Over a career spanning two decades, I’m fortunate to have worked with some of the best and the brightest people. I’ve also spent a good amount of that time building and leading high-performing teams, learning a great deal in the process through trials and tribulations. As much as this is to share what I have learned, it’s also self-reinforcement. Leadership is a multidimensional skill requiring a balance of vision, strategy, and execution. Still, the most essential and foundational skill for a leader is their ability to work with their most important asset, people.
It’s All About People
"Talent wins games, but teamwork
and intelligence win championships."
– Michael Jordan
Great things are seldom accomplished by individuals but rather by people unified by a singular purpose (aka. Team). Teams do their best when inspired by a vision and while operating in a culture of trust, psychological safety, equity, excellence, and personal satisfaction. Essential for a leader is to foster such an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work and feel they are part of a greater purpose. Ultimately, the best leaders magnify the abilities of team members and lead to collective achievements greater than the sum of individual triumphs.
People, not Resources: This is somewhat personal because you’ll find both sides to this argument. While the word resource is used in project management for simplicity, it also puts people, infrastructure and tools in the same breath. While infrastructure and tools are fungible and easily replaceable, humans are neither. Thus, it is essential not to see people simply as resources, headcount, or numbers but rather for who they are, people.
Role of Culture:
"Culture eats strategy for breakfast."
– Peter Drucker
A company’s culture has the most significant implication on its success, irrespective of how effective its strategy may be. Culture is also key to creating intrinsic motivation in people. Thus, it’s not enough to only hire good people; it’s also essential to create a culture in which they thrive. Compensation plays a role in people’s motivation, but once you take money off the table, they stay or leave because of culture. In his book Drive, Daniel pink discusses autonomy, mastery, and purpose as motivating factors for people and essential components of culture. I have personal experience seeing these at play in the success of organizations.
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people
and tell them what to do;
we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
– Steve Jobs
In my experience, leaders should follow an eighty-twenty decision-making rule, letting the team make most decisions that require detailed, on-the-ground information and often are best made by people closest to work. This is especially true in knowledge work, where team members know more about their craft than the leader. The leader should retain broad-based, long-lasting, strategic decisions, leveraging them to communicate the vision, beyond which they should let people use their creativity, imagination, and innovation. Once that occurs, people feel accountable to make the outcomes successful. Hire the best people, communicate the vision, create the right environment, give them the right tools and let them do the magic.
“Mastery is not a function of genius or talent.
It is a function of time and intense focus
applied to a particular field of knowledge.”
– Robert Greene
Mastery is our innate desire to continuously improve in a craft, which developing software certainly is a complex craft. It is essential to hire people motivated to achieve mastery in their craft and expand their potential through learning and practice. For a leader, it is necessary to create opportunities where people can grow and continue to sharpen the saw. It is essential to develop a culture of experimentation where people can learn and continuously improve. Collectively, such a team can grow the learning agility of an organization, which is a competitive advantage in the knowledge economy. It is also essential to develop personal leadership skills through mentorship and reverse mentorship opportunities.
“When you live for a strong purpose,
hard work isn't an option. It's a necessity.”
— Steve Pavlina
Purpose inspires action. When people feel that their work is purposeful and positively benefits others, it creates powerful intrinsic motivation. It also drives accountability to achieve the outcomes that satisfy the purpose. Creating a clear vision and purpose for why the organization exists is essential from a leader's perspective. This should be beyond communicating revenue goals or market share targets, but rather stories that emotionally draw, connect and motivate people.
In summary, it’s all about people. There is a reason people, process, and technology come in that order. If you have the right people and have created the right environment for them to thrive in, the rest becomes easy. The hardest part of organizational change management is cultural transformation. If a leader can lead through this change successfully, they can achieve any result they want.