How To Fail At Technical Leadership

May 14, 2013

Most people in technical leadership got there because they demonstrated excellence doing technical things. Unfortunately, technical leadership is a completely different job. It can certainly be learned, but some lessons are typically learned the hard way. Here are some ways to make that transition badly:

Don’t provide structure

You were their teammate. Now you’re their leader. That’s already awkward, and now you’re going to start throwing around your authority. Ewww.

Don’t confuse providing structure with getting drunk on your new power. As a leader, part of your responsibility is to make it easy for people to do what they’re good at. It’s hard for people to do that without structure – knowing where the boundaries are, what is expected of them, clearly defined roles, etc. You should do this definition with them, but don’t avoid the definition and think you’re doing the team a favor.

Don’t “go to the floor”

There are a lot of names for this (walking the four corners, going to the gemba, etc.), but don’t toss the idea as some biz book technique du jour. It’s a popular concept because it’s the right thing to do.

As a technical leader, you will have responsibilities that take you out of the trenches. That loss of immersion can be costly. You won’t know your teammates as well, nor will they know you as well. You won’t get all the nuances of product. You wont directly see the bottlenecks in the process.

Don’t just let that happen – plan time and activities to get your hands dirty (take on small tasks, pair, spend time with your team, etc.) to maintain your connection to the real work.

Make decisions

This may feel counterintuitive, but it’s powerful. As described above, you will not be in the trenches the way you used to. Others will have more information/expertise/experience with the current problems than you. You need to empower your team to make good decisions rather than make them dependent on you to make decisions. I’m not suggesting you abdicate responsibility – you ARE responsible and need to be informed and involved. But that best decision maker in most cases will NOT be you.

Take credit

(NOTE: I work at a great company. This may not be safe advice in every workplace.) In a good organization, you don’t need to promote yourself much. The team’s success is your success, so raise the water for them and celebrate their awesomeness. If your boss is any good, they’ll certainly notice.