Leadership is a movable role

Recently I have seen two people working side by side, a senior trying to teach something to a junior. The senior one, patiently, was giving some advice and suggestions, the junior was following instructions; it happened, at some point, that the former overtook the latter in what I call the “move aside, I’ll do it for you” situation: the senior does the job and leaves there the junior watching.

So, what is leadership, actually?

Leadership is about letting others time to think and time to try when you already have the answer.

I think a good leader is a trainer: it has not only to teach you the skill, but to give you a framework to approach a family of problems. But being a manager in the design / technology industry is an hard job: it’s one of the rare fields where even if you have a degree in literature but you’re smart and good at programming you find yourself stalked by head hunters. Traditional management paradigms fail dramatically fast.

If low-committed workers need the old-good “bossy”, authoritarian management style, what stands for the creatives, the self-taught, self-committed workers?

Think of good developers and designers. They learn fast, have often a bright mind and chase perfectionism in the things they do. But on the other hand every company lives upon complex business cycles, so balancing quality work, energy and contentment of people while converging towards common shared goals is a hard job.

So far I’ve never known better challenges.

I had the chance to experiment myself the shades of leading a group of excellent people during a journey of several mistakes and priceless learnings.

First of all: hire well, really.

The goodwill worker (also identified from psychologist with “Theory Y”) are by definition self-motivated, ambitious and possess good skills. Various things have been said on recruiting: Spotify Labs for instance wrote a good article on their method. I personally put “self-motivation” and “ambitiousness” before a good skill set (supposing a solid willingness to learn). Underestimating the importance of the right fit during recruiting phase will have permanent consequences over a company life, projects and the rest of the team. So hire well and take the time you need to make the right choice for your team.

Another hot-topic is delegation. When I was in high school I remember I have been impressed by an article about how the Italian entrepreneur Alessandro Benetton during the 2000s transformed his family company into an international, successful corporation through a scalable delegation process (sorry, whish I had the link). Micro-managing slows things down: it’s better, instead, to give a direction and a degree of freedom within the business goals or projects scope. I think that it’s right to leave some time to the team to discuss and elaborate a solution as a result of a creative and technical process. Delegation can be your best ally as well as your worst enemy if there is not a follow up mechanism.

“Delegation without follow up is abdication”
High Output Management, A. Grove

During this process be open and positive towards different ideas:

the best thing could happen as a leader is that someone on your team has a better idea than yours.

A fundamental part of leading and coaching is time. In my industry, often within startups, I have seen people so “operative” that sometimes almost forgot that expanding a team means to dedicate a huge amount of time in giving a methodology, talking and trying to understand people, giving suggestions, collecting feedbacks, motivating, finding the right mechanism to make the processes run smoothly.

Planning for full capacity is evil. N°1 rule I’ve learned so far is to avoid 100% capacity of your own time when having managerial responsibilities over the work of others.

So carefully plan for leading.

Establishing a democratic teamwork where everyone is prompted to say his opinion has the effect of contrasting an environment where HiPPOs blindly impose plans, tools and solutions. On the other hand it emphasizes growth of the team members single personalities; this can happen in formal situations as sprint reviews as well as in spontaneous team discussions.

For instance in Moze we have a meeting on Friday where each member shows her current week’s work; while this might seems to be just a way to make one feel “responsabile” it is also a way to develop leadership skills.

Leadership is not a permanent role: everyone is a leader

when she influences others or when she presents the result of her work and has to orchestrate and collect other people’s feedback. In a healthy group leadership is weighted among members.

Collect Feedbacks

When I had the idea of writing this post about leading a company I didn’t wanted to write a mere theory post without any connection the reality: so I wrote to my team telling them about my intention with the post and asking for feedbacks over the current leadership and management situation. The outcome was really notable and I will do it again periodically in future: it’s been a way for people to tell in a very sincere way how they felt about working with others, the difficulties they faced and where things could have been improved. Feedback requests are also a great way to make it tangible for everyone how leadership is democratized in a partecipative way.

🎂 Wrap up with an anniversary

This article is a good reminder that in July 2015 it will be two years since I decided to stop complaining about working in other people’s companies and started making my own one: two years ago I joined Moze and with my partners Matteo and Giovanni and we began building the company brick by brick.

The big change as a company happened when we realized the best way to lead was a full-responsabilization of each member of the team, embracing change, adopting lean, establishing trust at its core foundations.

These are the takeaways I have learned during my journey, which is still very long way to go; if you want to share your experience feel free to say yours!

Please be gentle I’m still learning.