I recently noticed that it’s been awhile since I did a non-technical post, and I’ve been trying to think of a good topic for one. Luckily enough, an opportunity presented itself to write about a personally relevant topic, leadership. So, what makes it relevant for me?
As of 1st of February 2023, I became an individual contributor again (something that I, personally, requested), after working several years as a manager. Now, some weeks later, I’ve had time to reflect on the experience as a whole.
In this post, I will summarize my key learnings and insights from being a manager of highly technical and skilled people, and share some of the resources that I used to try to get better at it.
Three key leadership takeaways from my manager role
Below are some key takeaways from my time as a manager, there were many more, but these are definitely the most important ones from my perspective. Hopefully, they’ll be useful for someone else, thinking about taking on the responsibilities of leading a team of tech professionals.
Leadership is a skill anyone can learn
Leaning into my own experiences, and after talking to other people about the topic, I’ve come to view leadership as a learned skill rather than pure innate ability. And like any other skill, anyone can learn it. When I first became a manager, I hadn’t received training for it. Mostly this was because I had never intended to become a manager in the first place (hence the title of the post, the accidental manager).
One of the principles I have always followed is, that if an organization I work for is giving me a bigger responsibility, I will do my best to deliver the expected results. Sometimes, it means that you need to jump to something new, and learn as you go. I wouldn’t say that this is in any way an optimal way to learn leadership, though. If you are interested in a leadership role, you should prepare for it.
Fortunately, my current employer (Nordcloud), also provided additional training and opportunities to collaborate with other managers. I would go as far as to say, that in the last few years I’ve learned more about leadership, than in the previous years put together.
I also found and used other resources, podcasts and literature, that proved helpful. You’ll find them below, in the resources section.
Appreciate being challenged, and occasionally proven wrong.
One piece of leadership wisdom that probably everyone has heard by now, is that the manager should never be the smartest person in the room. I think this is absolutely correct. However, that’s just the first part of it. If you are not willing to listen to smart people in your team, you’re doing yourself, the people that work for you, and the organization you work for, a massive disservice.
The manager doesn’t need to know everything, and they shouldn’t need to. What they need to know, like the back of their hands, are these things:
- The direction where the teams need to go.
- The timeline in which that has to happen.
Besides knowing that, the manager should have a small enough ego, to allow the team to tell them how to get there.
This was probably one of the harder lessons for me to learn. It helps when you learn to look at the journey separate from the destination. Once I managed to decouple these two, and focus more on the targets, it was easier for me to enable my team rather than micromanage them. There is also an unexpected side effect to this, especially when working with technical people.
You start learning yourself.
When you give people in the team room to innovate, you gain access to a large pool of talent, that might otherwise remain hidden. I’ve personally learned so many things over the years, by listening to the ideas of people that are smarter than I.
Mentorship can be difficult, especially for the people in leadership roles
This relates closely to the previous topic. If and when the manager thinks that they’re expected to solve all the issues and have all the answers, it easily leads down to the perilous path of micromanagement (ask me how I know). To me, mentoring has eventually come down to performing two functions.
- Asking questions
As you probably noticed, my idea of mentoring doesn’t primarily involve offering advice, which might seem slightly odd. Moreover, the ratio of you listening should always exceed the ratio of you talking. There is a major reason I’ve omitted the advice giving as a part of my mentoring approach. You’ve hired smart people, and they know how to solve issues in their own domain.
However, while you can expect smart people to solve problems, everyone should have someone to bounce their ideas off from (including you). And this is where the skill of asking great questions comes to play. Your questions should be such, that they open up multiple points of view for the person you are mentoring, on the solutions or issues they’ve presented. Your questions should serve the purpose of opening whatever it is, that’s blocking them from finding the solution.
And again, this is where you need to pay attention. It’s easy to disguise advice as a question. So easy in fact, that sometimes you do it and only realize it afterward (again, ask me how I know).
Resources about leadership
Before I list out of some of the resources I’ve used in the past, to learn more about leadership, I’d recommend that you check out what your organization has to offer. It’s more and more common these days, that there are internal training programs available for people, who seek to move to leadership track.
This is the list of books, that I’d recommend you to read. To me, these have been great for learning about team interactions, and leadership. They are not listed in any particular order.
- The Delicate Art of Bureaucracy: Digital Transformation with the Monkey, the Razor, and the Sumo Wrestler
- The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win
- Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
- The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever
- Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action
- Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
There are also some great, and sometimes funny, podcasts that I would recommend. They are, again, in no particular order.
Wrapping it up
While I did want to step down from the manager position, I do admit that it has been a good opportunity to learn about interacting with people, but also about how businesses work. If you’ve ever wondered why and how decisions get made, you’re more likely to learn that from the manager position than you are as an individual contributor.
Thanks for reading!