Do it *my* way, or do it *our* way

I was thinking about this on the way to work today, and thought I’d try to spit out a quick blog post before I got side-tracked again.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had success with organizational change with teams at Microsoft. Whether it’s getting programmers to run integration tests before check-in, or helping a team get to a daily zero-bug bar, my leadership style is the same. I believe that people will do things that they think are valuable. In fact, this quote from Eisenhower (which is, admittedly, overused) aligns tightly with my style.

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because [s]he wants to do it.

I talk with people to understand what their concerns and motivations are. I communicate plans and strategies to the team. Often, I “plant seeds” – for example, I may mention to a manager a few of the benefits of keeping engineering debt low and give a few examples. No judgement or decree – just an idea to put in their head. Later, I may mention that it would may be a good idea to keep pri 1 bug counts at zero, and maybe overall bugs below some arbitrary number. Often, a few weeks later, I’ll see that manager’s team with zero pri 1 bugs. Or, I’ll mention in a meeting that I’d like to get the whole team down to zero bugs, and I generally have support from everywhere I planted a seed.

The big advantage of this style of change management (in my experience) is that the team owns the change, and accept it as part of the way they work. The disadvantage, is that it takes time. To me, that time investment is worth it.

There’s a faster approach, but I don’t like it – yet I see it used often. It probably has a better name, but I’ll call it the do-it-because-I-said-so style of leadership. Eisenhower also said that leadership doesn’t come from barking orders or insisting on action (paraphrase because I’m too lazy to look it up). To me, leadership isn’t about your ideas, it’s about working with others and building your tribe. Too many so-called leaders think that leadership is being the loudest voice, or being the one that makes mandates to an organization. That’s not leadership to me. That’s being a dick.

That said, there’s a middle ground there, that I see often enough to respect, but not often enough to completely understand. I know some leaders who are able to make explicit mandates and have their team rally around them immediately. They don’t do this often, and I think it helps. They are humble and I think this helps. They have a relationship with their followers – and this helps too. Maybe the answer is that they’ve waited until they’re a real leader (rather than a self-proclaimed chest-thumper), and waited until circumstances were necessary before making a mandate.

What kind of leader do you want to be?

2 Comments

  1. This is a great observation and practice, thanks for sharing it! I have seen do it *our* way employed masterfully at my current company by a senior developer that he is now a director leading a large development team. I didn’t quite understand how he was able to persuade others to join his cause but your post shed light for me.

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