7 Steps to Technical Leadership

I work as a Technical Leader since 2016. During these years the most important lesson I learned is that as a servant leader my main focus should be my team because everything it’s about them, it’s not about me. Actually, my main responsibility is to set up my team members for success.

The success of a product is a team effort and my role is to build, train, and lead engineers. Awesome teams build awesome products. In order to achieve this objective, it’s necessary to combine tech skills with people skills.

Recently, I found a definition about leadership on a Mozilla wiki page: “leadership is a refactoring job“. Since I used to be a full-time individual contributor as an Android developer for more than 6 years I realized that this metaphor of “refactoring” offers a really nice abstraction on defining my role. And just like when we start to work on a new project, also in leadership we should follow a process, always improve it and learn from the experience.

Hiring

If we are in the situation to build our team from scratch or if we must hire new members on the team a clear process should be set in place:

  • identify the profile that you are searching for by focusing on skills, level of experience, values, team matching criteria
  • collaborate with the HR in posting the new job and searching relevant candidates
  • define a hiring process that is transparent for all the people involved: an interview with HR over the phone, technical interview, a project to implement at home, cultural fit interview
  • make sure the candidate knows all the stages of the interview, the time that he/she must allocate, and update him/her about the current status and what and when should happen the next stage of the process
  • at the end of the process offer relevant feedback and if the answer is positive and the candidate was accepted make sure he/she knows the next steps

Onboarding

The onboarding of a new hire should start before he/she will join the team. Make sure you know when the new team member will start to work in your team and prepare an onboarding checklist:

  • desk and hardware setup: make sure you have an empty desk (for the offline onboarding) and relevant hardware equipment (laptop, keyboard, mouse, cables, headphones, etc). If the new team member will work remotely make sure to ship the equipment in advance
  • access to the internal apps used by the company and used inside of the team (accounts to access the intranet, VPN access, licenses for different tools, etc)
  • call the new hire with a few days before he/she will start to work with you in order to make him/her feel welcomed
  • send a welcome email and an email with the agenda for the first week, with a focus on the first day
  • setup an onboarding buddy to make the experience smooth
  • have regular 1:1s with the new hire to check the mood and the status
  • get feedback about the onboarding process from the new hire

Standout performance

Google did a research in order to discover what makes a team effective. The project was called Project Aristotle – a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (as the Google researchers believed employees can do more working together than alone).

The standout performance or team effectiveness is correlated to affirmative answers to the next questions:

  1. Structure and clarity: are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  2. Psychological safety: can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  3. Meaning of work: are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  4. Dependability: can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  5. Impact of work: do we fundamentally believe that the work we are doing matters?

Coaching

Is about asking powerful questions, actively listening, trust and focus on finding a solution that will help the team member to gain awareness and clarity, and to be committed to obtaining results based on an action plan. This process could happen during the 1:1s meeting.

Different conversation models could be applied in a coaching process:

  • GROW Model
    • Goal
      • What do you want to achieve?
      • Make sure that this is a SMART goal: one that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
    • Reality
      • What is the current context?
      • What is happening now?
      • What have you done until now in order to achieve this goal?
    • Options
      • What options are available?
      • What are the advantages/disadvantages of each option?
      • What are the impediments?
      • What would you do if there are no impediments?
    • Will / Way forward
      • What will you do now, and when? What else will you do?
      • How will you measure the progress?
      • When do you need to review progress? Daily, weekly, monthly?
      • What will keep you focused on your goal?
  • OSCAR Model is an enhancement of the widely used GROW model:
    • Outcome – help the team member to clarify their outcomes
    • Situation – gain clarity around where the team member is right now
    • Choices and consequences – generating alternative choices and raising awareness of the consequences
    • Actions – clarify the next steps forward and taking responsibility
    • Review – ongoing process of review and evaluation
  • FUEL Model
    • Frame the conversation – set the context for conversation by agreeing on purpose, process, and desired outcomes of the discussion
    • Understand the current state – explore the current state from the coachee’s point of view and work to determine the real coaching issue
    • Explore the desired state – articulate the vision of success in this scenario and explore multiple options before prioritizing methods of achieving this vision
    • Layout a success plan – identify the specific, time-bounded action steps to be taken to achieve the desired results and determine milestone for follow up and accountability

Regular 1:1s

Other than applying coaching models make sure you organize regular 1:1s meetings (at least one per month) with each team member and prepare yourself for them. Have a clear agenda and invite the team member to contribute to it.

The main purpose of the 1:1 meeting is to uncover potential issues, to learn more about your team member, and there are different types of 1:1s:

  • to address concerns and issues
  • to give feedback about performance
  • to outline a career direction
  • for personal connection

Motivation

I read a book that changed entirely my perspective about motivation. The book is called Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging by Susan Fowler.

Inspiring and motivating people are key aspects of leadership that are as critical as they are elusive. People are always motivated. The right question we should ask is not if they are motivated, but what motivates them? So, the real secret to motivation is creating an environment where people are optimally motivated to perform at their highest level.

What truly motivates them is having three core psychological needs met, collectively known as ARC:

  • Autonomy – people need to understand that they have choices and their actions are of their own decision.
  • Relatedness – people need to feel connected to others and that they are contributing to something greater than themselves.
  • Competence – people must feel able to overcome challenges, take opportunities, increase their skills over time, and experience growth and achievement.

Feedback

Teamwork involves collaboration and communication. And especially by working in an agile context all the time it’s about improvement: what could we do differently in order to improve ourselves as a team, as a product, as a process.

An important skill in this improvement process is the ability to give and receive feedback. This skill is a challenging one. It takes time, courage, and involvement in transforming it into a habit, but this skill will help you and your coworkers to improve job performance, trust, and also to meet important goals.

Positive feedback or continuous recognition

Is a powerful driver of engagement. Also is important to learn more about how each team member enjoys receiving recognition.

  • Institute peer-to-peer => when employee achievements are consistently recognized by peers
  • Establish clear criteria => recognize people for actions and results
  • Share recognition stories => newsletters or company blogs
  • Make recognition frequent and attainable
  • Celebrate success

Constructive feedback

Helps to increase our self-awareness, self-perception, and inspires us to be more open. It is difficult to formulate this kind of feedback and we, as leaders, should stop being nice in order to avoid difficult conversations because this decision will have a negative impact in the future. Instead, we should focus on doing our best, to be honest, rigorous, and consistent and most importantly to encourage our team to do the same. It’s a 2 ways street: you should give and also receive feedback from your team.

In terms of using this kind of feedback, I find very useful a model defined by Lara Hogan which is called “Feedback Equation

Observation + Impact + Request or Question = Actionable, specific feedback that has a chance of landing

Summary

Leadership involves trust, communication, emotional intelligence, collaboration, achieving objectives, focus on priorities, commitment, and many more. From my perspective, the main idea is to love what you are doing, to promote and increase your team’s brand, to do your best to improve yourself, and to learn more about these skills in a conscious and organized way.

All the time we should evaluate where we are and what should be improved or changed. And yes, there is not a clear recipe for being an awesome leader, and yes I’m still learning a lot of things, and yes I made mistakes but only by thinking and evaluating if we are doing the things right, it means that we care. Have courage and remember “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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