2018 has been my year for stepping out of my comfort zone and working to more consistently share my knowledge as a product manager to the greater tech industry. To that end, I had the great fortune to attend Lesbians Who Tech in San Francisco and talk a little about agile development.
The talk was limited to about 10 minutes but it really aimed at dispelling a few notions. The first is simply the fact that Waterfall is always the worst option. The second is that development teams can only use a select few types of agile methodologies. The last is that a team should pick one type of development style and never leave it.
In my career, I have now worked at 5 different product shops that used very different development styles and were all fairly successful in their process. Most importantly, their bottom line was safe no matter how many times a process might be changed.
To this end, I actually believe that choosing a development process is really a simple equation. The equation includes: How mature is the development team? How much skill does the development team have? What type of business am I in (e.g. SAAS, insurance, etc.)? When am I expected to provide a delivered feature? Based on this, it becomes much easier to determine which development process might be the most successful for your team.
I’ve had such great feedback on the talk that I wanted to put it out in the world for attendees. I am also planning to revamp the content for another talk later this year, so stay tuned for more insights!
When I began this series of articles in August, I honestly did not know if there was a purpose other than getting a few ideas out there. However, the overwhelming response I received solidified my last thought on being a leader in 2017.
Leaders need to create a community. That community can exist within your organization, amongst peers across companies, your city, and so on; but the key is that you invest in creating community wherever you go. The importance of community stems from the fact that teams where can be inspired by a leader, but it is often not enough to make a team truly succeed. What is far more powerful is having a team that is invested in each other. What does this mean? It means that a team that has built a community will police themselves and challenge each other.
One of my favorite moments was when a young developer with whom I worked received a code review from a more senior developer, who happened to be her manager, and she immediately sent it back because he had missed two requirements. She and I had our usual one on one later that week and she relayed to me how scary it was to challenge her manager, but she knew that our team had agreed that we would never be satisfied with subpar work. This is a perfect example of ta rue community.
A true community is not just about being geographically close to someone or part of the same social web network. It’s about feeling connected and responsible for what happens.~ Berg
When a community exists, the role of a leader is fully realized because ultimately leading is empowering the parts to become a whole that fully understands their role and the ultimate goal. Most importantly, a community generally creates opportunities for more leaders to rise up. In technology specifically, this is where you will find individuals raise their hand to be a SME for a specific technology, take on mentoring more junior developers, or take the lead on more complex problems.
You may be wondering how one creates a community. Here are a few examples:
Have 1:1s early and often with your team
Advocate for your team and their professional development
Encourage your team to meet in non-business moments like lunch or coffee
Sponsor team outings
Create a private Slack channel for the team to communicate thoughts
Celebrate each team member and encourage the team to do so as well
These are just a few of hundreds of possible community building activities that you can dream up. You’ll also notice that none of these ideas are technology sector specific. This is because ultimately all of these concepts are translatable to any industry.
Over the last week, I have had numerous conversations about leadership and managing teams. Two conversations stuck out more than most. The first was with a newly minted manager, who indicated that he had been perfectly happy as a great team player, and was honestly surprised by the promotion. The second conversation was with someone who was frustrated at the lack of promotion to a management role after a number of years.
After these conversations, I had a moment of clarity. We, as leaders, in our organization have to do a better job of listening to our employees and let them have more control over their work life.
What does this mean? It means that for some of us who identify the “mini-me” most like us and decide they are promotional material we should probably stop. It means that if someone has been at the company for a “long” time we should not feel the need to promote them out of obligation. It means that if there is a young rock star who we feel hasn’t “earned” a management role we should take a step back and evaluate that person on their merits and not their youth.
This will be a hard task for many people in leadership at organizations because it’s a skill that many organizations have never stretched. By forcing people into management roles or overlooking others, you are setting the entire organization up to fail.
Here are some statements I’ve heard over the last week:
“I am the first in and the last out. I take on more projects. I started mentoring coworkers. Why won’t they consider me for a promotion?”
“Now that I’ve been promoted. I have to do my job and also somehow manage to train others to be better at their job. I don’t think I have the energy for this.”
At the end of both conversations, the exact same end statement was said “I may have to look for something else.” Let’s take that in for a minute, two separate people whose managers would probably say they are key team players are ready to leave their organizations. Their frustration, after a lot of great conversation, stemmed from the basic idea that they felt like no one was listening to their needs and wants. As leaders, we have to take a step back and stop prescribing career paths to team members and instead partner with team members on how we can create a path that mirrors success for their individual circumstances.
Imagine, if the newly minted manager’s manager had talked to him and found out that his son has been pretty sick, so he really wants to come in to work and leave at a decent hour. Or if the manager of the young woman hungry for an opportunity had asked about her motivation and found out that she had been told for years that she would never succeed and ultimately wants the title to prove that she is a worthwhile person. When listening to employees, we can truly determine what drives them and retain the best talent.
I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, I was a terrible manager.
Honestly, if you looked up terrible managers, I was probably in the hall of fame. I bet you’re wondering why I’m sharing this. The truth is that I have seen several posts across blogs, forums, and Linkedin recently that highlight some not so stellar managers. In sharing my truth and how I change, I hope to prevent you and others like you from being a member of the hall of fame.
My first management role was less than a year out of college as a store manager at Target. I was the most egotistical, opinionated, nonlistening manager in the store. To make matters worse, I was responsible for all things guest experience. This meant that I had the largest team which numbered in the 100s. My team members came from pretty much every ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and religion. I was the brainiac from the deep South who had not been around many people from these backgrounds. As a result, I would cling to my ideals and was not receptive to feedback. This was undoubtedly the worst quality because there were team members that had been at the company for more than a decade and I refused to listen to them.
It finally took the overall store manager to come to me and say I had to “shape up or ship out” for me to change. I started with some of her suggestions, such as having lunch with team members and going out of my way to have conversations. What I found out at times inspired me and others devastated me. There were team members who took so much pride in the store and it was their home. Other team members were one step away from homelessness and the work they did every day was the only thing keeping them motivated to stay out of the streets. This knowledge changed me tremendously and taught me that I need to have the empathy to successfully lead a team.
Empathy has allowed me to morph from a manager to a leader. It has helped me hone my leadership style to gain buy-in from even the most recalcitrant team member. It also informs every conversation and decision I make with my team. It has allowed me to be the type of leader that receives emails, texts, and calls years after managing a team because a team member finally accomplished a goal. I recently read “empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly” and I could not agree more. As a leader, each day you should be thinking some of the following things:
How can I be of service to my team?
When was the last time, I spent 1:1 time with [insert team member name here]?
When was the last time, I told a team member that I appreciate the great work they do?
Am I being a good enough advocate for my team, so they can achieve their professional and personal goals?
How can I do more to support my team?
In the current high tech, a white-collar era where talented team members know it, leaders have to spend more of their time practicing empathy if they hope to ensure the best results from their teams.
Throughout my professional life, I have pivoted a few times. Initially, I wanted to be in consulting but found that that lifestyle was not sustainable. Then I moved on to retail store management because it paid well. Finally, I realized I wanted to be in technology.
When I moved into the technology sector, I had only taken some classes that were focused on database management and managing technology teams. I would go on to earn a Masters of Information Systems in 2011. After I received the degree, I had no idea how to break in and put my degree to work. I was frankly quite discouraged about my prospects of moving from an entry level technical support position to my dream career of product management. For this reason, I put together a comprehensive plan to get myself up to par with what employers would expect from a product manager. Number 1 on that list was to get experience in managing teams and budgets.
You may be asking yourself why I chose such an ambitious plan considering the fact that I was not confident in my ability to make this transition. The answer is encapsulated by a motto that I follow, which is to “Be Ambitious.”Setting a meaty goal that was intimidating was the only way I could ensure I would augment my skill set enough for this to be worthwhile.
At this point, you are looking at the title of this article and wondering how this all relates. Well that is simple, I started volunteering at various organizations around Chicago. If an organization said they had a need, I was the first person to raise my hand. Over the course of several years, I helped plan 6 figure events; I managed dozens of volunteers; I developed complex business plans; I consulted on technological implementations for multi million dollar nonprofits; and most importantly I was gaining valuable leadership skills as the sole person responsible for large scale projects. I actually became so successful at being a go to person for several organizations that they insisted on paying me for the work, which was a huge plus.
After pursuing these opportunities and getting good at them, I also found a direct correlation to the number of opportunities I received at my place of employment. I became the go to person for new projects, client pitches, and speaking engagements. I know for a fact that the confidence I built working with nonprofits were invaluable to my own success. In fact, I have increased my income 200% in 5 years because of the skill set I gained from my nonprofit work and not the degrees I have.
In the technological sector, there is a prevailing idea that one has to go into either a major industry leader (think Google, Facebook, Apple) or a hot startup to become successful. I actually tried that path but found it limiting because there was a certain level of bureaucracy that existed which prohibited me from doing the type of work I wanted to pursue. The nonprofit sector knows their limitations, whether it be a talent gap or monetary issues, which means they are often much more scrappy. Many nonprofits embody the idea of “Fail Fast” much better than companies where I worked. Additionally, how great is it when you can say that the work you are doing on a daily basis literally could lead to saving someone’s life. There is a prevailing idea that nonprofits can only use monetary support, but in reality, I have found that volunteers with specialized skills are often as useful for the long term survival of the organization.
So what am I saying here? Ultimately, I believe that volunteering at a nonprofit is an amazing way to augment your skill set and to expedite professional growth. In 2016, it is so important in this congested job market to continually look for opportunities for growth that distinguish you from the rest. As such, it is important to look for nontraditional development opportunities that push the boundaries of your own talent.