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Five things I’ve unlearned about leadership

By Chris Doughty, Engineering Director at MPB.

Yes, you read right. I don’t claim to have invented the idea — props to Barry O’Reilly for that — but it’s the unlearning, not the learning, that has taught me most about what people really need from business leaders.

Everywhere I’ve ever worked has taught me something, while at the same time … unteaching me something.

Every organisation does things its own way. It’s only in adapting to somewhere new that you realise which experiences and knowledge are gold, and which are just old.

But first, cards on the table, because I’d hate you to think I’m some kind of management guru. Most of my working life is spent trying to help engineering teams deliver great products and hopefully have some fun in the process. I’m currently an Engineering Director at MPB, the online photo kit reseller, and have previously worked in both public and private sectors, in industries as different as travel and agriculture.

Here, then, are my “five things” about leading people. These hard-won nuggets of fundamental truth have all been learned the hard way, largely by making mistakes and surviving to tell the tale. If you ever have a leadership role thrust upon you, without anyone telling you what you’re meant to be doing, I hope it helps.

1. You are in charge….of taking the heat.

Emotions sometimes run high in the workplace. Adrenaline can help you get things done but too much, too often? You might have a problem.

I once shared an office with a team who built digital loyalty solutions for a highly competitive market where borderline-aggressive selling was the norm.

Invariably these projects had at best challenging deadlines and pretty much every single time, in the last two weeks, people would be working until 11pm, often later. The account manager would be coming up and shouting at them, demanding to know why the project was failing.

Then they’d go live and the next day the same person would be popping champagne corks in the office, gladhanding everyone for their brilliant delivery. It seemed utterly disingenuous, and it happened every time, the same ludicrous cycle. It destroyed that team — people just left.

Looking back, maybe the account manager gave in to strong emotions out of a kind of fragility, a feeling that “my bosses don’t have faith in me”. Or am I assuming good intent on their part, more on that later.

Working with people who are passionate about their job is great but it’s about how and when you show that passion that is key. When the proverbial is hitting the fan, the role of the leader is to shield the team from excess emotions, to allow them to focus on the tasks knowing they have the support of the business. Having the confidence to support your team and back them in the face of that pressure is a trait you develop over time.

You take on senior roles because you like responsibility, appreciate the pressure and think you can do a good job. Otherwise, don’t stick your head above the parapet.

2. You aren’t supposed to have all the answers.

In a previous job I was in at the beginning. I helped design, build, maintain and develop the core tech platforms. I stayed for a good many years and there can’t have been many digital nooks and crannies I wasn’t drop-round familiar with. If people were struggling, I was the go-to guy for answers. I must have saved a fortune in staff training, and I was happy to mentor colleagues in the minutiae and rationale of our codebase’s outer reaches.

That’s right, I was a complete liability. A bottleneck upon whose wellbeing the very survival of the operation depended.

It wasn’t until I moved employers that I realised just how long it would take me to reach the same level of understanding with a new codebase. Impossibly long.

That’s OK, because the real answer is of course to develop sustainable systems. Write proper documentation. Design with future developers in mind. And most of all, realise that your people are the SMEs and you’re supposed to be helping them to do their job. Forget about being the Answers Guy. Being the Questions Guy is much more all-around useful.

So, you build a team who can actually provide the answers. And how you arrive at those answers is important. Some people are vocal with their input but others may prefer to reflect and talk 1:1, or work on a shared document. Of course, it’s fine for someone to say their views have been covered by everyone else. Either way, that full spectrum of views makes for better decisions.

And if you find you’re always assembling the same few faces — the Dream Team, ever ready to tackle Plan A — then you’re genuinely missing opportunities to bring others on or incorporate new ideas.

3. Assume people’s intentions are good

If you put yourself up to lead people, the very least you should be doing is getting to know them. If you don’t understand what they excel at, where they need help, what’s happening at home or what keeps them coming to work, then you aren’t left with much to do but sign off timesheets and forward memos.

Sadly, as a leader your role isn’t always to deal with the nice things, building career plans or coaching receptive individuals. What happens if somebody isn’t performing? Or if things they’re doing (or not) get their colleagues hot under the collar?

There could be valid reasons. Maybe they didn’t realise their behaviour had such an effect on others. Maybe they’re struggling with workload or a change in responsibilities. Perhaps there are external factors you’re not aware of.

There is no single blueprint for managing these more difficult conversations and people will respond to different approaches. It does matter where you start though and for me that is assuming good intent and building from there.

But if a no-blame 1:1 doesn’t improve matters you need to keep talking. Even in the worst-case scenario, where they realise they aren’t happy and need a career move, you can help them understand what they’re looking for. You would hope they will eventually come to see your intervention as positive.

What you can’t do is let things fester and become toxic. You must see the process through — remain open as to the outcome, always see the individual’s viewpoint but look after the team’s needs too.

4. Be comfortable with yourself (but not complacent)

By today’s standards I’m not particularly technical. As I mentioned, I’ve had other roles where I was the all-seeing I of the codebase but at MPB I’m surrounded by people who know far more about it than I do.

That’s OK. I am who I am, and I’d prefer to be employed for what I can bring to the table. But that’s not the same as saying I can only be who I am.

I’ve developed my leadership style over many years but it isn’t the finished product. I’m relatively new at MPB and still getting to understand the way things work. And that might lead me out of my comfort zone but there are new opportunities for growth too — for further unlearning, even.

As your level of responsibility and seniority rise it’s natural to want to portray an aura of invincibility, an “I’ve got this” type of approach but it is very likely you will face situations that are too big for one person to solve. You need to be comfortable delivering what can be a difficult message to senior leaders, especially if you are new to the organisation. Managing these conversations and helping teams build the path back to health will draw on many facets of your experience. That is what you’ve been hired to do, just don’t try and do it all on your own.

5. Empathy, integrity, pragmatism

I’ve already touched on getting to know the people you work with. I wouldn’t say I’m a natural empath, but I do make a point of building connections and empathy is something I work at consciously.

I do think people come into their job wanting to do well, to contribute and have successes, and to get on in the world while working with like-minded people. We’re looking for people who are both smart and kind. It would be easy to fill our vacancies with people who just tick one of those boxes but I think integrity is about resisting that kind of pressure. I expect people to show integrity, and it’s a lot easier for them to do that if their leaders abide by the same standard.

Pragmatism is about realising that everyone you work with is human. It shouldn’t mean descoping elements of a project based on convenience to you. Obviously, the business goals need to be met, and people need to know what right looks like.

Sometimes, though, you have to consider whether gold-plating a solution would prevent you from delivering anything or as the quote goes, “Perfection is the enemy of progress”.

Having the last word

The world we live in is imperfect. Sometimes there isn’t enough time, enough money, enough understanding to keep everyone happy all the time.

My “five things” aren’t a well-thought-out manifesto, just conclusions I’ve come to through trial and, yes, error.

Everywhere I’ve worked has had a different purpose and technical stack. How quickly can you be impactful when you don’t know how it works? How can you build a relationship with a new team when you can’t tell them why the system has a particular quirk?

Well, you can still engage and build relationships while dealing with challenges like legacy platforms, code refactoring or unpicking multiple, conflicting business requirements.

Finally, I do recommend you check out Unlearn by Barry O’Reilly, partly because I borrowed his title but mostly because it really helped me (full disclosure: I earn precisely nothing if you click the link).

Chris Doughty is Engineering Director at MPB, the UK’s leading reseller of photographic equipment with operations in Britain, Europe and North America. https://www.mpb.com

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