Successful Team, Pointless Leader?

Right off the bat, let me say that we are going to discuss a first-world problem: Your team’s doing great, and you don’t know what to do? Boohoo. Where’s the world’s smallest violin when you need it? Nevertheless, it is a real issue. So much so that I’ve seen leaders that spotted things could get there and were afraid of it, so they stopped good processes from happening.

The Problem

Yes, it is an excellent problem to have, but it is something that every great tech executive should be preparing and striving for. When I work with my clients, we aim to reach such a situation. Let’s paint a picture with words: Your team is delivering consistently and reliably. Given business-level objectives, they collaborate with Product and work on finding solutions to that, as opposed to obsessing over tech debt or writing code no one ends up using.

Gone are the days when you had to keep rushing from putting out one fire to the next. I sometimes teach my clients to be aware of their “hall count” (more prevalent before Covid, naturally): When they emerge after a meeting and cross the hall from one room to the next, how many times are they interrupted? This teaches us how stable a team is and how dependent it is on the CTO/VP as a kindergarten teacher. When your hall count drops and things start working, you usually find a lot more free time in your calendar. What do you do then?

Some executives I worked with reported feeling unneeded. Even more so, they were afraid of stepping over boundaries. It is striking to some extent some executives are keen to give their people autonomy and therefore avoid asking questions or joining meetings. They are afraid it will be seen as “micromanagement.”

Let us consider the areas of responsibility that I often suggest to executives to focus on. This might help you decide how you should operate.

Nothing Lasts Forever

First and foremost, don’t get too comfortable. Even the best teams I work with go through more challenging times now and then. It might be because one of your senior managers decided to leave, there’s a pandemic, or the market is highly volatile. When these challenges inevitably surface, you should be there, ready and willing to step up and help your team readjust to the new scenario and persevere.

This is the first reason we will see for executives to remain in touch with their teams. If you disengage or retreat to your ivory tower, you will not be able to step in.

Coaching and Mentoring

Just because your team is doing good doesn’t mean they couldn’t benefit from your experience and guidance. You should consider coaching a considerable part of your job. How are you making your directors and EMs better? Are you regularly spotting processes that should be refreshed?

As part of practicing management by walking around, you should not fear popping into some meetings that seem interesting. Just make sure that you don’t take over those discussions. Instead, be there to see how things are going. Also, don’t keep quiet when you see something that seems wrong. Ask questions and listen. If you just ask clarifying questions and don’t overrule what the team and managers are doing, you are not micro-managing.

Being an Executive

Lack of time is a significant part of executives not acting as executives. Being too deep in the weeds and always having a fire to put out means that longer-term thinking takes the backseat, sometimes for years. Leaders become myopic and turn into glorified managers: they don’t operate as real executives; they merely possess a shiny title.

Now that you control your time better, you should use that for your effort to move upstream. Regularly meet with your executive peers. Ensure that you are privy to the strategy and roadmap and help shape it. Talk to customers, talk to the CEO, and maintain your product mastery and connection to the business.

Also, use this time to schedule leadership blocks. These are chunks of time where you mull over your current state, retrospect, and have deep thinking time about your future. This is the exact opposite of the manager that keeps rushing from one meeting to the next, never having time to think.

Inject Innovation

This is a vast topic that I’ve written about a lot in the past, but the bottom line is that not enough R&D teams have regular innovation. We have hackathons once or twice a year and feel like that’s good when in fact, we merely created a creativity jail and celebrate it.

Mentoring your team in implementing intermissions and creating the proper connection with the rest of the company to make innovation relevant and impactful is a great responsibility. You can read all about this by downloading the free sample chapter from my book here.

Seizing Opportunities

Lastly, part of your role is to be there in case an opportunity comes a-knocking. Did Apple introduce a new API that might enable a new type of product for your company? Perhaps one of your intermissions showed a proof-of-concept that merits further investment and research. Maybe the CEO struck a unique collaboration that can change the company’s direction.

Having an executive that’s responsive to the business and can validate these opportunities quickly is priceless. Maybe you manage these opportunities yourself by being the manager of a special task force, or you just ensure that such a team is formed. Whatever it is, you must make it part of your job to spot these opportunities and seize them.

All these are just the bigger picture areas that are often neglected before reaching this point, and that can genuinely be seen as the next level of your career. Which of these are you already doing? Did I miss anything? Let me know!