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Thoughts from leadership

Leading his hard. I have had successes and failures throughout my personal and professional life. In my career I have overseen projects with a handful of other engineers at the same stage of their careers, or more junior. I have run various local engineering organizations with members of all ages and background, and have overseen social organizations in college. In this article, I’ll summarize the main things to keep in mind and strive for (How to lead) as well as points of friction and things to be careful about.

What makes a great leader - How to lead:

How do you know if you are doing the right thing? I don’t think there is an ultimate right way, but these are some things that I try to keep in mind as the overarching plan.

Have a vision

Primarily, you need to have a vision and plan. What is it that you want to achieve with your team? What is the timeline, and how can it be broken down into important milestones. How does that impact future plans? What is it building toward? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the team members, and how can their strengths be leveraged in the big picture?

As a leader, you should have an understanding of all of those things. That doesn’t mean micro-manage, but there should be an overall structure that and set of goals that people are working toward. Once you have that structure and understand how the team will play in that structure, then you move on to the next point: communication.

Communicate Expectations and the Big Picture

This is one that I have definitely missed in the past. You are going along, cranking out objectives, but some of the team doesn’t really get why it is important or what the big picture is so they aren’t being as effective. Sometimes, people don’t perform tasks correctly or in a way that suits the overall purpose because the expectations weren’t clear up front. That’s what having discussions with the team about what is happening and why is so important. It can save quite a bit of time tweaking stuff later if the goals were better defined in the beginning.

Lead by example (golden rule, etc. etc.)

I don’t think of leading as being the one delegating out the crap jobs that you don’t want to do. It’s all just work, and someone has to do it until the robots take over. Sometimes you may have to delegate a less-then-exciting task to a team member, and that’s okay. But the point is that you balance it with stuff that is also meaningful and interesting to them, and that you take on some of the junk work too.

Working on a team is about taking on bigger tasks that someone can do alone. A good team will have synergy that leads to multiplication of productivity. This multiplication would lead to more effective results than if one person just worked more tasks. So how do we get that synergy going? You need to make sure everyone has appropriate tasks to work on that suit their skills and are interesting to them. That means that you need to know your team, their strengths, and their goals. Have a conversation with them about it. We’re all human.

Some people love the delegating aspect of leading a team. I have mixed feelings. I don’t love telling people what to do, but I understand that as a more senior team member with technical expertise, it is my role to be able to make decisions about the best course of action to solve a particular problem. But once those high level decisions are made, there’s typically quite a bit of room for people to maneuver. Usually, more senior folks will want to take advantage of the wiggle room a bit more than junior folks who need a bit more concrete tasking early on.

I take all that into account and usually go like this:

  1. Figure out a plan for the project. What are the goals, and what tasks need to be done to get there?
  2. Think about who could do what, and where people could put their own slant to things. Discuss it with the team and get input. I’m more of a scientist than a programmer, so the type of work can’t always be broken down into concrete features that need to be knocked out. Things are typically more researchy and fluid and things change quickly. This means that I usually think in terms of big milestones to accomplish within a timeframe, and see what ideas percolate through brainstorming with the group.
  3. Finally, let people pick which things sound interesting to them, or make suggestions if people are more junior or shy (based on interests and goals).
  4. Finally, get some buy in. I’ll ask “Is that something that you are interested in working on? Does X timeframe seem reasonable to complete that, given your other project constraints and work demands? Okay, let’s shoot for that and adjust as needed.” Setting some expectations about timelines and making sure folks understand what they are doing and are interested is very important. Otherwise, people are doing who know’s what for who knows how long.

Lessons:

Buy in is key.

Set those expectations. Let people own their work, and give them the flexibility to create.

Every team is different. Seniority seems especially relevant.

I have lead groups of my peers who have been doing technical work for the same amount of time as me or longer. I have also lead groups of more junior researchers, or interns who haven’t completed school. The dynamics of those groups are very different. People at your level don’t want you bossing them around. So don’t do that. They are your colleagues. Get input. Respect ideas and expertise. Lift up the junior ones. They will be in charge one day.

Intertia is powerful.

You ever ask someone at work (or in life) why they do something a certain way, and they say “it’s always been done that way”? Some people get very stuck on doing things a certain way. So if you’re trying to change things up, you will need some very good arguments or forces to make things stick.

Let’s say you want your team to adopt a new process for managing tasks collaboratively and remotely. Why should they adopt your new approach when the old way was fine for 10 years?

I haven’t quite figured out how to overcome this, so please let me know if you figure it out :D.

Summary:

Leading is hard and requires some finesse. This is especially true when you are managing people at your level. But it doesn’t need to be rocket science. Just have a plan, know your team, and let them shine. It’s just work - don’t take it too personally.

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