So it’s Valentine’s Day and I’m sitting here in my (cold) attic office looking out over a very snowy landscape. Where I live isn’t all that accustomed to snow so much of ordinary life has ground to a halt. That slower pace – after we’ve taken the kiddo out careening downhill on small pieces of plastic – has allowed me to reflect on what I’d like to share next in this space. As I move into my fourth year as a team leader, I finally feel that I have some thoughts to share about this topic. I won’t lie, it’s taken me some time and mentoring and a lot of mistakes to get to this point. But in the spirit of the holiday, I’m starting a series about how to love on your team (in a totally appropriate, very properly business-y, non-creepy way) and lead them to bring their best selves to work, even when you’re not an expert in what they do.
When I started my current job, I heard a lot about creating an “irresistible organization”. My deeply cynical self didn’t immediately resonate with this concept. During my time in research labs, I noticed that individuals were not promoted for “management skills”. They were promoted based on the scientific achievements. The good managers also spent time becoming a good mentor and leader but that’s not what was rewarded, at least not in academia. The almost sole emphasis on the scientific process, hard data and measurable outcomes that defined my early career has made me deeply skeptical of much that the self-help community has to offer (and I included management theory in there as well). I know this is scientific snobbery but I am originally from the North East of the US – a region that can be defined by its snobbery and much as I try to combat it, it does occasionally creep back in (i.e. I have extremely strong opinions about bagels).
I did know, even as a newly minted leader, that team engagement and intrinsic motivation were important to creating a highly functional team but a lot of what I read seemed like wishy-washy, self-help, guru-type stuff. There also seemed to be a lot of either competing advice or the same advice packaged in different ways. So it was with much trepidation that I started looking into the “irresistible organization” concept that my boss kept talking about. I figured since the organization was invested in this framework, I should probably drink this particular Koolaid. I’m sure this is not news to most people who have been managers and leaders for a while or who operate more in this space but it turns out that the concept of the Simply Irresistible Organization was developed by the consulting firm Deloitte (https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2014/04/04/the-five-elements-of-a-simply-irresistible-organization/?sh=421e159251b1) OK, so now I’m sure some of the readers out there are skeptical that a consulting firm, and one known to push its employees hard, would be able to say anything compelling about employee engagement.
Here’s why I eventually resonated with the framework that Deloitte developed. You can think what you want to think about consulting firms, and I know there is a full range of opinions on this. However, consulting firms do have experience with a wide range of organizations and see all kinds of team dynamics and leadership models. Additionally, consulting firms are extremely good at pulling together and analyzing data, that’s kind of their thing. Deloitte did a ton of research themselves and relied on data from The Good Work Institute and Gallop. To my overly analytic mind, if I was going to adopt a team engagement framework or strategy, this seemed like a good one to pick. (And again, Koolaid to drink).
There are five pillars to the Deloitte Irresistible Organization or as we call it I/O. They are:
- Meaningful Work
- Hands-On Management
- Positive Work Environment
- Growth Opportunity
- Trust in Leadership
Now, given my extremely loose and not-quite relevant theme of it being Valentine’s Day. You may think it would make sense to start with Positive Work Environment or Trust in Leadership. But that would be just too expected and totally not the way my brain works at all. So I’m starting with Meaningful Work. Within each of these broad sections of the framework are 4 sub-topics. For Meaningful Work, those include:
- Small, Empowered Teams
- Time for Slack (not the app)
I wanted to start with Autonomy because I had a bit of an epiphany around this topic recently. In my hubris, I always assumed that I was doing great in this category. My team has a good deal of autonomy (defined well here: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/254030). Or so I thought. Not initially being a subject matter expert in data management myself and not having risen through the ranks on the team, I naturally thought that I was perfect at autonomy. I just couldn’t be a micromanager or try to do their work for them because I didn’t possess the requisite skills or knowledge base. But of course we all know what happens when you assume something and my assumption definitely had me looking like an ass.
My team did enjoy autonomy in the sense that they had the ability to make decisions about how the work should be done, to act as technical experts for other parts of the organization, to be very involved in process improvement, etc. There were two key elements of autonomy that were missing and that in my hubris, took me way too long to figure out. The article from Entrepreneur magazine linked above gives the following ways to encourage autonomy on a team.
- Turn mistakes that are made into learning moments for the team (i.e. don’t be too critical when mistakes happen)
- Hire a team that values autonomy in their work
- Build trust
- Put guard rails around how the team operates (i.e. too much choice/freedom can backfire)
- Make sure the team feels ownership of the work
- Build a supportive environment (i.e. make sure the team has the tools, training, etc to do their best work)
None of this sounds like rocket science. (Trust me, I live with a rocket scientist and they are always talking about, “what if lightning strikes the rocket?” and “what is the payload capacity with that level of thrust?”). It is hard to implement if you’re not being mindful and intentional in your leadership. Back to my example. While I granted the team a lot of freedom to make choices about how the work was done, I made some crucial mistakes:
- I did not grant them ownership of big projects that would allow them to stretch and grow
- I did not provide the most supportive environment in one very important way that impacted how we set up our team’s operational guard rails.
Since I have been used to being an individual contributor prior to this job, I looked for an area where I could take on that role with the team. I landed on being the one responsible for strategic planning and driving bigger projects on the team. While this seems a natural role for the boss, I executed on it in such a way that didn’t leave a lot of room for team ownership of these important tasks. It was during a 1:1 with a valued team member that I got a great piece of feedback, though I think inadvertently. This team member and I were discussing this year and what she wanted to do with the role she was in, etc. She indicated that she felt like the team’s personal Google since she is a deep technical expert and has been on the team the longest. She was having a hard time letting go of some work that should be transferred to other team members because she didn’t feel like she had ownership of anything else. That one hit me hard because I realized that how she felt was because I had taken it upon myself to come up with the technical vision for the team. She didn’t feel engaged in that vision and thus was slowing down a transition process that I thought she would be excited about. I immediately did some research on similar positions in other companies and came up with a game plan for the next few months that involved her creating a technical strategy for a portion of our work and driving two big improvement projects forward. It was a big lesson for me in how to be a supportive leader and not stifling one.
My second mistake was one that took longer to understand, even though the team was trying to tell me for a while now. Whenever we have done our annual retreat and strategic planning session, I get the feedback that the team wants more cross-training. This has always seemed a big challenge to me. The team is set up to support specific partners and they operate very independently. Since this has been the operational model for years now, processes have evolved differently too so that it’s not a trivial matter to train someone on the the team to support a different partner. This dilemma didn’t initially strike me as having to do with autonomy. The team all worked on their projects, did their work well and had the freedom to do it. The article in Entrepreneur changed my mind. In addition to defining autonomy, they defined what it is not. Autonomy is not working in isolation, which is essentially what my team was doing. They didn’t have people to bounce ideas off of, didn’t have that support and felt that they were missing out on training and skills that could help them grow. This was not “providing them the tools to reach their goals”. I haven’t completely cracked this one yet. We now have working groups that bring together the team around common goals and projects. These have been avenues for more sharing and cross-team problem solving. But the siloed work practices that have evolved over the years are still there and our partners are used to things being done a certain way so this will take time. Fortunately, I’ve recruited some of the team to help me solve this challenge so I’m hoping by our next team retreat it won’t be seen as so much of a hurdle.
So what have I learned about autonomy and technical teams:
- Even though you may not infringe on team autonomy/ownership from a technical perspective, make sure you’re not doing it elsewhere (i.e. projects, strategy, etc). True leadership really isn’t about individual contribution. It’s about the team (hard lesson).
- The imagine of a technical team being isolated (male) programmers working in little holes somewhere and being completely fine without interaction is a myth. (Also, my team is mostly women, so there!). While my team does tend toward the quite side, they have surprised me both in the consistent request to know what their teammates are doing and their engagement in the fun activities we’ve been doing remotely.
- Seemingly little steps can make a big difference. We started doing morning updates on Slack, just 3 questions that are the same everyday that everyone answers and that gave the team the beginnings of feeling more connected to each other’s work.