Threads #2: Top tips on refining your leadership style

Guest blog: Tips from founders, to founders, on how to take a step back and make objective improvements in your leadership style
4th September 2017

Many of us have experienced both exceptional leadership and the frustration of being managed poorly during our working lives. But for those running startups and managing teams, good leadership skills are essential.

When you’re immersed in a project or business it can be beneficial to take a step back and objectively assess whether your leadership style is nurturing the natural talent in your team, taking them (and your business) on the right twists and turns to success.

“Seek feedback about your management style from others, including your team”

 

To help you to get started, here are some of the most valuable takeaway tips from the recent Threads meetup discussion with founders and senior managers on the subject of leadership;

Be ready to use different management styles, choosing the one most appropriate for the situation. Have a bunch of different styles in your kitbag and be ready to sometimes ‘step up’ and be tough.

But make sure your style is authentic. It’s important that you match your management style to your own personality type.

You should seek feedback about your management style from others, including your team. They will appreciate you asking and respect you for it. Some may ask for stronger leadership when it’s needed giving you permission to be tough when the need arises.

Don’t shy away from understanding your people at a personal level. Think of them as components in the overall engineering machine. It’s necessary to understand the workings of the components, the inner workings of your people, in order for you to manage the machine effectively.

When seeking to understand something personal about a team member, first identify what you want to know. It’s then a game of conversation to get to that information. Use low-pressure situations to practice this skill.

Planning work doesn’t have to mean delving into the detail. Some people can be trusted to just get on with large pieces of work while keeping you in the loop, others need to be spoon fed. Know which is which and manage them accordingly.

Structure your teams in ways that mirror your project delivery. Focus on projects rather than functions.

“In almost any business, the staff at the ground level usually know where the problems lie”

 

If your management style is collegiate, make sure you set expectations with your team and check in regularly. They need to feel that while you may be managing them loosely, you are still managing them.

In almost any business, the staff at the ground level usually know where the problems lie, often with a clearer understanding than the management team. Take a regular grassroots perspective too.

When faced with conflicting engineering opinions of seemingly equal validity in subject areas you don’t understand, take an evidence-based approach. Ask for simple explanations of the options and allow logic to dictate which is best.

Beware of conflicting opinions which are actually stylistic, particularly from software engineers. Point out that these things are a matter of taste rather than of right and wrong.

“Building a team that isn’t hung up on job titles builds in resourcing flexibility”

 

If you suspect a poor engineering decision has been made, it can be helpful to play the innocent; get the engineer to talk you through their rationale, approach and evidence. Engineers respond poorly to an authoritarian approach. Often, with your support, they will recognise their own mistake or learning gap.

However, continual growth hacking can become a pathological cycle, servicing a conveyor belt of seemingly must-have features to boost product adoption or win new customers. Take a regular, high level, and objective view to avoid the product becoming over-burdened and ineffectual.

Some of your engineers may already be displaying management potential, showing broader interest in how their own work fits together with that of others, and how their engineering is used by customers and to generate a commercial return. Look out for these people and grow them into future managers.

Engineers who become frustrated at the way they are managed are sometimes the ones who become passionate about showing how it should be done.

“Think carefully about whether and why something is needed before asking for it from your team”

 

Engineers who show the potential for management may not yet recognise it in themselves, so offer them ways to discover their own aspirations and potential.

Building a team that isn’t hung up on job titles builds in resourcing flexibility. It means you can let people try out new roles but step back if they don’t take to them.

Some software engineers won’t enjoy having their code checked and reviewed publicly. Others won’t enjoy reviewing code. Create a culture where there has to be at least one positive comment made at review. This reinforces the good practice you are all aiming towards.

Policy and process are strongest when it is evidenced-based. Be careful not to get carried away with process or formality just for the sake of it.

Think carefully about whether and why something is needed before asking for it from your team. Doing so guards against the unnecessary and gives you the evidence and rational to sell what’s needed to the team.

Threads meetups are a way for founders and department heads of technology companies to share learning, experiences and conundrums. These roundtable discussions unpack topics around leadership, business and operations. Most people find at least one improvement to take away and implement.

Threads is held at 6.30 – 8.30pm on the first Wednesday of each month. To RSVP, head to the Threads South West meetup page

Keep an eye out for more Threads guest blogs coming to TechSPARK soon.