How to lead a (development) team
It's not always easy leading a team without being bossy. Especially when you suddenly become your own coworkers' team lead. That's exactly what happened to Joeri, who learned 8 valuable lessons on leading a team over the last three years.
A year after releasing this blogpost, 2020 happened. How things have changed... I felt this was a good time to update my post but also add a new valuable lesson I’ve learned.
I’ve always wanted to write a post on how I felt about leadership and the lessons I’ve learned these past years with my (awesome) team. Since I started working, I've always been part of a team but never as a leader. I used to be a developer and my team lead would be the one who handled all the boring stuff. Until now ...
Warning! This blogpost contains my personal story and lessons I’ve learned in my 3 years as a team lead. This won’t be a teamwork speech but it might contain some other clichés and explain why they have been important to me.
In 2017, my team lead resigned and out of the blue, I was asked if I wanted the job. I was hesitant at first due to the ‘handling the boring stuff’ part but soon after I came to realise this was my chance to do good for the team. The reason they allowed me to become the captain of our ship meant a great deal to me.
As a team lead, I was able to make decisions and protect them from the frustrations we’ve come across in the past years. I could be the bridge between the technical side and the business side of our projects.
Being able to understand what they were talking about whilst being able to understand the clients and accounts seemed to be a missing link that was very undervalued. Here, I learned my first lesson:
Give trust to earn trust
When I first started this new job I was scared, I barely knew anything about project management. I had led some projects as a technical lead and some small projects for my own company, but never at this scale.
At Intracto, our management didn’t see any problems with my lack of management skills. Actually, they believed in me more than I believed in myself at that point. This form of trust felt good and liberating, so I’ve always tried to use the same strategy in my team.
Everyone is equal, even the rookie who came straight out of school and joined the team two days ago. Decisions can be made by everyone in the team. Regardless of the outcome, it will be discussed afterwards to see if it was a good or bad call and what we learned from it. Putting this trust in my team seemed to give everyone a sense of belonging and equality.
With this approach came lesson two:
Put your trust in the team and the team will trust you.
Mistakes will be made
It wasn’t long before I made my first mistake, which led to an unhappy client who came with a complaint. When I talked to our CEO Pieter about it, I expected someone who would be mad.
Instead, he said: “It’s not your mistake, it’s ours and we’ll fix it together”. This opened my eyes and in that moment I realised this was how I wanted to lead my team.
Allow everyone to make mistakes, and fix them together. Making mistakes is human, it is an opportunity to grow. People who don’t make mistakes are usually not doing anything.
In our team, we have monthly retrospectives and every 6 months one of them is a Secret Code Review (SCR). The idea is based upon our secret santa organiser. The whole team gets added to the secret party and everyone is assigned a random member for whom he has to do a code review. This can be any piece of code written by this person. They all bring it to the retrospective and ask their question or give their remark during our session.
The idea is to create a non-blame environment where we can all share our ideas and views over each other's code. The outcome is magical. Our first SCR was a bit awkward and people were scared of what others might think of their work. They wanted to defend why they made a specific choice. Our second SCR everyone was way more relaxed as everyone knew we weren’t there to criticise each other, but to learn from one another. It turned into a fun session, where even a senior learned new things from a junior.
My third lesson:
Life is not a pony farm
We’re all people, and that also means that unfortunately there is no avoiding personal problems. Our team is no different. Which means sometimes when fate strikes in a bad way you’ll have to give up on a deadline due to unforeseen personal events.
Sadly, you won’t be able to do much about it and you can't prepare yourself for it in any way. You’ll have to improvise because it’s your duty to protect your team members when they need you the most! Since we’re not surgeons there are no lives at stake, and that means nothing is as important as personal health. When a team member has personal problems make sure they have their time off and just postpone that deadline. If you're honest with your clients and you have a good, open relationship, people will understand.
Lesson number four:
Life ain’t a pony farm so be prepared to improvise if something unforeseen happens. Personal life always comes first.
You’re not a princess, get your hands dirty
The people I’ve admired the most were usually those who got shit done. There are many people who talk a lot but they never act. Talk is cheap.
Throughout my career, I’ve met many people in leading positions who’ve always passed on the dirty work to the people ‘below’ them. I’m not going to claim you should do all the work, but before you expect the people in your team to do your dirty work, make sure you earn their respect.
Whenever you deliver a project, usually there is some boring stuff that has to be done and some more complex stuff. Instead of expecting your team to do both, help them. Yes, you’re probably a busy person and you might think that your time is more precious than theirs.
Spoiler alert: it’s not.
Every leader can help their team, and you should lead by example. In our team, I’m usually the one doing the content copy-pasting, the boring bug fixes and so on … My team respects the fact that I take over this work up to a point when I have a pressing deadline that they themselves come to ask me if they can help me with any of my boring work.
Always take the blame, never take the credit
In my second job, I was lucky enough to join Geert's team. He was the leader of our development team and he had a pretty unorthodox way of managing his team. Later on, I came to understand why he did what he did and how much I owed him for teaching me and the rest of the team.
He was always encouraging us and came up with the brightest ideas even though he didn’t have any technical skills. He was always the nice guy who stood by the team and helped us whenever possible, even with the boring work.
The strange part happened the second someone came to complain about our work or what we did wrong. He turned into some sort of fierce animal trying to protect his children. For every mistake that was put on us (rightfully or not), he took the blame. It felt as if we had a big protection barrier.
It even became stranger when the team received compliments after one of our many victories together. He told whoever came to thank him to tell us instead. He would step aside and send all the credit towards us, the team, and we’d be surprised.
Magical lesson number six:
This lesson is one I learned in the summer of 2019 and it all happened when I was on vacation.
Monday morning, my first day on holiday an email came in, one of our clients decided to demo their application in development to some members of the board, without giving us notice. Trouble was in the making. We hadn’t tested the application ourselves and even worse: both I and our lead developer were on holidays.
The client immediately ran into some problems and no one was responding to their calls. This is where the magic kicked in. Two of my colleagues who helped on the project but didn’t know all the details stepped up out of nowhere. Both were working on different projects but they felt like it was their job to help the client go through successful testing. They did what they could to get things rolling.
During the tests, they did run into some deeper problems up to a point where I received my first phone call to tell me what was happening and how they were trying to solve it. At that point, we had no other choice than to ask our lead developer if he knew what might be causing the problem.
All of a sudden the whole team was working as a unit to help our client with a successful demo. Two of us were halfway across the planet but no one asked questions. Everyone just did what they had to do and it was beautiful.
Two hours later everything was up and running and we went on to have a good holiday.
By giving trust you’ll encourage ownership. People will work even when they don’t have to because they all support the same cause.
Simon Sinek's Golden Circle
During a holiday I was finishing up the last chapter of the book ‘Start with Why’ by Simon Sinek. This book had an important impact on me. Not because it stated things I didn’t know but because it explained things in such a clear way it all started to make sense.
The golden circle phenomenon is one of them.
In order to truly understand the Golden Circle, you need to understand what the circles stand for, so let me try and explain.
Simon discovered that most companies work from the outside in, starting with WHAT. The WHAT represents the products or services a company sells. This is usually the easy one that everyone will be able to answer.
The HOW is an explanation of what the company does. In this ring of the Golden Circle, the company explains why their products/services are better or stand out from the competition. Usually, it starts to get a little fuzzy here.
The WHY is usually the hardest. It’s about what a company believes in, WHY they do what they do. It’s not about making a profit, that’s a result. It stands for WHY you got out of bed this morning and WHY people should care about what you do. The WHY embodies our beliefs and helps us inspire others.
Inspired and influential companies communicate from the inside out rather than outside in. Let’s use Apple as an example.
This would be their communication if they were like everyone else:
“We make great computers (WHAT), they are beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly (HOW). Want to buy one?”
Here is how they actually communicate:
“In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently (WHY). The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly (HOW). We just happen to make great computers (WHAT). Want to buy one?”
It feels totally different, you want to join them in their pursuit because you believe what they believe. In the book, Simon projects this on companies and how they become successful. I felt the circle was projectable on nearly anything we will do in life and it's an explanation about passion. If you truly believe in why you do something, people will too.
Let me close this off with a great quote from the book:
If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood, sweat and tears.
At Intracto, we believe in evolving and improving. We help shape companies of the future not only in marketing, communication and technology but also on a strategic level. This is why we spend more time close to the company’s core so we become partners instead of suppliers. And we just happen to have the brightest people in the sector to do this.
In our teams, we carry these beliefs. We’re all closely connected with our clients and each other, always in pursuit of a better version of what we are doing. In my team, we have various ways of doing this, like our SCR that we talked about during ‘Allow Mistakes’.
A lesson learned in 2020: consistency
So in the weird year that 2020 definitely was, our whole world got turned upside down and teamwork had to be reinvented. So far all my lessons came from face-to-face encounters and as true as they were and strong as they still stand, things seemed to have gotten quite complicated once working from home became the new standard.
We were used to working via communication software like Slack and Google Meet but now it was our only option. We never really were the team to use daily standups, since we had our chats and morning hello’s anyway. Due to the fact that we didn’t see each other anymore we did seem to lose connection with one another.
So we introduced a daily morning routine where we called in with each other and made sure all was well and everyone knew what to do. Our retrospectives and one-on-one conversations turned out a bit different compared to other years, but keeping them going was more important. Digital versions of these conversations are equally important as they help you keep track of each individual’s mood.
As we learned this year of distance we need to take extra care of each other. That's why I can recommend everyone to get a webcam because seeing the familiar faces will help with the bonding process.
During the first lockdown, we introduced 'crazy Fridays' to keep our teamspirit as high as it had been throughout the years. I’ll let the pictures do the talking:
Enough of the foolishness, what was this mysterious extra lesson that I learned in 2020?
Regardless of your situation, keep doing what you do. Consistency is what creates results.
As a final lesson: be thankful.
Whenever someone does something for you, thank them. Respect should be earned, and also given. Don’t be the grumpy person who makes the “It’s their job” quote. If you show appreciation towards what people do for you, they’ll be more likely to stand by you in the future.
So to close off this post, let me start by saying how blessed I feel to have such a great team whom will give blood, sweat and tears to achieve our goals (Jeroen, Yves, Sead, Jelle, Brecht, Didier, Mats, Elias, Sven, Cesar). In addition, I want to thank everyone else who helped me evolve and makes this company and workplace so amazing.
If you would like to meet them all be sure to drop by for a coffee.