Appreciation & Awe
When was the last time you used the word "precious" in a non-sarcastic, non-Gollum-quoting way?
For whatever reason, it unfortunately seems to have taken on connotations of "fragile" and "weak". The word describes something of great value; something you should not waste or treat carelessly. That describes the last five years, two months and 7 days for me. These years have been precious - as have the people I've shared them with.
Five years ago I joined LeanKit - having come off of a string of seriously disillusioning jobs. I'd seen a lot of variations of how to not run a team, and had high hopes to apply what I had learned, and maybe...just maybe...be a part of building a healthy team that could realize its potential. What awaited me were some of the most rewarding – and some of the most challenging – years I've had in my career.
Up to that point I'd worked hard to make a name for myself on each team. I wanted to leave my mark. I soon learned that the best leaders leave their mark by getting out of their team's way to help them leave their mark.
I learned that building a team required you to manage out and up every bit (if not more) than managing down. It felt like multiple immersion language courses - where I had to perfect the ability to communicate well with people from all across the spectrum. It humbled me, and required me to change, adapt & cultivate the habit of quickly admitting when I was wrong. Not all of these efforts led to happy endings. I'm grateful for the ones that did, though, as I've won friends for life. For the ones that failed, it's enough for me to know that I endeavored to be responsible for my own actions.
Every struggle was worth it, though. More than worth it!
In hindsight we can easily editorialize our memory. We project intention and narrative where there was really just chaos and making it through the day. While I'd love to pretend I stumbled into some formula of how to create a high functioning team - that would be ludicrous.
Archilochus said "We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training."
I fell back to first principles. Treat people with respect. Give them the authority and ability to affect change rather than just informing them but leaving them powerless to do what they know needs to be done. Defend focus time (we call it "limiting WIP" in lean). Reward competence and willingness to lead. Don't be a decision or information bottleneck. Delegate. My father-in-law once said "Authority is like soap. The more of it you use, the less of it you have". Billy Batson said it nicely in Shazam: "What good is power if you have no one to share it with?"
I've seen so many "hero leaders". They want to be bigger than life. They dominate by personality. They're here to save the day. (Oh, please.) They see it as strength, but it's such a weak form of leadership. If your team's culture depends on a strong personality, then things fall apart when that person isn't present. Even worse - if you're despised or dismissed behind your back, when you leave the room, your team gives a collective proverbial finger to your values.
I tried to take my father-in-law's comment to heart - it resonated with my own experience of great leaders I'd observed. In the day-to-day, you're a coach, a pit crew or the conductor of the orchestra. Like that conductor, you realize that to make great music you need a group far larger than yourself - and you need them to be better at all the instruments than you are. When the time comes where you do need to use some of that "soap" to say no, your team respects it and backs you up. It's a strange and fascinating dance. You want to be needed...you want to be valued as an integral part of the team...but you're also working yourself out of a job.
But this isn't enough, nowhere close.
Principles are important - but a healthy team depends very much on who the team is made up of. This is what makes the last five years precious for me. I've never seen a team as amazing and talented as the LeanKit development team. We overcame both cultural and complex technical struggles. We went on to accomplish some of the hardest and riskiest work that could be done in product development. Very few teams even survive "rewrite" scenarios - we not only survived, we thrived. It's a testament to just how sharp this crew is.
My time at LeanKit draws to a close tomorrow. The precious and rare nature of what I've been a part of has left an indelible mark on me. As I embark on the next adventure (where I get to work with some former LeanKit folks building a new product!), I take with me the values and perspective and experience that I will always hold dear.
I wrote a letter for my successor - whoever that may be, and closed with this:
My heart is full of gratitude and appreciation for the honor it has been to lead this team. I hope I've handed something off to you that is healthy, stable, fun and full of potential-that-will-be-realized. I hope you find every bit and more the joy I found in working with this crew. I hope that this role is fulfilling, rewarding, fun, full of laughter, full of interesting challenges to solve and overall something you can look back on with deep appreciation and awe just as I am doing now.
It's a strange sensation to truly value and deeply know the worth of where you've been and where you are, while also answering that call to adventure and risk - and to know in both instances you are where you should be.
If you never take risks, you'll never accomplish great things. Everybody dies, but not everyone has lived. -- CS Lewis