growing an idea beyond what you initially envisioned.
HOW TO TREAT PEOPLE
Once you have identified your leadership mantra, how do you incorporate it into the basic blocking and tackling of managing people and teams? I’ve found it’s useful to break this down into four areas, the first of which is the way you treat people.
One of my favorite management books, which I often have my team members read, is “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers,” by Patrick Lencioni. The book starts with the idea that happy employees are productive employees – and then describes three things that make employees miserable.
Anonymity. People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known, if they aren’t appreciated as individuals by their boss. Now, I’m not very good at remembering names, especially with a global team of 500 people. The temptation is simply to avoid the problem by not addressing people by name. But even when I meet people I’ve met before, I will honestly confess my lack of recall for names and ask them to remind me of theirs. The rapport created is worth my embarrassment!
Irrelevance. Everyone needs to know that their job matters. Without seeing a connection between the work and the satisfaction of another person or group of people, an employee simply will not find lasting fulfillment. It’s up to you to help create that connection.
Immeasurement. Employees need to be able to constantly gauge their own progress and level of contribution, without waiting for the opinion (or whim) of their manager. Helping them to determine an objective way to assess their own performance can help prevent that uncertain and unhappy state of what Lencioni calls “immeasurement.”
Let me add to Lencioni’s advice a thought on coaching. The best coaches are the ones you don’t even notice. Their guidance often comes in the form of questions – Who is your audience for this? How could you measure that? – rather than answers. This style of coaching fits well with my mantra, because it prompts people to think of their own answer, which in turn invests them in the solution.
HOW TO MEASURE TEAMS
Having established a good relationship with your team, you need to decide how to measure its performance. Obviously, you want objective metrics that are fair and let the team know where it stands. But you also want metrics that are actionable.
I always ask job candidates during interviews what they think makes a good metric. Most people came up with expected responses – it must be measurable, it must be clear, etc. But the smart ones pinpoint the key element – a good metric results in people changing their behavior.
Say you’re tracking data on defects in a module of software. You identify one defect, then 10, then 20. But without setting a trigger point that prompts a change in behavior, such metrics are meaningless. So, you might say that when we reach 10 defects, we’ll stop adding new features until we can get the defects back down below that level.
Too often companies get in the habit of collecting data, for the sake of collecting data. But if data doesn’t result in a change in behavior, stop collecting and reporting that metric! (Oh, and be sure your team helps in setting that metric. Remember the mantra!)
HOW TO OPERATE TEAMS
Next, you must have an operational approach that works. For me there is nothing better than SAFe, or Scaled Agile Framework, which combines the workflow practices of lean product development and agile software development. In the traditional waterfall approach to software development, your clients will typically see a software project (often stuffed with features they don’t want) when development is virtually complete and it’s too late to incorporate their suggestions. With SAFe, clients are involved with your staff on a regular basis throughout the development process.
This collaboration is in line with my mantra – people support what they help to create – and also ensures that developers remain focused on client needs, which may only emerge as part of the development process. It also promotes transparency. Software development has traditionally been viewed as a sausage factory: You didn’t want to see the product being made. Now everyone gets to know and comment on what goes into the sausage, which makes for better sausage.
Finally, the approach drives clients themselves to be engaged. And an engaged client, involved in setting the direction and understanding the timing of a project, is more likely to be a happy client. That is, they “support what they help to create”!
HOW TO ENCOURAGE A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
When I welcome new employees to the team, one of my main messages is that I want them to be happy. Why? Because happy people are productive people, and that benefits the organization. Furthermore, given how much of our life we devote to work, we better be having a good time!
I also tell them that, to a large extent, they have the choice of how they feel at work. Something I once heard Kevin Carroll, a former Nike executive, say in a speech stuck with me: “You choose your attitude, every day.” He referred to a switch in our brain that we control. You decide in the morning whether to switch it to UP or DOWN, positive or negative. Yes, sometimes whether you have a good or bad day is out of your control, but usually it is totally up to you.
So, when I’m asked, “Julian, how are you doing?”, my typical answer is “AWESOME.” Just saying that helps seal the feeling in my psyche.
People who are negative at work are like a black hole, sucking others into their negative energy drain. I work with such people to move their switch to UP. If they can’t do it, I suggest they find a career in something that does make them happy.
WHAT KIND OF LEADER ARE YOU?
As I said, the email I received from my colleague Raghavendra Manavalli got me thinking about my leadership style. (It turns out that Raghu – who in the nine years I have mentored him has risen from software engineer to our operations director in India – emailed me because he was in the process of thinking about his leadership style.) My advice from what I have learned as a leader of a high performing team: Collaborate with your team leaders to build trust and respect – and teach/encourage them to do likewise. Develop behavior-changing metrics to measure your way towards clear goals. Following these principles, you will find your way to success.
Of course, there are various ways to be a leader. One size doesn’t fit all. But it’s important that you understand your approach. Can you summarize your leadership style? Do you have a “leadership mantra”? Is your style effective? What might you change and what should you reinforce?
Having a “leadership mantra” can help guide you as a leader and reinforce your positive leadership traits.
In determining your own leadership style, it is helpful to break it down into several elements – for example, how you treat people and how you measure teams’ performance.
A positive attitude toward work improves productivity and makes work more enjoyable. People need to learn that they have a daily choice in determining how they feel about their jobs.