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Beyond just management

Let’s look beyond the on-paper job description of a manager for a second. Indeed, if you are leading a team then you have responsibility for the performance of those that report into you. And yes, you are also accountable for the quality of work that is being delivered and its timely arrival.

But, I would posit that those are merely the hygiene factors of doing your job. If you want to be truly exceptional, then you need to seize the opportunity as the leader of that team to influence others to create the organization that you wish to see beyond that which is under your immediate control.

Now being influential isn’t about office politics or being manipulative. It’s about being a role model for others, encompassing those on your team and those in the wider organization. It’s about having the right connections to the right people and the rapport you need to get what you need done.

Influence opens doors for you and your team. Being more influential has a net positive effect on everyone that you work with. For your team, having an influential leader is motivating and inspiring. It can also make your team more impactful and as a result give them more interesting and fulfilling work to do. For others in the organization, it demonstrates where you set the bar, and this mandates what you expect from those that you collaborate with.

Let’s explore how you can grow your influence inside and outside of your team. But first, what actually is it?

Leadership and influence

Take a minute and think of some people that you would consider to be influential leaders. If you look away from the screen and maybe look at the ceiling, or sky, or train carriage roof, depending on where you are, of course, who is it that springs to mind? Is it Barack Obama? How about Bill Gates? Elon Musk? Somebody in your family?

OK, that’s an interesting choice that you’ve made. What is it about these people that makes them influential?

I tried the exercise and here’s what I thought were characteristics of an influential leader. These thoughts are by no means comprehensive, but I imagined people that had:

  • A track record of notable achievements: They had achieved some impressive feats, such as being elected to public office, building a company, or demonstrating amazing service to humanity.
  • Appropriate public persona: My imagination conjured a combination of charisma, seriousness in their cause, class and an understated confidence.
  • A clear moral compass: These people were transparent in how they felt about big issues, and acted in a way that was congruent with how they felt. There was no manipulation or coercion.
  • Experience of running large companies, projects or initiatives: Typically the people that I imagined were responsible for leading many people, and in turn those people had confidence and trust in them.

What doing this exercise highlighted to me is that it’s not enough to just inhabit a particular leadership position. In addition to that a leader needs to make sure that they absolutely deliver on their work and promises and that they, in parallel, seek to improve the portrayal that others have of them through building trust and practicing transparent communication. After all, the view that people have of you will be the view that they have of your organization, whether you like it or not.

Those that succeed at being a strong influential leader are able to align their own motivations with that of their teams and use their influence to make their organization a better place. Good leaders have people that enjoy working for them and others that want to work for them. Beyond their immediate peers they are seen as an asset to the company through their actions.

So how can you begin to grow your own influence?

Growing your influence

Nobody starts out influential. It must be earned. We’ll start by looking at ways that a new team lead can begin to build their influence with the goal of improving their own team.

Your corner and how to fight it

Step one: position yourself.

Running a team for the first time can be eye-opening as you are now in the middle of the chain of command: you’re effectively making the team do something that someone else is telling you to do. At first, it can feel weakening, so it’s important that you begin to build your influence so that you and your team can become more autonomous.

How can you do this?

  • Deliver. If you’re running an engineering team, the most important thing you can do is ship software on time. If projects are extremely large, find ways that you can ship increments and demonstrate progress. This is absolutely paramount.
  • Communicate. Speaking as an engineer, I feel that by default we don’t communicate enough about our success. During times when I have made an effort to communicate more about my team’s achievements (e.g. via a talk or email newsletter) I have worried about over-communicating or being boastful, but in practice, others like to see success and celebrate it.
  • Fight their corner. There will always be situations where there is an unreasonable ask from your team, or where your team are struggling in a situation that is outside of their control. In these situations, you need to assume a leadership role and protect their best interests whilst being affable and cooperative.

Focussing on delivery, communication and the best interests of your team, with time, will make you an excellent manager. Importantly it will also grow your influence, making your staff want to stay with you and give their best.

Expanding your influence to the department

Step two: grow your influence outside of your team.

Be default, running a team well will already make you influential. But how can you work on growing your influence so that can begin to positively affect the entire department?

  • Keep delivering. This theme runs throughout. The more projects you deliver, the more influence that you hold as a trusted member of the department. Continual reliable delivery allows you to…
  • Take on higher stakes work. By delivering constantly, you become a more trustworthy pair of hands for critically important projects. By continuing to better yourself, you attract higher value work that has a greater impact on the whole department. It’s a virtuous circle.
  • Be selfless in helping other teams. As much as you have a duty to protect your own team, you need to work for the greater good, or else you will project the image that you are cosseting towards your team and hostile against others. Give your time and resources reasonably to help move things along for the department.
  • Grow others in your team. Great leaders typically have great staff working for them. Ensuring that your staff grow on the right trajectory means that they will be an asset to the department via their interactions.

Now, think even bigger. You don’t need to be the CTO to do so.

Influencing the whole company

Step three: think even bigger than your department. How can you become an influential asset for your whole company? It might be easier than you think.

  • Keep delivering high stakes features. Did I mention that you need to keep shipping? Oh, I did already? If you’ve grown your influence to attract some of the most important work that the department is doing, you still need to be sure that you ship on time and that it is of high quality. Get this right, and the rest will follow.
  • Give talks. Speaking is a fantastic way of growing your influence. You don’t need to go and talk at an A1-grade conference: to begin with you can make sure that you and your team are giving internal technical talks on how you built your features, and you can open the attendance to anyone in the company who wishes to attend. You can see whether you can get a slot at the company meeting to show what you and your team have been working on. You can offer your time to appear as a guest at other meetings such sales kick-offs and Q&As in order to raise your profile.
  • Grow your network beyond the department. You should consider building a network of peers inside the business. It’s a great way of beginning to experience what is going on at the periphery of the company and being able to offer your opinion and influence there. Having connections in sales and marketing is a fantastic way to ensure that what you and your team are producing is of significant impact.
  • Be a role model. Always act professionally and sensibly. With the use of tools like Slack, the public stage is no longer a talk in front of the whole company; it can be a discussion in a public chat channel. Before throwing yourself headfirst at a conversation, take a step back and think whether you’re representing yourself properly and contributing to the greater good. Sometimes it’s better to not get involved and to break off into a face to face discussion. Treat others how you would wish to be treated yourself and you will find that more doors open for you.

In summary

Growing your influence within your role is hard and takes time. Don’t expect change overnight. But, with continued practice, you will find that the business is becoming more like you through your positive influence and your autonomy, and your impact and enjoyment in your job will increase.

Letting go of control

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What do I even do any more?

Zoe is settling into her second year of being a team lead. Her responsibilities have grown considerably since she took the role. She’s taking a lead on hiring JavaScript developers in her department, she’s involved in an initiative to speed up deploys of the application, and her team has grown considerably and require much more day-to-day organization and interaction when compared to the three person team that she started with. That’s when things are going smoothly, which isn’t always the case.

She’s beginning to feel frustrated. Every day she tries her best to ring fence time to open her IDE and contribute. But every time that she does, she finds that something gets in the way: an interruption, an email, and sometimes even a nagging feeling of guilt that there is something else that she should be pointing her attention towards rather than producing lines of code. She feels conflicted because she is meant to be setting a good example, yet she is the most unreliable developer on her team.

She remembers how easy it was to feel satisfied before she became a manager. She would tangibly produce positive change to the codebase every day through writing new features, deleting unused cruft and refactoring. She felt like she was contributing at a high level. But now many of her days feel scattershot and unfinished.

Is this her fault?

The frustration of management

Management and leadership are messy. Rarely is any day the same as the last. With time and continued exposure, this is exactly what makes the role so interesting. However, for new managers that are coming from an individual contributor role, this is what can make their new role overwhelming, exhausting, and unsatisfying. This is especially true for those that have perfectionist qualities: the mindset that made them great programmers can work against them as a manager resulting in them feeling like they are doing an utterly terrible job.

Yet, to fight the messy nature of the job is to ultimately lose. Like life, it can only be controlled by best effort. Events will always happen that will be impossible to pre-empt, so the sooner that you are open to accepting this situation then the more relaxed and effective that you will be as a manager. You are now managing humans rather than code, and humans can be much more varied and unpredictable.

Letting go

Since management at its worst is being exposed to pandemonium, you want to begin to let go of your previous wish to control everything. So let’s start letting go. But what does that mean?

  • Accept that no day is the same. You will have days of both blissful organization and progress and days of utter chaos and emotion. Both are OK, and both are equally part of the job. Any effort to control exactly what each day will be like is doomed to failure and frustration. You can only do your best and accept that it is all you can do.
  • Accept that your output is less concrete. When you were an individual contributor you could judge that you’d had a successful day easily because there were so many checkpoints that were under your control: lines of code written, pull requests reviewed or merged, bugs fixed and features deployed to live. Managerial work has very few clear checkpoints: you are sailing the boat as best as you can in the changing winds. The sooner you are accepting of this, the better.
  • Accept that your old methods of control are no longer useful. If, through feelings of being uncomfortable, you default to your old methods of control even though they’re not what you primarily should be doing (e.g. doing technical busywork that should be delegated) then you need to reassess whether that is the best way that you can increase your team’s output. It probably isn’t. Get more comfortable being uncomfortable.

For the new manager, these principles are unnatural and require constant practice. Make the act of reflection on how you are spending your time a weekly conversation with your own manager so you can ensure you are leading yourself and your team in the right direction. Manage, don’t meddle.

Breathing space

By accepting that you shouldn’t meddle, how can you create the space to allow yourself to become a more effective manager? Here’s some ideas of things that you can do.

  • Delegate by default. When you feel the urge to dive in to a particular piece of work, ask yourself whether you are the right person to be doing it. Sure, you may be theoretically more available than your team to quickly complete a task before they can get around to it, but fundamentally your role isn’t to be the broom wagon behind your team. Instead, you should be at the front of the peloton. Unless it’s something only you can do, you should be protecting your own time and delegating consistently to your staff.
  • Purposely block out time in your calendar. To prevent yourself from getting involved in busywork or unimportant meetings, block out set mornings or afternoons in your calendar regularly for yourself. How you choose to fill this time is up to you. You could use the time to sit and think and plan for the future, or to review the work that your team has been doing, or even go and connect with your peers in your company. Although your previous life as an individual contributor would encourage you to not do this and instead immediately pick up another ticket, you need to become comfortable with some unstructured drifting as often the best ideas emerge when you are not busy.
  • Ask your boss how you could contribute to their initiatives. You can force yourself to think outside of your own team by asking to be part of wider initiatives that your manager is running. These could be departmental issues such as defining career paths, improving the hiring process, or exposing yourself to other parts of the business: what’s going on in Sales right now? What about Product, or Marketing? Exposure to new people and topics help you grow as a professional, expand your network, and once again, help you have some new and interesting ideas.

In summary

Although it might be unnatural, you need to let go of control in order to be comfortable and effective as a manager. It also will protect your sanity.

Instead of concerning yourself with busywork or tasks that used to bring you satisfaction as an individual contributor, you need to purposefully take a step back and allow yourself the space to roam. Not only does this allow you to be more available reactively when your staff need you, it also creates a space that allows you to think of the vision that you have for the future of your team and department.


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What are they up to?

Have you ever noticed that your preconceptions can affect your judgement? Let’s test that theory out.

Imagine, if you will, that there are two hypothetical engineers. The first, who we will call Alice, is a total superstar in your department. Everyone thinks that she is brilliant. If you had to get something critical done you would give it to her. In fact, you’re not sure how you’d get things done without her around! The second engineer, who we will call Bob, is the opposite of Alice. He hasn’t been performing well recently, and has been finding it hard to produce quality work on time. He’s going through a performance improvement plan as we speak, and it’s uncertain as to whether he’s going to pass it. It doesn’t seem like his heart is in it any more.

Given what we know about Alice and Bob, what would you think that they were up to if:

  • You couldn’t find them at their desk
  • They were working from home
  • They were getting in at 11AM
  • They were leaving early twice a week?

Would you assume that if you couldn’t find Alice it was because she was attending to something very important, or in a meeting? What about Bob? Would you assume he had slept in? If Alice was working from home, would you assume that she is trying her best to juggle life commitments or that she really wants to concentrate on a critical piece of work? If the same situation occurred for Bob, would you assume that he’s slacking off instead?

These preconceptions won’t be coming from you alone. They’ll be coming from others in the office too, regardless of their fairness.

As a manager, you’ll be responsible for the flexibility that you give your staff. How can you make sure that you give that flexibility fairly in a way that doesn’t undermine the respect that people have for you?


Let’s talk about chits. What are they?

By definition, a chit is a short official note, typically recording something which is owed. For example, a chit could be written by a guest taking something from the drinks cabinet; a promise that it’ll get paid back later. In the UK I’ve been more privy to the term IOU rather than chit.

If you were the owner of the drinks cabinet, you may feel that if the person leaving the chits was your best friend, then you would be totally fine with them having them stack up continually over time; you’re 100% sure that they’ll pay you back as you trust them. If the chits were left by a stranger, especially by one who you didn’t trust, then you probably wouldn’t be comfortable with them taking anything at all in the first place.

You can apply this same logic to flexibility that you give your employees. The more trustworthy and high-performing the employee, the more chits that they are allowed to have. This gives your best staff the most allowances, and sends a message that this flexibility is something that is earned and not a right. Your staff that get complete flexibility in when to work from home, when to arrive and leave, and how to structure their time should be the ones that set a great example in the output and impact of their work. Others should strive to emulate their behavior, thus earning similar levels of flexibility for themselves.

What sort of chits can you give?

What kinds of things could you be offering flexibility over? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should illustrate where you can reward consistent good performance with extra allowances and relaxed constraints.

  • Working from home: Your best performers should be able to work from home whenever they need. This can be for life reasons such as needing to accept a delivery or attend a school play, or it could be that they want to create a day free of interruptions to concentrate on work before a deadline. Perhaps they generate their best creative ideas when in solitude. To begin with, you should establish a way for your staff to request working from home arrangements with a specified reason, but with time for your top performers should be able to do it without needing to ask ahead of time. Now, depending on a person’s role, working from home may or may not be particularly impactful. A senior manager being at home for one day may make little difference other than them not being around for impromptu interactions, but a senior engineer with a junior team can have a greater negative effect by not being there to mentor them.
  • Flexibility over start and end times: Often an employee’s contract will define standard working hours, but with time your best performers should be able to come in and go home on their own schedule, within reasonable bounds. Those that are the highest performing will most probably be working hard all day anyway, so if they’re tired of thinking of complex problems by the late afternoon, why not have them go home and recharge?
  • Minimal notice for time off: Your best staff are intrinsically motivated to do their best, so if they request tomorrow off, you should be a position to trust them and just let them do it. They’ll juggle their work commitments and communication with others as well as they have previously demonstrated to you.
  • Choices over upcoming projects: This is a fun one. Your best performing staff can have a say on the projects that they want to work on throughout the year. After all, you know that they’re going to make them a success, right? This leads to better performance through alignment of their passions and interests to their work for you.

Being open and honest about chits

Your system of chits shouldn’t be something that you should have written down and available for all to see. This is a system that you should negotiate one-to-one with your employees. However, you should let your employees know that with time, as they increase their tenure and impact, you, and therefore the company, can begin to be much more flexible with their working arrangements.

Chits should not encourage entitlement. You need to be clear that the way that you offer flexibility as a manager is not because of unprofessional favoritism; it’s another part of the benefits package for top performers. Those that you offer the most flexibility to should clearly be your best staff, otherwise you are open to arguments from others that they should be allowed to work from home three days a week simply because Alice does as well.

An approach to implementing chits when hiring new staff, or having new staff report to you, is to explicitly outline how this system works. You can state that you can indeed be extremely flexible with working arrangements as long as there is clear proof that the particular member of staff is delivering to a high standard. To begin with, be clear that you would like requests for additional flexibility to be asked for on a case-by-case basis with an explicit reason for doing so. You can then explain that with time, and with demonstrable good performance and trust, you will relax your grip on requests and allow higher levels of autonomy. Each of your staff acts as a role model for others in the department and you want to make sure that those with maximum chits are unquestionably your best, and that everyone can clearly see the correlation between performance and allowances.

In summary

You should openly encourage your staff to have as much flexibility over their work-life balance as possible, but be firm that the most flexibility stems from the best performance. Those that have too much flexibility without having earned it can set the wrong example for others that they work with.

Be fair and firm and let performance determine chits. It drives the right behavior.