Lessons in Leadership

Yesterday I attended The Lead Developer conference run by our sister company White October Events.

The conference is in its second year. I attended last year mainly because my friend Sam Barnes was speaking and I was keen to support my colleagues organising the event.

However, much to my surprise, the content resonated with me as much as my developer colleagues. I’m a project manager btw.

I was, therefore, keen to attend for the second year and it didn’t disappoint.

Here are my key takeaways from my favourite four talks.

Keynote, Leadership by the number. Rands / Michael Loop

I’ve followed Rands on Twitter for years and really admire how he readily shares his experience of leadership with the community through his writing, speaking and slack group.

If I had to condense Rands talk into three words it would be these

“Be unfailingly kind”

Now that’s something, I aspire to be but what does that look like in practice

  • Carry the burden to over-communicate.

It is your job to gather information, filter it and deliver it to others. As another speaker said later in the day “Ambiguity is bias” make sure each team member has the access to the same information and context.

  • Take your commitments seriously.

Don’t bump or miss 1:1’s. For you, this might just be another meeting but for the other person it might be the most important meeting of their week. Also, start and finish meetings on time, it’s disrespectful and inefficient to do otherwise.

  • Make time to talk.

Rands spoke about an hourly weekly meeting he holds with his team where they share their highs and lows and discuss and resolve issues within the team.

Don’t dismiss or disregard the importance of chit chat, it’s how you find out what is going on in your coworker’s lives. Meetings like these are a strategic investment in the future health of the company.

  • Say the hard thing at the right time.

He explains that we all underestimate the cost of not saying the hard thing at the right time.

If we don’t deal with issues when we see them, they grow arms and legs and by the point someone else flags a trait in that individual, that you noticed three months ago but didn’t do anything about, it becomes a whole lot harder to deal with.

As a leader, it is your job to set the tone and cadence and rules around what is and isn’t OK, don’t tolerate people who are drunk with power because you value what that person brings to the table.

Hacking verbal communication systems. Ryan Alexander.

Ryan started by showing a definition of the word conversation, concentrating on the point that conversation is the exchange of ideas.

Conversation is often unevenly distributed and it’s our job as leaders to ensure conversations are equal.

He suggests one of the best ways to do this is to use hand signals in meetings.

These hand signals help build consensus and when used well, can help unrepresented people contribute.

He also spoke about the idea of the facilitator implementing a “progressive stack” which allows the facilitator to prioritise hearing from groups they wish to have better representation or to prioritise hearing from those who haven’t already spoken yet.

People who interrupt conversations stop us from hearing the voices we need to hear.

How to succeed at hiring without even trying. Melinda Seckington.

I missed the start of this talk but loved some of Melinda’s practical suggestions for making your team better.

Teams only get better with perpetual exposure and practice.

Be the voice that champions the word they’re already doing and help your team communicate that with the rest of the company and the community.

Find ‘safe’ ways for people to practice, i.e. set up an internal blog if people don’t feel ready to share their thoughts publicly.

If you have company learning sessions, introduce lightning talks, so people who don’t feel comfortable can do something short to start with and open up the topics they can talk about — the most important thing is that you they have the space to practice.

Highlight existing good content to your team members, be observant as this can come in all shapes and forms e.g.

  • a good commit message
  • a nice explanation or response to a client in slack

As a leader, create the time and space for your team to develop new skills.

So you might be wondering how this ties into hiring. Melinda stated 50% of interviewees mentioned seeing a talk or reading a blog post when they came for an interview. Sharing what you do with the community will attract good talent, it’s that easy.

Rebooting culture. Camille Fournier.

I’d seen Camille speak at last year’s conference. She was a brilliant choice of speaker to end the day.

By this point, I’d stopped taking notes and started tweeting soundbites from Camille’s talk. Here were some of my favourite takeaways

  • Build a culture of trust, not a culture of fear. Aggressive leaders shut people down. Don’t settle for an environment where people can’t ask questions.
  • Being impatient is a good trait. Be impatient with processes that take too long.
  • Structure is no bad thing. Good structure helps teams get context quickly and helps teams know what they should be doing.
  • It’s important to provide an environment where people can express what their opinions and what they’re feeling. Team members should feel safe to be vulnerable with each other.
  • Whether you like or hate conflict, replace conflict with curiosity. Aggressive leaders shut people down.
  • If everyone is engaged in a conversation in a meeting but it’s off topic, don’t immediately say “let’s take this offline”. It people are contributing, let them talk.
  • Help your team to release code more frequently, it’s one of the most effective things you can do. Engineers like to ship.

Thank you to White October Events, Meri Williams and all the speakers for another brilliant conference.

Slides for some of these talks can be found here.