Growing Leaders

One of your most important jobs as a Software Development Manager is to make sure you are constantly growing new leaders and senior staff. Hopefully I don’t need to convince you that this is important, but just in case, here are a few good reasons why this is a critical activity.

First, there is attrition. We’d all like to think that the company we work for is so fabulous that nobody would ever think to go work somewhere else, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Even if we did work for the greatest company on earth, there will still be people who leave because they want a change, they move away, they retire, or dozens of other reasons. If you can keep a good-sized development team down to 10% attrition per year, you are doing a good job. How you can keep your attrition rate low is either a topic for its own chapter, or the total of everything in this book. Probably both.

Second is company growth. As your business finds itself being hugely successful, it will need more developers. As you hire new people, the old guard will want to take on increasingly demanding roles. Sure you can always try to hire new people who are more senior than everyone you already have, but that won’t work for very long.

Third is career development. After someone has done the same job for a few years, they’ll be asking to try something new. It’s your job as their manager to make sure they are ready to step up and take it.

I’m sure there are lots of other reasons, but let’s assume these three are enough to convince us that growing new leaders is critical to what we do. So how do you do it? This is where your people skills are going to get a real workout. I’m certain there are as many ways to answer this question as there are people willing to teach leadership and management courses (or write books about it). I have a few simple rules that I follow and they seem to work particularly well for technical people.

Determine what they want, or need. Before you can help someone grow into a new responsibility, you need to understand what they want to learn or how they need to grow. You aren’t going turn a developer into a team lead if their only aspirations are to write beautiful code. You need someone who wants to do the job you have in mind, even if that thought terrifies them. Talk to your team members and see what interests them. Sometimes they’ll surprise you. Of course, just because your most junior coder wants to become a Technical Lead doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready for it; you might need to help them plot a course from where they are.

Give them a new responsibility. The first step in getting someone to do something new is to make them responsible for doing it. “Now wait a minute!” I can hear you saying. “What about training? You can’t give someone a job they don’t know how to do.” However, the fact is that you can, and very often that’s what life does to us. If you have children think about how you felt when you took your new baby home for the first time. Or remember day one in your first full-time job out of school. Were you truly prepared in either case? Probably not, but you had the skills necessary for someone to train you for what you would ultimately become. The most important thing is to get someone started and to make it clear that they are, truly and completely, responsible for fulfilling their new role. If you don’t make them responsible, most people will realize that you’re not truly expecting them to stretch their skills. If they think that, you’ll fail.

Get them the necessary support. This is where training and mentoring comes in. Make sure this person has the tools they need for success. Give them a few good books and tell them to read them. Or send them on a course, asking them to present what they learned on their return. Or assign them a mentor and ask them to collect notes outlining what they learn. If you ask someone to learn something, but don’t make them responsible for what they learn, they won’t remember it half as well. That’s why you should always ask people to report back, somehow, on their learning experiences.

Follow-up and evaluate. You cannot make someone responsible for a new role unless you follow-up and evaluate their performance. Have you ever been given a job, but never had anyone check how it was going or provide any feedback that your performance mattered? If you’ve been in that position, you know how difficult it is to get the job done well. As a leader, your job is to follow-up regularly with everyone who has a new responsibility until you feel they are comfortably doing the job or until you have delegated that follow-up to someone else (another reason to grow new leaders).

Trust them. This is one of the most difficult things to do. If you make someone responsible for a new task, you must trust them to do the task they’ve been assigned. If you keep poking your nose where it isn’t needed (or worse, doing the job for them) you’ll undermine any growth that might have occurred. It’s OK to make it clear that you are extending this trust conditionally and that you’ll be following-up to ensure the trust is warranted, but you must not do things to undermine that trust. If you hear or see things that concern you about this person’s new performance, make sure you talk to them directly.

Let them do the job. Similar to trust. You must let this new person fill the responsibility you’ve assigned them. Sometimes this may mean letting them head down a few dead-ends so they can learn what that feels like. Sometimes it means keeping your mouth shut in a meeting while your new leader fumbles around with a situation you could fix in a heartbeat. Restrain yourself and remember all the mistakes you’ve made and what you learned from them.

Have a backup plan. You shouldn’t expect your new leader to fail. But you should make sure you know how you would handle the situation if it happens. Determine in advance how long you can afford to let it go before you have to step in, and know what you’ll do if you have to intervene. Having this plan in place will make it easier to sit back and trust your new leader to get the job done, even if they do make a few mistakes along the way.

Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed. But these steps will dramatically increase the odds that you will have successful experiences helping people stretch and grow into new responsibilities.

What techniques have you seen, or used, when helping grow new leaders?

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2 thoughts on “Growing Leaders

  1. I may be missing the nuances but the last three points seem to water down an important point.

    Expect them to make mistakes, it is the point. A common limiting factor for aspiring leaders is an inability to own their mistakes. A leader can help by creating an environment where it is easy to take ownership of mistakes. I think this starts by expecting mistakes.

  2. Pingback: Presentation at the VIATeC Software Manager Roundtable « Leading Software

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