Thursday, March 10, 2011

On mountains, beliefs, and leadership


“The led must not be compelled; they must be able to choose their own leader.”
Albert Einstein


This is an exploration on the meaning of leadership, which has been sitting on my writing pad for nearly an year since the events described in Guns, police, alcohol, and leadership.I don’t often say it but this is one of those postings where I must clearly emphasize that these opinions are mine and mine alone, and are not meant to reflect or contradict the opinions of my employer.


People, lots of them…

Back on December of 2009, I took on an assignment as Chief Programmer for a 9 person team. Tasked with leading the team to new levels of performance and execution, within months we had grown to a life-altering 29 people in development, verification, and information development roles. The idea of leading the technical work of dozens of people was not only a new challenge in itself, but uncomfortably at odds with the ideals I had postulated in The Commanding Heights of the Enterprise – Part 1 – The free-market workforce. This was no self-organized team, it was the product of higher-level decision to bulk up our capacity. With a handful of exceptions, everyone had been assigned to the project and had not chosen (nor objected) to work with us.

Before any meaningful progress could be made with the new scale of the team, the first order of business was of a personal nature, in how to reconcile an unwavering belief in the freedom of choice as the basis for the modern enterprise with the apparent incongruity of working in a mid-sized team formed through external factors.

image…and when one person is enough

As a conflicting undercurrent, over the years, I had also progressed on a path of advocacy for quality, technique, and craft as the foundation for building successful products. During that time I was extremely fortunate to have met a few remarkable individuals who had leveraged mastery of skill and hands-on work to deliver incredibly useful components and products. The notion of a skilled developer being several times more productive than a junior developer had long been established in the industry, but these individuals had proven something new, that an extremely skilled developer could replace an entire team of people across different roles.

Back against the wall…

A few months earlier I had received the advice that the most important thing a leader could do for a team was to convince the team that it could “climb that mountain”, that as long as people believed they could achieve something meaningful, they would follow you to Earth’s end.

Around the same time, I had familiarized myself with some of the works of Peter Drucker, father of modern management, who advocated leadership as indistinguishable from management, favoring performance over charisma.

Transport those principles to the mountain-climbing analogy and you are about to find out that leadership is not about inspiring people to climb mountains, it is about helping people find an interesting mountain to climb, and when they do find that mountain, helping them do it better than they could by themselves. Everything else, however important, is secondary.

In fact leadership is not even about organizational charts or mandates, any systematic and concerted action towards improving a team’s performance is an act of leadership.

In a seemingly brittleness of character, and heavily influenced by the examples set by the extremely skilled people mentioned earlier, I do not believe inordinate effort should be invested on those who are not enthusiastic about climbing mountains. Some effort yes, but not of the “I will make you my personal project” kind of effort. If someone comes that close to a mountain, they either brought the gear or came for the scenery. Not only you could be depriving the world of a fantastic surgeon, teacher or musician, but you will also be sapping the enthusiasm from those who would otherwise enjoy their climb.

…finding the right people

Along the way, we had our usual share of shuffles on the team, undergoing the whole Summer attempting to backfill two positions in our Brazil team. In that wonderfully monotone mind of mine, I chose a single focus attribute during the interviews: an unwavering love of the craft. These were software development positions, and I had one question that candidates should nail:
“Tell me about three things you absolutely loved and three things you absolutely hated in the previous technologies you have worked with.”
In a few cases we had to go for a second interview with candidates that just didn’t feel comfortable with the question or had come too “coached” with perfectly neutral and balanced answers about everything. We did the usual vetting for red flags in terms of personality and attitude, but there would be no compromise in finding people who not only had the skills we needed but were also capable of having strong reactions to the work at hand.

To put the situation in context, this was at a time where we still had a 9-person staff, so that being short on two people for three months hurt…a lot. A firm rule ensured we would not waver under the mounting pressure to rebuild our full strength as the weeks piled up without good matches for the positions. It took us a while, but even to date, our two new members surprise me with their technical quality and with how quickly they made us forget they had just joined the team.

A final moment for inner (healthy) conflict

Looking back over the past 14 months, it has been an incredible opportunity to experience the day-to-day formation of a team under the light of strongly held beliefs in the power of self-organized teams and the efficiencies of highly-skilled small teams. Though conflicting on the surface, many of these experiences have been self-reaffirming whereas others have helped partially reshape my perspectives on organized leadership.
  1. Love of the art matters…a lot. Do not let anyone ever tell you “it is only a job” or about the “realities of the market”. People who love what they do want to be surrounded by people who share that same passion, if they don’t, they will either leave or underperform.
  2. Self-organization matters. Letting people choose their assignments, however small of a choice given the constraints at hand, does wonders for engagement and reducing the costs of ownership transfer.
  3. Skills have a gravitational field. An expertly executed task will earn you reputation and attract talent towards you. I call it “skill gravity”. If you are wondering how to deal with large skill gaps within the team, the answer is painfully simple: ask yourself whether each climber came for the wall or for the scenery. Prolonged attempts to remediate the situation should be very carefully balanced against point #1.
  4. Leadership is about vision. It only makes sense to follow an idea if you believe you will be better off than threading your own path. Notice I said an idea, and not “a group of people” or “a person”. Following people is fine on the short term until you find your bearings, but understand the subtle distinction: you want to reach the same place as them, not follow them. As a “leader”, it is your job to establish that idea and ensure people can see where they are going at all times.
I look forward to next few months, which is about the time it will take me to write something this long and abstract anyway, meanwhile focusing on sharing our practices inside and outside the firewall. There was a much larger section to this posting that was left for another day, around this quote from Peter Drucker:
The most efficient way to produce anything is to bring together under one management as many as possible of the activities needed to turn out the product.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Guns, police, alcohol, and leadership

image Back on February of 2010, I went on a business trip to Brazil. The idea was to both visit a customer and spend some time with my new team in the Sao Paulo lab.

I arrived on Sunday night, and with the customer visit scheduled for Wednesday, I had the opportunity to visit the lab during the other days of the week until my departure on Saturday morning.

My manager, Jason, arrived on site on Monday afternoon, joining me in the meet-and-greet with the local manager. Taking a couple of vacation days before the trip forced me to split my time between the team and a backlog of email chores that invaded Monday night.

Next time, put it in the trunk…

Tuesday would not be so uneventful. Now joined by Russ, our senior architect, our three-person crew managed to elbow other guests in the rather luxurious hotel lobby and secure a cab by 8AM.

This is the point where I made my worst mistake in that trip: in the rush to secure the cab, I left my briefcase containing the IBM notebook on my lap instead of insisting that it be put in the car’s trunk. Halfway through our trip to the IBM site, our cab stopped in traffic for about 30 seconds, enough time for an armed motorcycle rider to tap my window with the barrel of a small handgun. The barrel seemed fairly weathered and I obliged with my equally weathered work equipment.

Sitting in the back, Jason and Russ were not robbed, but were just as shaken. With the rest of the day somewhat taken by filling various incident reports with IBM and local police, I figured my weekly stupidity quota was over and decided to muscle through reimaging a loaner laptop from the local lab.

…after hours, the secret of leadership

That day was far from over. Before resuming my email chores in the hotel room, I joined Jason and Russ for dinner at the hotel cafe and for a post-meal discussion on motivation and leadership that would invade the late hours of the evening.

My initial point of view is public and sometimes unpopular, based on discipline and technique as the requirement for anything done right and as the foundation for anything worth doing. It turns out the abbreviated version of those tenets channelled through the enlightened perspective of two beers in the bloodstream can make you come across as a bit of a Sergeant Hartman in the making. I may or may not have shared a link to "Technique, Art, and Quality” later to dispel any misunderstanding, and it may or may not have worked, not really sure, not really the point.

Russ offered the cornerstone of his leadership belief, that people needed to believe they could “climb that mountain”. Russ has led similar teams many times over in his long career, so I pinned his advice to a long list of thoughts I have been mulling over for the past year or so. I will come back to that list in a new post very soon.

Reunion time

It is still Tuesday night, back in my room, an enveloped letter from the desk tells me a good Samaritan found my wallet with everything in it sans cash and brought it back to the hotel. It even had the IBM badges neatly stripped of their plastic hooks and slotted next to the (already cancelled) credit cards and hotel room card. Interesting factoid, this would *not* be the last time I was reunited to my wallet sans cash on 2010, that wallet is either as loyal as a dog or cursed, or both.

Reminiscing times…

On Wednesday we headed back to the IBM site in an inconspicuously executive cab, bulked up our party with the local customer rep and then headed back out to our scheduled customer visit. I often forget how much fun I have during customer visits and being outside the lab. Other than frequent traveling I could get used to that life.

…times to be remembered

Thursday and Friday rounded up the visit to the lab with enough quality time with the team before my departure on Saturday morning. I cannot value enough the opportunity to have met my new colleagues face to face and I cannot value enough the realization of the 13 years separating my initial days in the Brazil lab and this visit, a mixture of time warp and role swap.

I would still be back to the lab during Summer time (which means I had two Winters during 2010, one on each hemisphere) for a longer stay spread out between working remotely from my home town and periodic visits to the lab.

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