Leading Your Leaders: The Two Almost Forgotten Organizational Practices


Leadership under Fire: Today's Development Challenges

I’ve a good reason to hit this title never later than Now. Let’s  first go to a bit of explanation before we dive into the depths.

Leadership in software development,  and in innovative cognitive work in general, is  the backbone of the all what is there. Today, this fact  is nothing less than a  daily re-proven finding, backed by science and experience. What makes things even more critical with having the right leadership skills in place in a software organization is the current technology leap which I, among a great hype,  stick to referring to as The Digital Transformation. This transformation has emphasized two challenges on the side of software leadership. These are:

  • More pressure on teams to keep pace with the new technologies to learn, then  implement and support in new products and services for a more than never before demanding clientele.
  • Ferocious employment market, with never heard of plethora  of jobs (in numbers and skills) created by  the contemporary disciplines in computing. This is coupled with new liberal paradigms in perks and work systems created to add to the competition among employers on good hiring opportunities.

The result of these challenges is simply  that effective leadership is becoming more and more essential than ever before. People will not stand pressures, neither take mature employment decisions in the absence of capable and effective leaderships atop energetic highly demanded teams.

Two Perspectives of Leadership

Actually, and to reap the best of our discussion here, we need to define which leadership level, or levels, we exactly target by this treatise. We shall actually be targeting  the Tactical Leaders or Daily Operations Leaders, those who are in daily, or almost daily, engagement with development teams. This would include team leaders, up to Division or Delivery Leaders, based on the specific nomenclature adopted on some org chart. Another level of leadership involved here, rather indirectly but still effectively. That is  strategic one, those who are engaged mainly with overall organizational performance picture. This is which, and how, leadership is exactly targeted by this article.

The Two Organizational Leadership Practices Left Behind!

Unfortunately, I’ve very frequently observed it like that: The two most effective practices that every organization has to apply to  in order to ensure effectiveness for its tactical leadership power are in the same time the two most forgotten, or in better cases, most poorly implemented ones. We shall discuss them first, then we provide  some reasoning why, and finally go to see some reaps.

The first Practice is about the way we appraise our tactical leaders. We certainly all do, but In what fashion?  Is that upward, downward, or 360 degree sort of appraisal?

Literature and academic research have a lot to say about the downsides and the upsides of the different techniques. But here I’ll cut it short avoiding theoretical debates and go straight to the practical side of the story, which in the same time does not neglect the research findings. Let us put it clear, Unless the team has a say in the way they are led, rest assured that you have (or will have)  an anomaly of some sort in your leadership engine, be that on the short or the long term. This means that some kind of upward appraisal (that by the subordinates to the manager) be that a part of a complete 360-degree scheme or a complement to the conventional downward appraisal, which is representing the norm in many cases. We will come to some deeper explanation, but this is just the bare bone advice, so take it for now.

A Second practice, but never less important, is about Exit Interviews and how effective we perform and interpret their results. Do we design that critical event and prepare it carefully? Do we involve the leader of the leaver somehow partially or totally? Do we have a good emphasis on leadership among the reasons why an leaving employee decides to leave? And, how do we read the results, after all?

Reasoning, Benefits and Expectations

When some gets a leadership responsibility for the first time of his/her career he/she  usually perceives that as a kind of “promotion”. Unless properly selected, prepared and committed for her/his new “responsibility”, he/she starts (due to cultural reasons or sometimes unconsciously) to interpret this as a form of authority and power on colleagues of yesterday, far more than a commitment to their development and wellbeing. This expresses itself in a set of commanding practices that have always been hiding  there behind the discomfort of the teams that suffer this commanding style of leadership. The worst thing even, is that this sense of superiority by the newly “promoted” leader lasts and, with time,  magnifies and becomes very hard to treat.

The phenomena is very true, and I can tell it’s well observed in any organization that does not set the proper tactics against that devastating sense of “grandeur” that may brand its leaders and turn their leaderships into “hardships” for others.

Upward Appraisal is one way to keep that sense of grandeur away. Listening to people you lead is certainly giving oneself a very true picture of his/her leadership, same happens to the strategic leaders who can provide guidance and advice to the appraised leader. There will always be that threat of subjectivity and/and prejudice and personal affairs, but that is eliminated by proper evaluation techniques and wise looking into the results. Details here are beyond the scope of our discussion. We can come back to that in separate piece of work.

Exit Interviews, the second wing of this article, actually provides a wealth of knowledge about leadership, among other things of course, that might be in true need of renovation and/or reviving in the organization. Behind this lies a fact that we have all seen and touched: “People leave people, not companies”. The exit interview is the best time maybe to discover if that is the case with a leader, and then find ways to give her/him guidance to improve. The pitiful side is that we get the fact “after the fact”, i.e. while someone is already abandoning the ship. But that can be good for preventing future losses for similar reasons. From there, Exit Interviews, we can make some valuable lessons learned. Of course, same risks of prejudice and subjectivities are still there like upward appraisals, but we also still have the same techniques valid as they are in appraisals to extract the facts with least noise due to these psychological disturbances.

In Conclusion

Leadership maturity is essential to become effective in the lives of the teams and the organizations. There is no maturity without guidance especially when leadership is still in an infant stage. We have two great sources of data about our leaders provided by both upward appraisals (feedback from subordinates) and the properly designed and read exit interviews.

Besides the information that we can get from there to stratify our leadership practices, this kind of feedback/appraisal provide a tactic to defy any sense of grandeur or bragging that might strike one’s leadership and turn it into a kind of “hardship” not really leadership.