Leading individuals, not managing masses

02 December 2019

Leading individuals, not managing masses

by Gabriela Arriaga

Globality is a fact and teamwork is a rule, no matter the framework we use. By unifying efforts, we get bigger, faster, more competitive and more complex results.

When managing people, we have to keep in mind how work has evolved over time, and the impact each era had on society.

Years ago, work was more about repetitive tasks. Big changes in the process were not allowed, simply because they were not needed and decisions were made long before the production line. Feelings weren’t really allowed either. Work was work! People were just another piece of the machine they operated. In the work lives of most people, there was no need to grow or no hurry to look for something new or different.

Then new industries with fierce and constantly changing markets began to need a new kind of worker. This worker did not only need to have the knowledge to identify improvements but also the capacity to propose solutions and the skills to carry them out.

Nowadays, we have work frameworks that encourage teams to make the “how”, and in some cases, the “when” decisions. Self-organized teams are now involved enough to discuss reachable goals. Team members do not have just one set of skills anymore, they can switch roles to suit the demands of the project, to cover a specific task or profile, or just to enhance their career path.

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This transition hasn’t been easy. Along the way, we’ve discovered that we don’t only need to reinforce hard skills in those on the teams so that anyone can cover anyone else, but soft skills as well. Team members should be able to communicate within the team and negotiate with managers, clients, and/or stakeholders. 

Managers were also a big part of this transformation. Far from the typical boss who dictates the work that must be done, the rules to follow, the goals and deadlines to meet, and who is the only one to assume the consequences of those decisions, today’s profile of a desirable leader is very different. Now, a good manager is someone who provides guidance, coaches, facilitates and coordinates, while remaining impartial about the decisions that the team discusses in terms of what methods to use and the scope of commitment.

Within this new work framework that gives the team more say and more accountability, team members need to switch their mindsets so they are committed to achieving reachable goals by the deadline. There is no “other’s” fault. All of us – devs, testers, analysts – we’re all part of the team that decides, plans, builds, and delivers. Awesome empowerment allows the team to negotiate a project’s scope, a balanced workload, and sometimes even deadlines. But that also shifts some of the responsibility over to them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to play the blame game. Failure, in some waterfall projects, does not fall on one particular person. At the same time, responsibility for the failure also doesn’t necessarily fall equally on the whole team. It’s just that some projects, in a demanding market, require faster action and reaction strategies. Otherwise, a company can’t remain competitive, but that is a topic for another post. 

Because of that, some companies must now consider a different strategy to coordinate these new teams through cross-functional and empowerment skills. A different managerial mindset is key. A great manager is someone dedicated to the team, someone who is there to provide guidance, but not direction, and who acts to encourage teamwork while also motivating each individual. 

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Things get tricky when managers realize that is not only about coordinating a group of like-minded robots. Leadership is complex because everyone has different mindsets, behaviors, experiences, ways of reacting, and so on, even if we have the same role or profile to cover.

By taking into consideration that each member of the team has a potential skill set, and a particular capacity to learn, communicate, innovate, and improve when motivated, new management must lead, not command, it must trust, not micromanage, and it must coordinate with a group of individuals and not expect to find a flock of sheep or pre-programmed machines. 

Management these days is more about taking care of people, attending their needs as valuable individual collaborators and thinking about them more like the interdependent gears of a swiss watch. It’s about promoting a healthy, positive and constructive work atmosphere, and always trying to keep the team motivated, instead of just taking care of the project plan. This is a fundamental shift from when management just worked towards achieving commitments that had been made by higher-ups who ignored the opinions, concerns and work-life balance of the team members. The fact is that members of the team are the ones who are actually living and breathing the project on a daily basis. They are the ones coding, testing, fixing, and building the solution.

When becoming a leader, consider each team member as an integral entity, with hard and soft skills, but also with feelings and criteria. Remember that someone may work in a different cadence than the rest, or with different methods, but those superficial aspects should not add or take away from their importance on the team. Consider as well, globality may offer multicultural and multi-time zone teams. 

So the main challenge for new management and leadership is not the project itself, but the people involved in it. That’s why it’s key to keep them motivated, focused, empowered, committed, confident and comfortable to meet each of the project’s goals.

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