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The importance of Listening in leadership and coaching

"Can I talk to you?".

The natural instinct of a people in the knowledge business is to solve problems. The focus on helping others, which hopefully most of us have, doesn't help matters in this case. Over the years, many people have come to me and asked some version of the question "Can I talk to you?". 

My first instinct, for the longest time, was to listen just long enough for my mind to form its own image of what the problem was. At this point, it would start running the options and possible futures for what solutions to suggest. It's obvious to the speaker that you are not giving them your full attention, most likely because you start interjecting with additional questions or even suggestions. Often, people are even happy that this is happening. Who doesn't like to be handed solutions to their problems?

What's wrong with that? It sounds great, you are helping people!

After several years, I found myself on some people's speed dial. This started to become a problem. Which is when I was made to realize: You are giving people fish, not teaching them how to fish. Therein lies the crux of the difference between what I was doing and what I needed to. I didn't come to this realization myself, I have had the good fortune of having some great mentors in my professional life who helped me realize this. Of course, this is the same message that many great leaders and coaches have shared for a long time.

Employ Reflective and Active listening, rather than jump to suggestions / solutions

Learning about this was one of those “Aha!” moments. It is very easy to understand and notice everywhere when you know to look. It is, however, extremely hard to implement. It takes a lot of practice and behavioral change, which is always slow.

Over time I have realized that listening has many advantages when you are seen as a leader / coach. It is not just for those whose role makes them a manager of people. Below are a few that I have noticed:

  • People own the solution to their problems, so they are more likely to advocate for its implementation
  • People get an immense boost to their self confidence
  • People eventually become more self sufficient in solving their problems
  • You are helping people set themselves up as a leader / coach
  • You are reducing people's reliance on you, gaining time to pursue your own goals
  • You are helping people get to the root cause of the issue / problem rather than solving just the symptoms on the surface

So you are saying just sit and listen? That sounds easy!

Sometimes people won't have a problem they need to solve. They just want to vent (don't we all!). While this is healthy in spurts, its always healthier to redirect their energies to identifying the root cause of what is causing them grief. There are a few important things I have learnt when being on the receiving end of a good old vent session:

  • Don't collude with the person venting - keep your own thoughts and feelings out of the discussion
  • Let them vent for a bit before starting to divert the discussion
  • Divert the discussion to root cause and action items by asking pointed questions - I always thought the movie / television version of a counselor asking "What do feel about that?" was a little cheesy, but it got me thinking. Some good questions that have worked for and on me are:
    • Which specific action(s) of this person(s) makes you feel that way and have you spoken to that person about the fact that you feel this way?
    • How would you have done things differently in that situation and have you given this suggestion to the person(s)?

All of this is easier said than done. I still struggle with applying some of these techniques myself. However, I have found this useful and will continue to work on improving my application of Reflective and Active listening to leadership and coaching (self included) situations. 

If you have experience applying these techniques effectively, would love to hear other things that worked for you. If you haven't yet used these, I hope you find this useful, please do share any experiences.

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What I learnt as a team leader

<Originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse>

I have had the good fortune of leading and influencing software development teams for close to six years now. Its been an exciting, frustrating, taxing and learning journey. As part of the second post in my two-part share on team leadership, I am going to talk about a few key things that I have learned.

In no particular order:

You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t try - No matter how hard a leader tries, there will always be people who do not agree or subscribe to your leadership. This is OK. Going down the path of trying, is likely to end up alienating the whole team. There could be several reasons for this, two of which are:

  • They do not want to be on the team and it has nothing to do with your leadership
  • They have a working style that directly conflicts with your own

Listen carefully - A large part of leading is helping others succeed. The first step to that, is listening to what they have to say and help them pan that nugget of gold. This has been particularly hard in certain teams and very easy in others. It's one of my own ongoing areas for improvement, so if it doesn't come easy, do not worry you are not alone.

Be accessible and visible, but step away now and again - Its extremely important for leaders to be visible both to their team and the outside world. It reassures everyone there is someone at the helm. It is even more important for them to be accessible so teams can make the most out of their knowledge and learn from them.

However, it is also a good idea to step away sometimes and give other team members a chance to test their leadership ability without a safety net.

Consciously plan your succession - Building on what I mentioned above about stepping away from the team. Its extremely important to constantly groom the next generation of leaders. Each leader should be at any time grooming at least 2 successors. This avoids an over reliance on your presence for the entire lifetime of the team and also helps the team continue to flourish even when you are not around anymore.

A few other things about succession planning:

  • It’s never too early to start
  • If you make yourself redundant, you have succeeded as a leader
  • Once you are confident about your successor(s), move on and let them take center stage, or move them to their own independent leadership positions

Leadership committees rarely work, it often just leads to confusion - There has been a lot said and done to promote leadership by committee. In my experience, this just leads to a lot of confusion and ineffective goal setting, most of the time.  A set of individuals no matter how aligned will have differences of opinion.

There is a time and place for leadership by committee, but if speed of execution and coherence of strategy are required, there needs to be a leader for the leadership committee as well. 

Dive for details, don't swim in the depths - Most first timers can't let go of the details. They have grown up from being individual contributors where the details was what made you great. I am not saying details are not important, however, they should not be the sole focus of leaders.

Someone described this aspect of leadership to me as soaring high above most of the time, but making quick forays to the depth when details are required to make strategic choices.

If you get bogged down in the details all the time, you will likely make choices that are optimized for the short term rather than long term.

There are few other things, that may be useful to know:

  • Leading where you are welcomed is much more satisfying and fruitful than leading where you are considered a threat
  • Set goals for yourself and track if you are headed in the right direction
  • Do not be afraid to have difficult conversations with people
  • Do not hesitate to walk away from an situation that is just not working out

This is the second of two posts on team leadership that I am posting here on LinkedIn. If you would like to read the first one, you can go to "What makes a good team leader?" 

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What makes a good team leader?

<Originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse

I have found there are always two visible sides of a leader, one that their teams see, and the other that rest of the world sees.

For their teams, leaders provide:

The North Star - A shared goal or vision, that tie the team members to each other and the leader. Frequent re-iteration of this goal and providing visibility of any changes to that, due to external factors, is a very important part of the value a leader adds to the team.

A Shield - Personally and with the aid of others, leaders find ways to shield their team from the turbulence in the outside world. While its impossible and often unnecessary to shield teams from all the turbulence around them, reducing the impact on the team is very important.

Guide Rails - Providing guidance to keep the team on track, if they veer too far off course, is especially important when your team includes young and inexperienced members. This doesn't mean micro-managing the team's work, its just meant to stop the team from driving off a cliff or heading to a different destination.

A Safety net - It gives the team more confidence to take risks and innovate during their journey together, if they know the leader has their back and won't let them fall.

The outside world see the leaders as:

Lightning Rod - They channel all the good energy and input from the outside world and channel it to the right places for the team's use.  

Lightning Rod - They act as the conduit for all the bad energy directed at the team and divert it away from them.

Spokesperson - The outside world often hears from or about the team through the leader. Good news can flow from any team member to the outside world. However, it is often the responsibility of the leader to communicate any bad news the team has to share with others.

Negotiator - When the outside world wishes to make changes that conflict with the opinion of team members, it is often the responsibility of the leader to negotiate with the outside world on the team's behalf. A good leader will honestly and objectively advocate for both sides to come to the right decision.

This is the first of two posts about team leadership that I will be publishing. If you like this post, or even otherwise, stay tuned for the second one which will talk about "What I learnt as a team leader".

If you have made it this far, thank you for reading. I hope you found this post useful. Please do add your thoughts via comments below, about other things you think good leaders should do. I also, always welcome constructive feedback about my writing style and/or content.

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My stint in "Startups"

A little over 2 years ago, I decided it was time to try out working at a startup. I ended up trying this at two different places that had their own unique traits. 

Attempt 1

The first place was a small 8 person shop that was attempting at building a personalized deal program mobile app that would allow restaurants to connect with loyal and influential customers. It started by two brothers and split across the US and India. For those who have been in the startup community a while, all this might have been a red flag already. But there were several factors that led me to give it a try. 

The first couple of weeks went by in a blur of trying to settle down. It was learning a bunch of new technologies and adjusting to living in Bangalore again after a 9 year hiatus. Google App Engine and Python were completely new and quirky and it was interesting to use the Google App data store. I got to try out building services that used Google data store and were consumed by mobile app and a web application.

A month into my stint there I started to feel odd about the way the whole team was operating. It was bootstrapped by the founder so everyone had good pay and not much skin in the game. It also seemed too much like a corporation. There were managers, they gave orders and the rest of us executed them. There was also a small matter of people not respecting each other's experience and opinions.

Long story short, my first startup experience was not so great and it lasted all of 3 months.

Attempt 2

My second attempt was at an Online Advertising trading company that was building an internal technology team. It was split across London and Bangalore. I was tech employee number 2 and was tasked with building a web version of the internal Campaign management system. Pretty soon I had two other people join the team and several other people joined the tech team. The main revenue for the company was through trading so tech was an internal facing part of the business. This left us in an awkward position of having internal clients who knew nothing much about how software was developed and little clue of what they wanted built.

This was a small company with around 50 people across all offices. I was able to push through a few important IT related changes, like switching to Google Apps for email. I learnt a lot about how online advertising works and processing large amounts of data using Hadoop and R. It also let me explore targeting and analysis of user behavior. We used AWS for our test and production environments, which let me learn about the various services they offer like EC2, ELB, RDS and Redshift. The stack we used for the web app was Java, NodeJS and AngularJS which were something I had never explored before so that was a good learning.

However, we had little luck getting time from the people who had the knowledge and expertise on the Excel tool we were trying to replace. We also had no access to the actual users, who were all internal! So it was left to three software developers with little experience in online advertising, to figure out what was the best way to build and migrate people onto the web application. Over time, other team problems made the situation worse, when other people's choice of technology were being pushed on our team with no real reason or buy in from us.

After about a year, I kind of realized that I was facing no growth and what was turning into an ego driven development organization. I decided it was time to move on and join a larger company that had a history of being employee friendly and had a good reputation.

Learning from my 2 stints

  • I want to join startups on the ground floor as a founder or not till after its grown enough to already have a culture of its own
  • Don't mix friendship/family and business in startups
  • Ego has no place in business choices - it should only be fact driven
  • Don't rush into choosing which startup you join or who you bring onto your team in small companies
  • New technologies and platforms that I had not explored before - AWS, Java, Python, Hadoop, Redshift, AngularJS and NodeJS - which will help me be more informed about picking the right platform for any project in the future

 

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7 years at work

I recently finished 7 years as a professional software developer! I thought it would be useful to spend sometime writing down a few things that I have learnt and helped me grow. 

There are 7 main things that I feel have made the most impact:

  1. Plan - Do - Check - Act
  2. Have a good support system
  3. Learn something new, as often as possible
  4. Showcase your successes 
  5. Learn from failures and share that knowledge
  6. Pursue opportunities
  7. Don't be afraid to walk away

Plan - Do - Check - Act

Once you follow this practice for a while you realize using a continuous improvement method, is the most obvious way to "continuously improve"! 

My process is quite simple.

I plan out goals for myself to finish in 3/6 months. They are usually focused on 3 areas:

  • things to improve myself
  • things to help the team/project achieve something
  • things to help the organization at large

I then share these goals with people who can help me achieve them. This often includes but is not limited to my team members.

 

The most logical next step and an important one is to make progress on these goals. Along the way however, its important to periodically sit down and analyze how things have been going, check if you have actually made progress towards your goals and if all of them are still relevant. This usually includes getting feedback from other people in the team/organization.

Course correction is also an important part of the process, where you make changes to your goals or methods based on your introspection / the feedback you received. 

Support Systems

I cannot stress enough the importance of having a support system outside and at work. There are three categories of people I have in my own support system, people with - more, equal and less experience than me. The last category of course gained importance only after the first 2-3 years of work.

Most of the time people got added to my support system with no conscious effort on my part . Colleagues at work who you are extremely comfortable talking to about how things are going. They are sounding boards,  people you can vent your frustrations to (we all have those) and also your guides/mentors. They also help you keep tabs on the pulse in the organization and the industry at large.

Learn something new, as often as possible

Its been extremely important to keep learning new things or your knowledge will become obsolete fast! Software platforms have an extremely fast rate of change. You can be a average developer and not have to learn anything new for years. However, if you want to be a great (or sought after) developer your only choice today is to keep learning new languages and techniques/patterns so you can choose the best fit for situations you face. 

Showcase your successes

Let's face it, we live in a world with millions of developers and most of us work in companies with more than 50 people. You are a small fish in a enormous ocean. I have realized that its not enough to just do a brilliant job or build awesome software, its just as important to talk about it. Please don't take that to mean you need to boast. The best developers I know and love working with are extremely humble people, but they also don't shy away from speaking at length about cool work they have done. If you love your work, this should be easy if you can get over your fear of what others might think. The natural side effect is that someone probably learns something from you and achieves something good themselves!

Learn from failures and share that knowledge

Just as important as showcasing your successes is to accept, admit and learn from failures. Personally, I have learnt so much more from failure than from success. The one thing I have found helpful is learning from others failure and not just your own. Which makes it important to put what you have learnt from your own failure out there for that other people also benefit from the knowledge. As so many great people have said, if you haven't failed you aren't doing it right.

Pursue opportunities 

I have not yet had the fortune of having a perfect opportunity just being handed to me at the right time. Its always involved being aware of what is happening around me and asking to be on that cool new project or role. We are the only driver on the journey that is your career, other people can only be navigators (beware the back seat drivers! :P). Everyday I actively try to find ways to chart a path to my career goals through opportunities others help me uncover or create! It helped me get a lot of the work I really enjoyed doing in the last 7 years.

Don't be afraid to walk away

Walking away at the right time is just as important as pushing on when you know its right. I walked away from my first and second jobs because my path forward became extremely hazy. It was one of my toughest decisions to walk away from my first job. I was comfortable and had a good support system in place. What I didn't have anymore was the confidence that the job would allow me to continue my learning and growth. It took me longer than it should have, but I don't regret the decisions I have made to walk away both times. The scariest thing would be to have worked for a year or more and not have any growth or learning to show for it.

 

 

 

 

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