Versão em português aqui.
A little over a year ago I published an article about my experience as a technical leader. Today, after several different experiences added up, I write this article on leadership in general.
Daniel Goleman, a behavioral science scholar, says that what makes a leader successful is his/her emotional intelligence. I can think of some examples of technically competent professionals who failed to be good leaders precisely because they lacked good emotional intelligence skills.
I then began to observe my attitudes as a leader and guide my behavior and decision making based on these skills which, according to Goleman, are:
- Self-awareness — self-criticism for continuous improvement
- Self Regulation — Emotion Management
- Motivation — Willingness to improve
- Empathy — Understanding other people’s perspective
- Social Skill — Building Trust Relationships
For each one of them, I will share an experience that gave me the opportunity to put them into practice.
For me in particular, this was a skill that I always had a certain dexterity. I understand myself as a person who is very aware of their weaknesses and strengths, but I have always used the feedback culture as a thermometer to ensure that my perception was the same (or at least similar) of those around me.
In the last team where I was technical leader, people did a kind of interview with me. They wanted to get to know me better and make sure my technical skills matched the needs of the team. I never felt that I should say that I knew anything beyond what I really knew.
An important step to self-awareness is to be comfortable when you don’t know. If not knowing something makes you uncomfortable, you may fall into the trap of trying to know everything and fool your brain until you believe you know something that deep down you know very superficially. If I know I don’t know, I will delegate tasks or ask for help without fear of looking vulnerable or unable.
Another feature of self-awareness is the ability to take risks. We once came together (myself, leaders of two other teams and our leaders) to decide the organizational design of these three teams. It was a key moment for this change and, in my opinion, this was not the time to make a safe decision, but to risk the option that if it worked would bring us more benefits. There were 3 separate development teams working for the same product. The time spent communicating and synchronizing with the three teams was huge and this was hindering delivery. My point was that if we reduced the total number of people by 30% and had only one team, the time we would save by having this side work would be equivalent to the decrease we did. It was a super risky move, but I was pretty sure that was the best thing to do. I knew that if the plan went wrong, the blame would fall on me, but that didn’t stop me from going on with what I thought was right, even if the rest of the people were divided into 2 groups: those who didn’t oppose me but they didn’t buy the fight either, and those who thought that idea was insane and that it had no chance of working.
In the end, we put the plan into action and we could not have been better off. Our delivery speed did not slow even with fewer people, we increased quality, decreased conflicts caused by poorly shared information, and people were happier. I relied on my knowledge of agile processes and lean software development to put the idea into practice, with confidence that it would work.
Once, in an anonymous form submitted by the person who was my partner as a team’s technical leader, one person wrote that the team would benefit from my departure. It turns out that this person did not know that I would also have access to the results of this form, so she was honest to that point. The moment I read it, I felt very shaken by that information. It wasn’t hard to know who it was and I decided I should talk to her.
I am proud of my self-knowledge; How could I pass up such dissatisfaction? I wanted to understand what I had done wrong to cause such an extreme reaction. I then remembered this feature of emotional intelligence and guided my behavior thereafter to address the issue.
I waited a few days to have this conversation so that I could be as far away from compulsive feelings as possible. Meanwhile, I tried not to make snap judgments. I thought of different ways to begin this dialogue, and I used the help of a trusted person to practice an approach that would be most appropriate. So when I finally had the conversation with the person, I got more than just “knowing what was going on”; I managed not to show any feelings that could disrupt the conversation and be very objective and focused on understanding what had triggered that feeling. I went straight and asked what I could do differently so that I wouldn’t have to leave, since such a decision requires other factors to be present. The person made a few points, but also explained to me that that message was given wrong, because she acted on impulse when writing and knew that the suggestion did not fit. If I had been carried away by my emotions, I might have acted rudely and perhaps even reinforced the written opinion at first, but thinking about it, controlling my emotions and asking for help in addressing the problem and training my approach first helped me quite a lot and the results were great.
I find it very difficult to do my job if I am not motivated. And I say that for jobs in general. When it comes to leadership, the difficulty increases. If I wouldn’t like to be doing that work, how would I make sure people do it efficiently? What I usually do is always keep my goals in mind, and strive to achieve them. This can be a salary increase, a change of position, new learning, or even the desire to do a job.
One thing that motivates me a lot is the idea of making processes more efficient. I do it for everything, even at my house. Sometimes I have to stop and breathe, because otherwise I exaggerate in search of efficiency. At work this is a goal that motivates me.
When I joined this new team as a technical leader, a complaint that was unanimous among all team members was that the development process was always going to take longer than anticipated, and there were several reasons for that: the codebase was complex, the user stories were too big, changes happened in the middle of development, some technical knowledge was missing from the team and so on. There were so many points of improvement that I was motivated to solve them one by one.
After a few months, we found ourselves in a much better situation than at the beginning. It was time to look for a new motivation to guide my efforts.
This ability of emotional intelligence says a lot about how leaders are seen. In the leader position, it is very easy to be attributed with an image of someone who is only acting in the interests of the company and not the individuals. This is due to the empathy that we sometimes do not show for people.
The biggest learning I’ve had lately on the topic was not how to empathize with the people on my team, but how to get people to empathize with me. In this team that I was leading, I often had to make difficult decisions that sometimes would not lead us the way we wanted, but the alternatives were even worse. Sometimes I felt it was my duty to make these decisions less disruptive as possible for the team, so I didn’t always share the alternatives, either because I was avoiding exposing others, or because information that wasn’t yet public influenced that one decision making.
So, one person on my team once told me that she had a hard time understanding some of my positions, and that other people might feel the same way. She told me that she could see that I probably had reasons to be doing it that way, but since I didn’t share it with anyone, it was hard for people to empathize with me and maybe that woull create even a distance between me and the team members. After that, when addressing more sensitive topics, I started making an effort to be as transparent as possible, thus allowing a broader general understanding of why I chose some directions.
There was a time when I thought social prowess was having a good relationship with everyone, even if it came at a price sometimes. Luckily I’ve learned that this is not about it, but how I can use the power of good relationships to make people follow a common path.
I consider this skill one of the most effective for me as a leader. I am aware that a leader alone cannot do anything if he/she is the only one in favor of an idea, so a great tool is to win people over to achieve that goal together.
I was working on this team that was suffering a lot due to lack of code standards. Each person was developing new functionality in a different way, and that was causing a lot of difficulties for the development team. I knew that this needed to be resolved, but a few attempts had already been made and none had had sufficient traction to end the problem. The solution was clear, we just had to choose a pattern and go with it, but the path was not so clear.
I talked to different people at different times, explaining the pains I saw in the current model, and how I thought we might think about solving it. I don’t think I was distributing knowledge to these people. In the midst of these conversations, I learned more from each of them and used those learnings to refine my opinions in future conversations. After a while I knew that I agreed with these people from different areas, so we could put some of our ideas into practice.
The point is that I alone would not have such good technical ideas as those people, and if it was just me presenting and supporting such a disruptive idea as the one presented by this group, I would probably have a hard time getting so many people on board with this idea. The good relationship I had with these people and our capacity for dialogue was essential so that, as a leader, I could help solve this problem that the team had.
Watching my actions and reactions carefully made me take smarter actions in the role of leader. Of course sometimes I was driven by emotion, but the times I managed to beat the automatic behavior, I got better results. That’s why I really enjoy reading about it and learning from similar experiences, because it’s not just about being successful. Being in a leading position, I owe it to the people who work with me.
Interested in working with us? We’re always looking for people passionate about technology to join our crew! You can check out our openings here.