Feeling the Void

That’s not a typo. A secret for highly impactful leaders is that they have learned how to sense a vacuum around them and address it. Whenever there is a gap, motivated people are not likely to just sit idly. They fill it with something. If you are unaware of it and can feel where it will appear next, you will miss opportunities to shape your organization and lead it in the right way. This is a recurring theme in my recent discussions with CEOs and VPs, which made me realize that many more need to hear this message.

After we talk about this, I often hear back things like, “I never looked at things like that.” Viewing your team more holistically can help spot the right areas for your focus. Let us look at some types of voids that you probably experience and how you can leverage them. I’ll tell you right at the start that the takeaway is that you need to recognize these voids and operate with intention and be proactive to leverage them.

Your Calendar

Let us start with the most straightforward example, one that only needs you to fire up your calendar or think back about the last couple of weeks. Where has your time gone? Are you setting your priorities on the calendar and letting the rest fit around it, or do you let everyone else take the initiative and bulldoze any shred of sensible time allocation? Frequently, executives go for the latter because it feels like that’s what you’re supposed to do. It isn’t.

For example, whenever an executive tells me happily that they are promoting a new manager under them and thus should get back a bunch of time, I warn them of the calendar vacuum. Executive calendars have a magic trait of looking like a bad game of Tetris, and the second you take something out, something else appears immediately. That is why you must be proactive and decide how you want to spend your time. Do not serve the calendar but make it serve you.

Vision and Goals

When I work with teams of good, well-intentioned engineers, there is no question about them being busy. I don’t care how much you’re reading about “quiet quitting,” it is not a major issue at most tech companies that are not going through massive layoffs. However, what you can find aplenty is a team that is spinning its wheels and getting nowhere.

There are two different types of voids that might be the cause of this. The first is the vision void. Frequently when working on products that have yet to reach product-market fit or that are going through challenging times, the entire product engineering group lacks clarity regarding the right path forward. When this happens, teams don’t merely sit and wait to hear things. They start trying things out. There’s a void when it comes to vision; they try to rectify it by throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall and seeing what sticks. However, with a systematic product methodology, they will likely waste time and burn out.

The second type is related to the impact the team’s objectives achieve or how that impact is communicated to the team. Medium and senior engineers often have a hunger to do work that matters. That’s a good thing, of course! Nevertheless, when leadership fails to show the team what their work is achieving, they will start looking at other outlets for self-actualization. For example, as I wrote about motivational pulls, they frequently begin obsessing about tech debt, shiny new tech frameworks, or getting overly pragmatic with methodology or processes. When you sense this, you have to inject purpose and a connection to results to align them back with the company’s objectives (assuming those objectives actually accomplish results).

Organization Structure and Culture

A final example of this phenomenon is when leaders assume their team’s culture will naturally evolve in the right direction. When there is no guiding hand that sets certain standards and norms, people tend to go to the path of least resistance. That is how we end up with groups working against one another, silos, and teams that are more like a random assortment of individuals.

Culture forming is an activity that you always have to keep doing. Just like when you make risotto and are amazed at how willingly it soaks up yet another ladle of stock, your organization will benefit from more attention. When you leave this void as is, you might gain some personal time but at the cost of long-term cultural issues.

Spotting the voids and when it is time to turn your attention to a specific one to address it is part of any good leader’s routine.