On being a –insert title here–

The last five years I have had the privilege of having jobs with awesome titles like “Front end architect” and I was even at one point a CTO. Being in such positions enables you to have the impact to see ideas materialize. You also have impact on how others do their job.

About two years ago I became the leader of the front-end core team at Finn.no after having been the front-end architect (the company decided to remove the architect role). It was perhaps “a step down” in terms of status and things, but it was several steps up in terms of fun and learning. I got to feel a lot of the pains I had seen as an architect. I thought that I had a pretty good idea of how things worked while being The Architect. I was wrong.

Having spent two years in The Trenches I see the ever widening gap between those doing tasks and those who lead through middle managers I’m all company that continued to grow. I know you need to have a different perspective as you move upwards in an organization. However the problem comes when the people in these positions try to “do what’s best” for those doing the job.
If you haven’t spent time on a team doing actual work for more than two years. You should be disqualified from making decisions on how they should work. You should realize you’re no longer qualified. This is what I have learned these years being a team leader.

I see this most clearly when we reorganize or have some initiative come from the managers. They will structure efforts according to their world view. Which is no longer in touch with reality of how teams work. They will follow corporate matrixes that make no sense at the bottom level. Create boundaries and silos which only exist in the organization charts. At the team level there is no us vs them. There’s only “how the fuck do we survive this shit”. Teams need to collaborate relentlessly with whoever has the information, skills or decision making power to get a task done. Teams don’t have the luxury of leaning on corporate structures, they just need to get stuff done to provide end user value.

I urge everyone leading through middle managers to step down for a month or two. Spend time doing actual work at a team level. You will learn to see things from a different perspective. You will learn what you thought was.tru to be untrue. You will also be a much better leader after doing this.

I wish I knew this back when I was in high places. I will try not to make this mistake again. I apologize to all those I have wrongfully micro managed or forced to do stupid things.

Space & Time

This is not about aerospace or getting people on Mars (that stuff is easy). It is about how to create an environment where people help each other out. If you maximize utilization. Set absolute deadlines. You set up your team to be self centered, stressed out and in a mode of self preservation.

If you are in an organization were teams are expected to collaborate and share extensively, you shouldn’t do any of the things above. If you want sharing and collaboration, that is something you have to take into account when planning. You can not have your cake and eat it.

By giving your team time and space, you are more likely to have a team that aggressively shares and collaborates. It is no silver bullet, but without time and space the team is not in a position to fulfill the objectives you set out.

You can not blame teams for not sharing or collaborating if you create and environment where it is not possible. That is tittel on you as a leader. You are the one

This is not about aerospace or getting people on Mars (that stuff is easy). It is about how to create an environment where people help each other out. If you maximize utilization. Set absolute deadlines. You set up your team to be self centered, stressed out and in a mode of self preservation.

If you are in an organization were teams are expected to collaborate and share extensively, you shouldn’t do any of the things above. If you want sharing and collaboration, that is something you have to take into account when planning. You can not have your cake and eat it.

By giving your team time and space, you are more likely to have a team that aggressively shares and collaborates. It is no silver bullet, but without time and space the team is not in a position to fulfill the objectives you set out.

You can not blame teams for not sharing or collaborating if you create and environment where it is not possible. That is tittel on you ad a leader. You can create an atmosphere were the team can fulfill what’s expected of them. You can’t blame them, when the environment they operate in is toxic.

An ear to the ground

I I’m have interviewed for higher management positions during my career. One question which pops up in all of them is this: “do you have experience in leading through middle managers”.
A fair question one would think given that as a higher position manager you’ll have some other managers below you. However, there is one thing I’ve seen many places which too many higher level managers miss. That’s the ability to keep in touch with what’s happening on the lowest level. To me that should be the number one question interviewing for higher level manager positions: “how do you know what’s going on in the lowest level?”

The answer to this question should, in my opinion, be what determines if you’re qualified. A false answer would be “through my lower level managers”. I have seen so many people disappear into the fog of upper management. The air up there is thinner and the details blurry. Humans become numbers in columns. The product becomes an abstraction consisting of stats and fiscal figures.

Shoes like under cover boss clearly highlight that people who run stuff don’t really have a clue what’s going on. Their reality is like your Facebook stream: curated, delayed and filtered. As a higher level manager you need to have “an ear to the ground”. Weather you’re the CTO, Chief of HR or a upper middle manager that is the most important thing. Otherwise you’ll have no way of being proactive and noticing issues before they become huge problems. You’ll also gradually loose the respect you once had from those who used to be your peers as you’ll be disconnected from their reality.

I am a team lead and this is the thing I’m trying to focus on as much as possible. To not drift into that place where it’s all abstract and the big picture. I need to see individuals and stay in touch with their work. Be engaged and proactive to try and help out before things become too complicated.
I say I try, because I would not say I’m succeeding 100% with this today. As a leader I have tons of areas of improvement, but at least my goal is to have an ear to the ground like Lucky Luke in the comics. Too hear if there’s a train or a buffalo herd coming.

On Leadership

Yesterday I tweeted that “I’d rather choose someone with experience from kindergarden than some one from the armed forces as a leader”. It might seem like good old fashioned trolling, but I am serious.

I speak from a Norwegian perspective and things might be different in other countries. When working in kindergarden you acquire some skills which I think are essential for leaders in general, but especially in knowledge companies. In Norway the law says that children shall always be included in decisions [1]. 

I have never been in the military as I’m a pacifist, so my facts are based on information found on Norwegian military web sites. Like the introduction for students at Norske Krigsskole, which is considered one of the best schools in the military sector.

I am not an expert at any of these things, so there is the odd chance I am talking out of my back side. However, let me just generalize enormously just to explain why I think the qualities required to lead a group in kindergarden are closer to the ones you want a leader in my industry to possess.

In all of military there is one truth which undermines everything and which is the thing that is not negotiable: you obey orders. Without soldier following orders without questions, military operations become really hard to perform. That is not the same as suggesting there never are objections or discussions, but a chain of command is essential in heated combat. 

When trying to get a “platoon” of 3-6 year olds to agree on something, at least in Norway, you can not rely on obedience. Granted the kids can’t do whatever they please, but you are obliged by law to make sure the kids are in on the decisions. It is like a consensus based democracy, where anyone can block but everyones opinion must be heard.

Another difference I think is important is that in kindergarden you’re learning kids how they themselves can find ways of acquiring knowledge and lear skills. In a military context your job is to repeat and drill those you command so they act without hesitation. These are quite different ways to operate.

I would argue that the skills required for enabling kids to learn are more important than those required to train for military operations. That was basically the basis for my rather tabloid tweet. You can of course learn useful stuff in a military education too. I was generalizing that it isn’t the skills that makes a good leader in my opinion. 

These were my subjective opinions on things I have only a little bit of knowledge about. You are welcome to disagree and you are welcome to enlighten me on the importance of military education. If you were offended by my words, I apologize as it was not my intention to offend.