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.

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