Reflecting on the step up to leadership

November 6, 2019 - 6 minute read -

In the quarter gone, I’ve been fortunate enough to try out my first leadership role at the BBC. My head has been racing for months; with each new day I’ve reflected on lessons learned in the role such that I might be able to share them in the future.

Here’s the result: a guide for a past self who was stepping up to leadership. I call out three new skills to start cultivating and ways in which they can play out in a working day. Hopefully, these will resonate with some future leaders such they can feel confident with stepping up, too.

What does leading look like?

For myself, the biggest takeaway from leadership is that you actually have to lead a team. On paper this might seem obvious (like it’s not worth the effort in writing) but in practice is where most of my lessons have been learned—bear it in mind while we muse about the developer mindset.

Developers spend many hours deliberately practicing their skills. Be it completing JavaScript bootcamps, getting close to the metal in cloud infrastructure, honing interpersonal skills to influece delivery… You name it the practice goes on.

Where this phenomenon appears to converge is around the reasons for doing it. A big motivator in my current team is the ability to improve others’ lives through the BBC’s digital products—these products reach family members, friends and a worldwide audience; it’s extremely gratifying to know your capabilities can travel so far.

Your job therefore as a team lead is to ensure that this potential is realised; when you’re in the position to direct ambition you’d better have somewhere for it to go! This means:

  • Having a vision for your team to work towards.
  • Having a direction for how you’re going to get there.
  • Communicating consistently with all parties involved.

Taken together these are the most challenging aspects I’ve found with the step up. The good news is that you don’t have to at-it alone; “team lead” is a people-centric role after all.

Develop a Vision.

Knowing how and where your team fits into the department is something you should develop an acute sense for; knowing your bounds, remits & objectives are crucial to assisting your decision-making processes.

Naturally, this involves copious speaking, thinking, observing, reflecting and making excellent use of your peers. As well as having regular 1:1s with your team, drink coffee with product owners, business analysts, project managers, principals, testers, architects and other disciplines I forget to mention (oh, revise the team’s ticketing systems too!).

It’s true all this talk takes serious time and energy—especially if you’re of a quieter disposition—but the reward is in developing a wide-lens picture with details perhaps unnoticed in the daily stand-up. From this vantage point, how do things look?

Do you see where you want to get to? Is it realistic for your team to get there? Any things left field you can intercept and head off? If you answered “no” to any of these, go speak, listen, observe and reflect some more! The first time I could positively affirm these questions was the first time I felt I had some kind vision. That said, how do you get there?

Establish a Direction.

Working backwards from your vision, what do you need to do to get from here to there? There are many routes to a singular destination, so I find myself pondering this a lot. Each route you can muster is calculated using different parts of neural make-up + emerging context, so really dedicate some time to this creative task.

Recognise that the importance of this task is in setting directions for team members to follow; it is best therefore to avoid getting lost. When we are lost it is both:

  • Apparent to intuitive members, and
  • Difficult for individuals to see how they might add value.

Inability to add value can curb enthusiasm for any job, so remember to look to direction if the team reports it is “just spinning the wheels”. Inevitably, context will shift and you will get lost from time to time—but this is OK too. In this situation you can seek comfort in the not-knowing given the following are true:

  • Your way-finding process is made visible to your team.
  • You can afford to take some calculated risk (and do so).
  • You deliver from steps 1 & 2 within a reasonable timeframe.

Once you are back on track you’ll want to let your team know how to get to A from B. This is challenging—it’s not humanly possible to upload your ideas into other people’s minds! Until such a time exists, the next best option is to learn how to communicate.

Communicate Effectively.

Throughout my career, my confidence has increased with the development of my technical capabilities; promotions can make it increasingly easy to share opinions inside a team. When you think about it this makes sense: the more senior you become, the more you are expected to help your team become unstuck.

Given this, I was surprised to lean that this winning formula—my modus operandi—does not translate well in a leadership position! As opinions are open to the interpretation of recipients, there’s always a chance of conveying threat unwittingly. Once threat is on the horizon, the best option is to back up & try a new approach later—the original message has a reduced chance of landing now.

To avoid putting others on the defensive, you might try:

  • Speaking to others in terms of their objectives.
  • Speaking to others in terms of your objectives.
  • Sticking to the facts wherever possible. If you’re unclear on the facts, make it your mission to find them out!

By assembling facts in relation to objectives, you can present a considered rationale that moves projects, decisions and meetings forwards. A good method for disseminating this thought process is via a Pros & Cons table—they can be constructed outside of meetings, are super digestible and can be attached to any email easily.

I’ll be honest and admit this isn’t always easy, especially if your preferred direction is losing ground. The reward in sticking it through however lies in being able to explore options honestly and seeing plans emerge. Put another way, verbally sparring over “who’s opinion sounds the best” in a hijacked meeting doesn’t seem to lead to much (or worse, utter silence).

Wrapping up: on resilience.

I didn’t set out to write about resilience, but have come since to realise it’s foundational to building other skills atop of. None of what we discussed above is easy, and you’ll only face constant change to amplify the fact. Some of the changes you face might include:

  • Team members joining and leaving.
  • Organisational restructures outside of your control.
  • External priorities distract you from delivering the work your team finds meaningful.

A single occurrence of these events can obsolete your visions and directions—note they’re not mutually exclusive either! You should be prepared to define new visions, directions and communications in response to any of the above.

This is of course easier said than done. Starting again demands a similar amount of mental resources from before and now your emotional abilities to coach others through a transition. When you find yourself in this situation, strive for the mutual benefits of coaching; encourage team members to be self-sufficient with change such that you can devote attention to the new places it is needed.

During change, your display of a resilience might be one of the best examples of showing up when it matters most to the team. Your behaviour can offer clarity in situations that are unclear, optimism where there is doubt and assurance if there are anxieties; it can be a privileged position should you see it as such.

Thank you for reading! This is the blueprint I’ve used to transition myself from reacting to events to proactively planning our team’s future; I hope it equips future leaders to do the same in their not-too-distant roles. If you see yourself planning a team’s future and fancy making an impact, I wholeheartedly recommend giving leadership a try—it’ll change you.