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Know Your Team

In my previous installment of this series of articles about how I see leadership in tech, I mentioned one of the most important aspects of our work. And of our lives.


A Matter of Perspective

Being humans means that we can do great things on our own selves, but are capable of doing wonders if we join forces. It is the nature of social animals: you can think of one ant or one bee as almost insignificant, but when you consider the whole community, they are much more powerful.

Same applies to us humans, of course.

That’s why we organize in bigger structures like companies: each one of us brings their diverse experiences, their skillsets, their knowledge, and if we are good enough at making those work well together, compensating each one’s weaknesses with other’s strengths, chances to succeed become much higher.

The smallest community

In a company, the smallest organizational unit above the individual is the team.

Teams can become highly efficient, to the point they act and think in a very coordinated manner as if they were not just an ensemble of people, but one single, high-performing superhuman being instead.

So how can leaders take their teams to that point?

First of all, they need to know their team members.

Let’s see how.

1:1 is Their Time

During one-on-ones, I have found little value in talking only about performances, work, projects, assignments, etc.
Unless there is anything specific to discuss with regards to the outstanding projects and assignments or performances, there is a much more rewarding way to invest 1:1s time in.

Let your team members talk. Whatever they like to say. And listen.

Think of the 1:1 as their time, which they can use however they prefer.

It may feel awkward in the beginning, so you should be ready to use your best ice-breaking techniques. If you are an introvert, that will be a great exercise.

Some examples of questions you may ask:

  • What makes you happy?
  • What do you like best when you are working?
  • What causes you stress?
  • How do you treat yourself after a hard day of work?
  • Where do you see yourself in one year from now?
  • What roles would you be more interested in?

Most importantly, try to understand where your direct reports feel more comfortable, what makes them afraid, what makes them happy.
Especially during these pandemic times, being listened to and feeling supported is vital.

If we listen to our team, armed with the honest will to learn about them, we will help them feel happier and safer.
And happy people do great things.

And don’t forget to let them know how good they are! Make them feel appreciated when they do something really good!
Do not play the Uncle Scrooge of feedback: it will bite you back, I promise.

Identify Skills and Areas of Improvement

Day after day, one of your tasks as a leader is to keep a close eye on your reports to see how they are doing with regards to all of their expectations.
It is not only a way to measure their performances, though.

What are they excelling at, and where are they facing challenges?

Are they expressing their full potential?

I know this is management one-on-one. But one thing I have learned is, oftentimes we humans are not so good at evaluating ourselves. I will give you a few examples:

  • I have met individuals that were not interested in becoming team leads because they only experienced toxic leadership and did not know what good, healthy leads could do. They need to know there are other, better ways to be “managers”. We can show them that way.
  • I know some people who lack self-confidence and need to be encouraged before they can discover their full potential. This is not infrequent in a workspace where everyone is very smart: it’s the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Goldilocks Zone

The Universe is a big place. Very big.
However, despite its unimaginable size, finding a good spot to live proves to be not an easy task.

The circumstellar habitable zone is, in short, the range of orbits around a star where liquid water could exist, hence carbon-based life itself as we know it could also exist. If you want to learn why it is also called “Goldilocks”, read the Wikipedia page linked above.

Within that range, there may be planets that are either a bit too cold or a bit too hot, but still habitable.

The same idea applies to your team members: you don’t want them to get too comfortable, always doing what they are best at otherwise they won’t probably learn much, and they won’t be exposed to different opportunities.

But you also do not want to make them starve, or freeze, or burn.

Do you need something urgent done? Then use the best tools you have, which means the best person – AKA the most expert/knowledgeable on that area – for the task.

But if it is not the most urgent thing you have on your list, then explore other ideas.
Perhaps you could pair up the best person with someone with less or no specific experience, and create an opportunity for both of them. One will be the mentor and the other will be following, providing a fresh perspective. Both will learn a lot in the process.

And if you are wondering, no one on my team ever works alone unless they are on trivial tasks. Bigger projects are always worked on by at least two persons.
Having people working alone on larger features is a good way to damage the team. It causes undesirable effects like, e.g.:

  • Lowers the quality of the deliverables because only one perspective is considered.
  • Increases the sense of isolation for team members.
  • Creates knowledge silos.

Wrapping up

These are just a few basic ideas on how I like to manage my team.
These have proven successful with all teams I have been leading through my career, but of course, it is just a small part of what it takes to build a trustworthy, trustful, efficient, happy team.

Happy to hear your thoughts!

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