The best way to improve the quality of our work is to learn and keep up to date on new theories. And that is not all: even revising our knowledge is a good practice. I worked in agile teams for the last 12 years at least, and anyway, from time to time, I feel that I need to review the reasons why we work in this way. I think it helps me rethinking my way of working, especially if you think that any team is different, and any leader has to adjust the best practices to meet the special requirements of a particular team. Not everything that is supposed to be done HAS TO BE DONE, if there is a valid reason not to do that. Obviously, while this rule is in theory applied to any step of the work of a team of engineers, there are some phases of our work that simply cannot be skipped: I have seen teams not doing any estimate, or doing very basic estimates, and I can still accept that, but having no test phase, for example, can’t be justified at all.

In the last two days I have done a bit of revision of the best practices of being a (good?) technical leader. First of all we have to consider two aspects of the role of a technical leader: managing the people reporting to him (I will call this his team) and obviously managing his manager. People that look at progressing in a leadership role does not consider that the second aspect, although looking similar to what they were doing as part of a team, is fundamentally different when you become a leader.

Let’s start on managing the team: there are 3 basic skills that are very important for a leader:

  • Awareness and Self-Awareness: a leader has to be aware of the information he needs to lead the team, and this is a huge amount of info that is passing from his team to the other teams, managers and so on. He has also to be self-aware of his limitations, and to be able to delegate, and of his sentiments, in order to be compassionate while leading the others
    • awareness is important also to understand the influence on the team. This brings to the rule of three: one person’s opinion (meaning that everyone has one opinion that counts as one), a strong suggestion (when a leader suggest something but keeps open the possibility for the team to embrace other ideas) and the mandate (when the leaders forces an opinion). The leader should always avoid the mandate, and try to give responsibility to the team, but anyway he should be aware and be able to distinguish among the three.
  • Synthesis: this is useful in general to filter out/collate only the important info that has to be communicated elsewhere. On another side, synthesis is also useful to try to accomplish objectives in the fastest way possible
  • Inspire: this is a huge and difficult skill, and it relies on three qualities
    • the clarity of the leader’s vision
    • the courage of holding his convictions
    • the communication

The leader has to understand the importance of diversity, where diversity does not mean cultural or gender diversity (or at least, not only) but more in general, diversity of background, experience and expertise. The diversity is important in hiring (you want to hire the best person to do the job, not the first good one), in investing (for example, in training and mentoring) and for inclusion (it is important, for example, to understand that introvert people may have good opinion or important expertise, therefore a good leader has to understand and be advocate of letting everyone speak, otherwise extrovert people, or those with a strong personality, will never let the other speak).

Understanding the importance of diversity brings to another aspect of good leadership: to understand ourselves (that is connected to the self-awareness, probably). A leader is never supposed to be better than his team members, therefore, instead of following the principle “fake it till you make it“, that is absolutely wrong, he has to be authentic and accountable. Embracing failures, for example, with a team effort to recover and to build up so that the failure won’t happen again in the future (and avoid any blame culture).

Still about leaders being the best team member, some leaders have this approach to do everything and be the one expert on everything. But this is a completely wrong approach because being the only experts does not give to others the possibility to improve. The leader should, instead, try to raise the black spots in the reasoning of other experts – this will force the leader to keep learning and to be more curious, to foster diversity that brings different points of view and to be open on things around him.

Again, about overworking leaders, they have to be conscious about they work/life balance. It is very important to create his own individuality by setting the right boundaries between work and private life, even trying different possibilities (like different office hours, more breaks, …) and especially, to keep work issues out of private life, and to be determined in taking days off, keeping in his mind that there is never a good period to take days off.

The role of a technical leader involves the following duties:

  • Mentoring
  • Hiring great talents
  • Execution: this involves being sure that you are working on the right thing and work with people to share the vision with others
  • Craftsmanship: this basically involves deciding and balancing between product and quality, or to say it differently, between building and maintaining
  • Get feedbacks: in short, a leader should be the manager he would like to have. It could be very useful to have 360 feedback from peers so that they can tell him how they feel about him. This because the leader has a strong focus on working in a specific direction, and he needs a reliable feedback to understand if the direction is correct
  • Growth mindset: this is achieved by having curiosity (nobody has all the answers), be more intentional on where he wants to go and be ready to change for it, and have allies to help him to reach the goal

What makes a good interview? Well… the following are key points:

  • giving the feeling that you can do the job
  • making the interview memorable
  • using stories, we love stories and they are memorable
  • creating a two directional conversation instead of having a monologue
  • exemplify and make ourselves unique
  • don’t make your interview based on the interviewer skills but drive it

Since the first moment a newcomer join the team, the leader should become aware of the carrier path, assess the goals and growth. This will lead to better performance.

About managing his manager, the leader needs to understand why this is important. He needs intentional actions to persuade (not in a negative way) his boss so that everyone will benefit from that. This basically means that the leader should create with his boss the best relationship possible.
The leader’s manager has more power and different responsibilities, therefore managing him is a risky activity, so why bother doing that? Simply because a team has a local impact and it can have a limited visibility in the larger audience. The leader’s manager should be a catalyst: he should provide assistance and be an advocate of the team outside the boundaries of its visibility.

Because this post is becoming huge, I will just mention some of the aspects of managing a manager.

There are things to learn about a manager:

  • Motivations (need of attention, desire for control, helping others, need for achievements or affiliation or belonging)
  • Challenges
  • Expectations (they may be not totally clear, leaders should be prepared for the performance review and try to follow up after a while to double check if the message on the expectations was clear)
  • When and how to communicate (be brief, bottom line oriented, use the right language)
  • the manager’s world (so that he may feel more understood and be more prone to listen – this means being aware of his age, culture, interest related large departments, align leader’s needs with his manager’s ones…)

Last concept to focus on is the Social Capital that has to be considered as a currency for buying the attention of someone else, especially our manager. The way we gain it is by doing a great work, get some sort of award, do some public speaking or by helping others. This grants us the possibility to be important when we speak with someone who is important, as our manager. But we should not abuse of this “currency“, no matter how we gained it, so we should really consider if a topic we want to raise our voice on is really important before having a strong opinion that will make our Social Capital coins being spent.

I think it is enough for a review on the role of a technical leader, for now. Stay tuned!