I have been in my new role as Test Lead 6 months now. The experience has been magnified because I am actually leading 2 platform teams; the social networking integration team, and the models team. The learning curve has been exponential. In my transition to this role I took advantage of attending a few HR courses to refresh my knowledge in management principles. I also read quite a few books. Perhaps the single book that I read that helped reinforce my ideas of leadership (outlined in this blog post) was The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams that Win Consistently by Tony Dungy. This is a great book for leads/managers and anyone who mentors others.
If you ask any lead they will likely agree that their success as a lead hinges largely on their team. But, if you ask leads what their first priority is they will likely say shipping a product, or managing testing of some feature area they have been assigned. Yes, ultimately we need to ship a product and do our best to make sure our feature areas are adequately tested in an attempt to improve our customer’s overall experience. There are many ‘managers’ throughout the industry who are good at manipulating ‘resources’ to achieve some desired result or filling in magic numbers on a balanced scorecard. Balanced scorecards provide some value to a business, but sometimes managers lose sight of what is most important and focus on doing mundane things that will twiddle the numbers to make it fit into the scorecard to hype success. But, managing resources to ship a product is different than leading a team of people to achieve, and sometimes exceed goals and visions.
Leadership is much more than management. A successful leader manages projects by articulating a clear vision, guiding people towards achieving goals, and motivates people by helping them grow. When folks ask me what my first priority is as a Test Lead I say it is the people on my team. But, what does that mean?
Open doorways to dreams!
One of my primary responsibilities as a lead is to help the people on my team grow and expand their scope of influence and impact not only on my team, but ultimately within other teams across Microsoft. Of course it is always hard to see someone on our team leave for new opportunities, but good leaders understand the career aspirations of the people on the team and work with them to help them achieve those dreams. Leaders find opportunities that will help people develop skills that will benefit both the project and the person. Leaders should be truly invested and take an active role in helping people on their team grow even if that means the person will eventually leave the team to find new challenges. Managers fear losing the people on their team; leaders nurture people on their teams and open doorways to dreams and new opportunities. Think of it this way, would you rather join a team in which the manager holds on to people until they burn out, or a team in which the leader has a track-record of helping people grow into their next job.
Delegate responsibility not just work!
Like many other leaders, I have many balls to juggle, and I can’t juggle them all alone. So, as leads we must delegate some of the things on our plates. But, delegation is more than assigning tasks to people. Delegation is endorsing people on your team who will represent you have be responsible for driving a project that has a broad scope of impact. Of course, delegation also doesn’t mean just throwing ideas out there and seeing what happens. A leader who delegates work will set clear expectations and realistic goals, coach for success, provide guidance on how to build upon success, and perhaps most importantly empower the person to make decisions on their own. When we delegate we should set people up for success; not throw them into the fire of failure.
Encourage risk and accept failure!
Sometimes when people know that I am an avid sailor they will ask me to teach them to sail. I love sharing knowledge and experiences about things that I am passionate about with people who are interested in learning. Sometimes people are hesitant to do something because they don’t want to break something, or do something wrong. I make it very clear from the start that every inanimate object on the boat is replaceable, and while back-winding a sail means we steered too far into the wind it can always be corrected. I know many ‘captains’ who yell and shout when a line gets twisted and jams in a sheave, or someone accidentally releases the main halyard while under sail. It’s our reactions to such situations that provide a positive learning experience or turn our experience into a day of hell on the water. Leaders encourage people to try new things, innovate, and experiment. Leaders also know that sometimes things might not work out perfectly and should be willing to protect people from harm (either physical harm on the boat, or professional/political harm at work), and rebuild a persons confidence when things don’t work out so well.
The burden of blame!
At the end of the day I can’t point fingers and say “so and so didn’t do such and such,” or “if things weren’t so screwed up to begin with we wouldn’t be in this mess.” As a lead I am accountable. If things go wrong I first look at my own leadership to see if I failed to set clear expectations, or neglected to provide adequate guidance (without hand-holding), or did I “delegate and disappear.” Ultimate the responsibility of achieving my team’s goals and objectives is mine. We succeed as a team, or I fail as an individual.
I sometimes see managers who are grumpy or apathetic. I sometimes hear managers say, “I don’t like this either, but we have to do it to satisfy some other manager or scorecard criteria.” A good leader understands asks and explains why and how they might provide value to the requestor. I know that my attitude affects the people on my team, and if I appear empathetic towards their ideas then they will likely not share their innovative ideas with me. If I am constantly complaining about something, then my team learns to complain about similar things and we start to look like a bunch of whiners. (Nobody really likes whiners. People might try to appease whiners from time to time, but ultimately they just want the whiners to go away.) Leaders know they are being watched and should always project a positive attitude.
So, after 6 months of being back in the trenches, shipping a product, and facing some tough challenges I will say that I am still loving it!