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  • Daniel Stevens

Lead, follow, get out of the way

I recently turned down a job opportunity to lead a team at a different company. It was a difficult choice and got me thinking about leadership in the context of my own career. What follows are my own insights and I make no claim of being an expert on leadership.


Lead

I think my team would say I do my best to know as much as I can about each of their domains (each member of my team is responsible for the Information Experience of a different product or set of products), what their passions are, and what they currently have in their queue. One of the first questions I asked each member of my team when I took the reigns is: “Do you feel like the work you’re doing is meaningful?” I believe this is the central question for anyone, from scrubbing floors to CEO.


When your work is meaningful, you are much more likely to be engaged in that work. I believe that passion work should be part of regular work, not just once a quarter or once a month. That’s one of the great things about teams. Generally, you often have different people with different passions and skills. It’s my mission to identify those passions and skills and, when possible, steer work to those skills and passions. Of course, that’s not always possible, so I do my best to look for opportunities for work that speaks to team members' passions.


Leading means caring about more than the work my team does. It also means caring about each of them as people. Caring about someone as a person is not the same thing as being their friend. Sometimes that happens, naturally, over time, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t have to be your friend to be your leader.


As a leader, it’s much more important that I develop respect (going both ways, that’s key) than friendship. Respect for each member’s professional abilities transitions to the ability to trust them to do their work without me over their shoulder. Respect for them as people means I can trust that when they tell me they’re sick, I know that they are sick. That’s the simplest example but it’s also the least useful. Respect for my team members is about respecting their abilities, their desires, and their professional aspirations and finding ways to help them achieve as many of those things as I can. Sometimes this means helping them leave my team and go on to something different, and that’s fantastic, and it hurts.


That’s the best, and the hardest, part of leading a team of amazing people. Because they are great they are likely going to grow away over time. It’s a wonderful thing, contributing to someone’s growth. For the first time in my career, I believe I am actually helping people grow.

Author’s aside: I am very lucky right now to have a truly amazing team full of people for whom I have the utmost respect. They are, without a doubt, some of the smartest, most creative, and most passionate people I’ve ever worked with.


Follow

As much as I love leading my team I also know I don’t know everything and sometimes you should follow another’s lead. Too often we think of following as a weakness, as something lacking within ourselves. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It sometimes takes strength to follow. Better yet, it’s just smart to follow someone’s lead, especially when they are forging a new path. Following doesn’t mean subordinating yourself, that’s another trap in perception which leads us to think of following as weakness. Instead, think of it kind of like this:

You’re on an expedition and you’re leading a team of archeologists through a jungle, desert, or alien planet. You’re going to let the explorer you hired lead the way through the dangerous spots because that’s their expertise. When you arrive at the hidden temple you’ll take over because that’s your area of expertise.


Following the explorer doesn’t subordinate yourself, it’s not weakness, it’s just smart to follow the expert. That’s how it works. For example, one of my team developed a better way to monitor the health of all our documentation. They want to develop this further and see if we can use the tool(s) for a variety of purposes. It’s my first instinct to throw together a project, list out the resources, set up time with experts… then I realize: This is his area of expertise. I should listen to his plans, encourage his direction, and let him lead this effort. I’ll follow along and stay apprised of what’s going on, but the project is his to lead. At the end of the day I’m still leading the team, and setting the larger course of events, but I am humble enough to know when to let my team lead.


Another way I’ve learned to follow is through mentors. I’m sure I wouldn’t be on the path I am now without some amazing mentors. Mentoring can be tricky because we fall into the trap of a mentor being something like a training assistant, or job coach, or “work buddy,” all these things have their uses but they really aren’t mentoring the way I think of mentoring. Mentoring for me has been more about setting a direction and checking your skills. A good mentor will point out when you don’t really have the skill you think you have, just yet, but will help you figure out how to gain that skill. Mentors have helped me steer away from hazards and toward success at several very important touchpoints in both my life and my career. I’ve been very lucky to have some excellent mentors at each phase of my career.


Get out of the way

This is probably the hardest thing for me to do.

One of the things I love about working here at Atlassian is that I’m consistently able to challenge myself and those around me. It’s the values, they actually mean it when they say “be the change you seek.” So being, getting, and staying involved in many things is encouraged here, and I love it.


That’s the problem, I can’t possibly be involved in everything I want to be involved with. Also, I would end up impeding the progress of my team (or any other team for that matter) because I’m unable to let go and trust that they will do an amazing job. One of the challenges I have to deal with is, strangely, my own passion for this work.

Everything I let go of has claw marks all over it

That’s one way of describing how this process used to work for me, until recently. Recently I’ve started focusing on letting go. I have to because my team is growing in skill and I want them to be as successful as they can be. That means I have to get out of their way and trust them to do their work and do it well.


Letting go often does not equal not contributing. Let me explain. Recently my team inherited a new set of work. When we started the new project I ran the show, I contributed to all the strategy, set up the communications, assigned work, did some work myself so I can get a feel for the content, and then I handed it all over to another writer on my team. Now, I stay in touch with that writer and provide some guidance but the reality is the project is her’s to drive.


Because I’ve developed a deep respect for her work and abilities I know I don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to the content. However, I do also have a responsibility as the lead to ensure all the work is coming along and that the rest of the team get’s some insight into what the content and project look like. I also have a breadth of experience to share and I don’t discount my own abilities as a writer.


So how do I let go, but not stop contributing? I trust my team to loop me in when appropriate. The project is still the writer’s to develop how she sees fit and I trust her to reach out with questions, concerns, and options to review and contribute. I still have to let go of the project, this means not watching pages, looking daily at issues on the sprint board, inviting myself to meetings, or any other day to day work. I just trust my team, and then just let go.


Obviously, there’s a ton of exceptions to each of these. Nothing is ever as simple as books or blogs would have you believe. But this is a fair representation of my current work and the principles I try to live by. I hope you found this post readable if nothing else and that your day is a good one.

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