My approach to leadership even when you’re not The Team Lead, or how to minimize resistance to change in your company

Recently I have been asked a few times about how to become recognized as a leader when you are not officially appointed a Team Lead title, or even worse, when the particular team you are working on is too small, or you are even working solo on an independent piece.

Another common question I see people around me ask is: how to introduce new practises to a team that still doesn’t recognize what’s holding them back or what they are missing out on, without having too much resistance, especially from senior people. It’s interesting to note that this question is often asked out of a specific struggle, and that leadership is not usually mentioned when the question is framed.

But “how to lead” and “how to drive change” are very related

This blog post was motivated by a question I answered recently on Quora, and another one I answered in a tech group on facebook.

The Quora question is just an example of how this works, so do not mind the specifics.

How can I ask a senior developer to learn Git properly as he always commit code directly on the master branch?

The other question is what I’m sharing with you here. Let’s look at what it says:

What are your tips for developing company performance in Agile, clean code, unit testing, good software design, etc.?
Habits are usually a problem, and there’s difficulty of persuasion

Below I answer the question from my observations working as a consultant for 7+ years, and as a software developer for over 12 years.

The Answer

It depends on your role, your power, how much buy in you got from leadership, etc.
But…

This is the general framework I apply as a consultant whenever I go to a new place (usually every 4 – 14 months):

I keep my ears open all the time, looking for opportunities to help people technically etc.

I like to help, but it’s also good to have people recognize you as someone who helps and come to you directly for help after that. When they come to you for help, they develop habit of listening to what you say, and accepting it.

I ask tough questions from day 1, although only when a relevant topic comes

Questions have always been key to how I function. Asking the right question gets you a very good idea on where the team / company stand relative to what you are asking, and much more.

It tells you whether they already do things better than you thought, or otherwise, how close they are, and whether they acknowledge that they are missing something.

The question also communicates to the team what to expect you to push, what you stand behind. If you ask the question in a neutral tone, and only focus on understanding their position (via few follow up questions as time and situation permit) instead of enforcing a suggestion solution at the time, it also signals to them that you are not a perfectionist who wants to move everything upside down in their comfort zone.

Small talk, coffees, etc.

I have room for improvement here, but small talk, chatting to people about their lives, their kids, their favourite sport / movie, without being judgemental of course, really helps make you a friend.

If your time permits, join in the coffee trips and sit with them for lunch if applicable. This one is optional, but it helps deepen the “one team” feeling.

I embrace coming as honest / vulnerable, do not act like “I know it all”

Stating the obvious, but, I do make mistakes, and that’s OK. When you push for change, even by just asking innocent questions, people hold you to a higher standard, and that’s also OK. Actually it’s a good thing.

When you create a Pull Request, and other people point at a mistake you did, and you smile and fix it. What happened in here? Two things: They put on their “What’s the right thing to do” hat, and you put on the “I hold myself to the same values I ask you to stand for” hat.

This really helps in getting people to have a development mentality, and also helps them own the improvements. It’s not about you anymore, we are all peers, and we all hold each other to what we agree is correct.

It also works in non tech areas, like applying a process etc. When you make the rule become how they judge you, they stand more for it.

I look for opportunities for small wins.

A small Agile or tech practice that people can apply without much effort and can appreciate the results. There is always one if you keep your ears and eyes open, and ask the right questions. The whole point here it to get them to appreciate that change (a small change in this case, that they don’t feel a strong urge to resist) is actually beneficial, which helps when you start pushing bigger changes.

Now that I built enough credibility, I start making the case for the bigger items

This works because I’m often injected into teams as a developer and a mentor, or leading a smallish team of 3-4 developers. It’s different when I’m expected to be an advisor to the leadership.

I watch what we agree on, to decide whether to keep asking or start making statements

Asking works most of the time, but telling / making firm statements is needed too. When people say they don’t want to do something, quite often they ignore the result of their old approach vs the new approach. Your friend in these objection time is the word “Why?”.

If you keep asking “Why?” and “What will happen if…”, people will stop answering at some point, and you’ll have to “tell” them what you think the answer is, and get them to agree or make their own answer. That’s one kind of telling.

When you reach to a point where the flaw of some approach is stated, then it’s time to put on your firm face and “tell” them that we should avoid this problem using the change you are suggesting (detailing the change not using words like “my change”, you don’t want it to be them vs you), and “tell” them that unless they find a bigger flaw in it, that’s what we should follow

At the end of the day, quite often most decisions are trade-offs. You just need to agree on which trade-off has higher cost.

When you do this, you should also sense the air to see if it’s better to make your statements use a neutral tone, or sound a bit more firm, which still should not mean shouting!

Praise and recognition, lots of it, but keep it genuine

Recognition

I make sure to give people credit for everything good they do, no matter how small. I repeat it in front of more people, and in front of other teams.

Side note: When you do this, you don’t worry about others taking credit for what you did. Because when you keep giving credit to other people around you, external people and management DO see that you are a common factor in these, and while the people you praise get the credit, you too get extra credit!

This plays well with the old leadership playbooks: When talking about good things, name people in every occasion. When talking about bad things, always name facts and avoid naming people, use “we” instead of specific person’s name. If you really have to mention a name, say it neutrally and quickly.

Praise

When someone does something good, whether related to the changes you suggest or not, make sure to praise them, in public, loudly. Praise for small things. And do not make up praise.

I learned an interesting secret: when you look for good things that people do, you always find them. Even people that your might consider a negative net producer will do good things and if you look for them you’ll find them (handling negative net producers is a whole topic on its own).

People love praise. It always strengthens your relationship with them. They also feel the urge to do better. It also helps you (me in this case) find positives in the relationship with the team when you are looking for genuine reasons to praise them.

Be warned though: It’s VERY important to keep your praise genuine and about good things you found NOT made up. Why? Besides being dishonest, people will see that you are just giving them empty praise. While empty praise still works on others, it reduces your creditability, and it sure still does not work on those who resist change the most (and hence recognize they have the most conflicts with you). It’ll just lead them to disrespect you and fight you harder.

People often recognize me as someone who is approachable and respectful, which I think is mainly due to vulnerability and positivity (which praise is part of), even though I’m also someone cites concerns in the form of questions or statements when required. This leads to them describing me in my LinkedIn profile recommendations as someone who is they enjoy to work, but not afraid to speak up.

The good news is that there’s no secret about it. It’s not too hard to recognize all people for the good work they do when you are actually looking for it.

Finally

When you are already recognized as leader / coach, you don’t have to go through all these steps. You might be better off asking the existing leadership about their priorities and the work conditions, and directly start addressing the low hanging fruit from these.

Do you have any experience / tip you’d like to share on this?

Bring on your own version / perspective

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