How to be a leader without the title
I thought that working at multiple companies would be a negative in my career, but I now realize that it provided me a unique perspective of how different companies work. I learned how start-ups work and how large corporations work. I learned how recruiting happens when there is only one employee or over a thousand. I also learned about attrition and retention. I was in the trenches and moved to management then back to the trenches then back to management. The most important part was going to management seeing what they were trying to do, then going back to the front-line and realize how their vision is often not aligned with what the day-to-day coders need to be happier, to be productive, and to be successful.
Leaders and Managers
We all have had different managers, the micro-manager who emails, calls, and stops by 10 times a day to make sure you are still doing your job that you were doing 10 minutes earlier. The hands-off manager who you see once a month and claims to trust you but has no interest in your career as long as you don't quit. The new manager who schedules weekly 1:1, asks you about your SMART goals, and has his daily checklist to make sure he is a good manager. And of course the bad manager, the one who holds you accountable for all of your work, all of his work, and leaves early the night of a release and blames you for any mistakes, and takes credit for any team successes. Remember, manager by title does not make a leader.
We all have our own experiences as we go through our career, but there are always some consistency in the experiences. The common thread in all of your experiences is you. You can handle them differently and realize what you are learning from the experience. What is important is to identify what you need to move forward. You may need to study a new technology, attend a new conference, create a new project, or something else. You have to realize that no manager will ever care more about your career than you. It is up to you to figure out what your team needs, what you need, and what your actual goals are. Your goals may not align with your corporation's goal, but you need to figure out how your goals align with the political goals of the organization.
Politics and Goals
I use the word "political" because as long as people are involved, politics come into play. How do you lead a team without having the authority to do so? The first question is to determine what the goal is for the team, and then the goal for each member of the team. There are some want to spend more time with their family, some want more money, some want the next title (which is usually due to a want for more money), some want to create something awesome, and some want to learn something new. Now you as a team member and not the leader, you can present options that tie most of their individual goals together. I didn't say all, but most. I thought a lot of this information is common sense, but apparently the more I talk with managers and c-level execs, they view this as innovative and creative. Sad but true.
Let's get back to the political word I mentioned earlier. Management will always deny they are political, ALWAYS. They deny why they are doing things. The main reason any decision made in corporate america is to generate more income. They can claim any other reason, but it all comes back to money, with little exception. Once you realize that, you can have more candid conversations with your team. Here is the goal, here is what is happening, and here is what we need to do. That simple. I really believe that as tough as it is to have honest conversations, they generally lead to more loyal employees and employees invested in your goals. Politics will happen internally always, but you can address gossip head-on. Don't plan all hands-on meetings that are coming a week later. Send out an email immediately, acknowledge the situation, and ask for help.
Interviewing and Hiring
I have done a lot of interviews on both sides of the table and realize that companies hire good people to do good work. However, as soon as they get the job, they don't believe the person they hired will do good work. Start from a place of trust. If you don't trust them to start, then don't hire them. If you do trust them, then let them shine and do what they do. I know the saying, "You don't know what you don't know". Based on experience, you may need to have some check-ins to simply provide assistance in priority setting, workload management, and direction.
Most college grads I have hired have all the ambition and passion, with no risk concerns. Most senior level hires, have all the risk concerns with limited optimism and much skepticism. I would rather be around the people that believe it is possible and need to figure out how to do it rather than the ones that aren't sure if it is possible and tell you all the reason you probably can't.
I prefer to hire on work ethic and potential rather than pure technical skill. Technical can be taught, but work ethic is something inside of you.
Solution People and Anti-Solution People
I have learned over the years that almost anything is possible with enough time and money. The problem is both of those resources are always limited in a project. :-)
There are several ways to lead from within, and almost all of them require initiative. You can see a problem in a process and create a solution for it, and then evangelize it. You can work with a team member and come up with a new idea/pitch/project together. You can present suggestions to your manager and be willing to follow through with those suggestions if given the opportunity. You should see a pattern in what I wrote. Everything starts with a solution, suggestion, or idea. Being in a leadership role rarely starts with "here is why this won't work".
After the solution is presented, I strongly recommend you bring in the anti-solution people though. They are amazing for vetting an idea. They will come at you with every possible failure solution you could imagine. It helps hone your idea before presenting it. The GREAT leaders can see the multiple perspectives and still find a way to come to a solution.
We all want to have some rule book, some definitive answer to any problem. We use agile as a shield from accountability, we leverage buzzwords to make us sound competent. We want to know the "right" way and choose that way 100% of the time. Here is a bit of truth that may be difficult to swallow, there is no "always" and there is no "never". Every situation is unique. We do our best based on our past experiences and claim we know things that we really don't. That last team is not the same as the new team. The new project is not the same as the last project. Each person on your team is different. We all have different pasts, different experiences, and different levels of knowledge. We are not all the same. Don't try to box people into a category, let them show you what they can do.
I know I have covered hiring practices, leadership principles, and even hinted at some agile methodologies in this post. I think my main point in all of this is take the initiative, create a solution, and help others around you work more efficiently and happier. It will make you a better leader without the title, and make your work experience more fulfilling. I hope this helps you start your new year with a way to be a better leader, enjoy your work environment a little more, and approach your team with excitement.