7 Things I Learned When I Stepped Away From a Leadership Position
My learning curve had flattened. I was reasonably good at what I was doing, but I had been doing the same things for too long — mainly people management, organizational tasks, and communication. One colleague once called me the counselor of engineering, because of the many one-on-ones I was doing, and because a lot of people trusted me. A colleague who held a position similar to mine had a different name for it ─ Papa Smurf of the department.
I loved my department, and the people I worked with. But it was time for something new. This was my situation some time in 2017, when our CEO approached me and suggested an internal move to give me new challenges. Internal moves (trivago in motion) are pretty common in the company, and something that our managing directors do themselves.
I agreed to the move, because I saw a lot of benefits: I would learn new things, I would get to work with and get to know new people, and I would work on different products. As I said, the change was overdue.
From 20 direct reports to 0
There was only one detail that might have deterred many people: I would not be a team lead any more, but assume an individual contributor (IC) role again. The questions that arose in my head were:
- After two and a half years of leading up to 22 people, would I be able to make that mental switch back to IC?
- What would it feel like?
- Would I miss leading people?
- What would it be like to report to somebody who, at least on paper, had less leadership experience than me? Would they be ok with it, or would they feel threatened? Would I be able to accept all of their decisions?
The answers to these questions are revealed in the sections below. Luckily, one question did not occupy me much: How would the move be perceived? I did not care very much about what other people might think about it. After all, I don’t work in an insurance company or a bank, meaning my colleagues — at least those whose opinion I’m interested in — don’t seek a position mainly for the prestige, and nor do I. And for those who found my career change strange, I would simply convince them through good work and by making an impact.
Now, 12 months later, I can say that assuming an IC role in a different department was a hugely positive experience for me. I connected with new people, and I learned new things. Here are the seven most important things I am taking away from this journey.
1. The benefits of being an individual contributor (IC)
If you are a leader, you usually have to juggle a lot of different things. You have to manage up, down, and sideways. You are part of a lot of meetings and discussions. You have to talk to your team regularly and know what’s going on. People approach you with problems. You are interrupted frequently, and your time is sliced up into one-hour-blocks of time.
This kind of schedule does not allow for a lot of deep, focused hands-on work.
As an individual contributor, I suddenly had several three-hour or even four-hour chunks of uninterrupted time in my calendar, several times a week. I could make things again. I could investigate and get to the bottom of things. I could let my curiosity guide me.
- There are some strange values in the database. Where do they come from? Let’s investigate!
- This API looks interesting! Maybe it could serve some of our needs. But what can it actually do? Let’s try it out!
- It would be good to have a dashboard for this app, so that we can track some metrics better. I know! I’ll write one myself!
This felt great!
I could simply do those things, right away! I did not need to carve out time first, or delegate them to somebody else. As long as I did not neglect any of my other responsibilities, I could get down to it and get my hands dirty.
This was extremely satisfying: Getting my hands dirty regularly. Making things. Exploring. Tracing things down. As a manager, those things can be pretty rare. It’s not that you don’t want to do them. It’s that you would have to stop half-way through, and then your unfinished work would block somebody else, or would just have been a waste of time.
2. Leadership experience makes you a better employee
In the way that I approached things, I realized:
You might lose the title of a leader, but you will never lose the mindset.
With a leadership mindset, you know that you are responsible ─ it’s your job to solve this problem and to remove that obstacle. A solution will not fall from the sky, and you will not rely on your boss to solve all the problems and remove all the obstacles for you.
The mindset of a leader is one of increased ownership. You feel like an owner, so you are personally invested in the outcome. You care.
If you have been in a lead position yourself, you know that a lead is, on average, not more intelligent than their employees. There is often no reason that a lead should be able to solve a problem and the employee cannot. More often than not, the employee could have solved the problem just as well. What was lacking was the resolve, the willpower, the accountability, the decisiveness.
If you know that, then you as an employee will work harder to solve problems yourself. And these are precisely the employees that a lead wants.
So, when I was stuck, and I would have liked some guidance from my lead, I always asked myself: If I were the lead, what would I tell my employee in that situation?
In some cases, I would have told myself that I should do some additional research first. Ok, so let’s do some research. In other cases, a decision with minor implications had to be made. Just make the decision yourself. In still other cases, the decision was a bit bigger. Ok, as a leader, I would want to be involved in that decision. Now it’s really time to involve your team lead.
Your boss is not always available, and needs you to be as autonomous as possible. Instead of, like a reflex, asking him or her for solutions, ask yourself these questions before:
- Am I really prepared to ask for assistance?
- Can I present the problem in a concise way so that I don’t waste my team lead’s time?
- Have I gathered all the relevant information or am I just looking for a quick way out?
- Have I tried everything to deliver a solution on my own?
These are the situations where you can show proactiveness and ownership, and people with these traits are a thousand times more effective than those without.
3. Building bridges makes you enormously effective
During the months working in different departments, I made new friends and built rich, trustful relationships with new people. However, my “old” relationships were also still there, of course. Combine the two sets, and you get a powerful, endless set of possibilities.
One of the apps my team was building was public-facing. A colleague from my old team had noticed that it was not meeting our basic accessibility standards, and contacted me about it. So I got him together with the frontend developers on my team, who were rather junior, and who were very happy about this unexpected opportunity to learn from a more senior developer.
When our QA engineers faced a difficult question related to the continuous integration infrastructure, I knew exactly who to ask in my old department to share their experience. I got some information from them, which saved my team some time and discussion.
When an engineer on my new team needed additional reviewers for a tricky piece of code, I could usually find someone from my old team to have a look.
Additionally, I was not only able to bring tech people together, but I was also “the Tech guy in T&O” (Talents & Organization, which translates roughly to HR). Nobody cared that I was not actually part of T&O for long, they just enjoyed calling me that. Anyway, I was close enough, because T&O were my stakeholders and close collaborators.
From my years in the software engineering department, I knew a lot of the engineers. Now, since I was the Tech guy in T&O, I knew most people in T&O: Recruitment team, Talent Acquisition in general, Talent Development, etc. To most people in T&O, the engineering departments are a foreign world. To most engineers, T&O is a foreign world. Being able to navigate both these worlds and point people to the right persons to talk to is one of my unique selling points nowadays.
Recent conversation between Patrick and me after debriefing on a job interview:
Me: “Ok, so we agree that we should hire her, right?”
Me: “Shall we go talk to the tech recruiter right away, so that she can go ahead?”
Patrick: (somewhat incredulously) “Erm, yes. But do you know where she sits?”
Me: (somewhat incredulously back) “Erm: Yes?! First floor, section B?”
Patrick: “Damn, I wish I had your network.”
4. A more equal gender ratio is a good thing
This one was not exactly something new that I learned, but something that I had not experienced for a long time in a professional setting, and that I now rediscovered. My new team and department, and especially T&O, were a lot more female than the engineering departments I had been part of for so long.
While, before, it could happen that a 14-person meeting was all-male, now I sometimes faced the opposite: I would regularly be the only man in a meeting.
But we are all professionals, and this should not make a difference, right? Well, but we are also all humans, and it does make a difference. The exchange becomes more civil. The jokes become funnier and more creative. The discussions become more diverse and fruitful. You learn more, and you become more empathic.
Another thing I noticed is that, when more women are around, you talk more about personal things. As long as this does not get out of hand, it can be a great way to fill the time before a meeting really starts, because it connects everyone, and creates a safe atmosphere where everybody will freely share their thoughts and ideas. If you know how important psychological safety is to the success of a team, you know how valuable such an atmosphere is.
5. It can be hard to let go of old habits
Recruiting had long been a topic of great interest to me, so it felt rather natural when I joined the Talent Acquisition team for some time. Soon, however, I moved to a product team that created software for our internal recruiters and for our job candidates.
Not as a developer, however. Instead, I became a product manager. Wow. Didn’t see that coming. After having been a developer or managing developers for much of my professional life, I suddenly found myself on “the other side”. The half-joking comment of a long-year product manager colleague even was: “Welcome to the dark side!”
With such a role switch, you have to adopt a new mindset. This did not happen overnight. At one point, when a pull request had been open for some time already I reviewed the code and approved it. An engineering team lead took me aside and asked me not to do this anymore, because that’s not what product managers do.
Or, I researched various libraries to give a recommendation on which one the engineers could use. Also something I should have left to them.
Overall, however, my technical expertise helped me in my product management role. It helped me accept the development team’s arguments on why something was possible or not, or why something would take long. It gave me a better sense of what was possible and what was not. Moreover, it helped me to keep up in discussions with the team, and I think it also increased their respect for me.
In my opinion, product managers should definitely have a certain technical understanding to be successful. Otherwise, you are a bit like an architect who knows nothing about building materials and statics.
6. A shift in perspective will always teach you something
In The 7 Habits, Steven Covey wrote that there is nothing as powerful as a paradigm shift, or a shift in perspective.
The shift from manager back to individual contributor reinforced my knowledge of what an IC needs from the manager ─ for example, a clear sense of what is expected of me, the freedom to figure out how to reach a goal instead of being told exactly what to do, and help in removing obstacles when I was stuck.
My internal move came with a second shift in perspective, however, and that was from development to product management. This shift, especially, has taught me an immense amount. Suddenly I realized how much work it is to write all these specifications, to really think things through beforehand, to determine what should get done and not “just” think about how to do something (which is hard in a different way, of course).
I learned what it means to see an urgent feature delayed more and more, without being able to do much about it while my stakeholders expected me to do something about it.
I learned what it means to have an entire team of developers waiting for input from me, and that sometimes it is hard to keep up with them.
Additionally, I learned that this Scrum stuff that I despised as a developer has some value if you don’t take it too far. Or, at least, that you need some planning on the team, or else the team will stand in each other’s way or waste time waiting for each other to finish something.
When you are the one who has to answer to the stakeholders, answering “it’s done when it’s done” simply doesn’t cut it any more. You need some kind of predictability in your development process.
Overall, changing your perspective will increase your understanding and your empathy for other roles. I feel that this is something a lot of people would benefit from.
7. To exhibit leadership, you don’t need the title of a leader
Product management is a job that involves a lot of coordination. You are the central person who connects stakeholders, design, development, quality assurance, and operations. You take ownership of your product, which makes you the responsible person. You ultimately set the direction, and possibly run a lot of the meetings.
This sounds a lot like a leadership position. Except that you do not have the formal authority of a leadership position.
You do not strictly need formal authority, however. After all, in every group of peers, there are people who exhibit more leadership than others. You might say that leaders are born, not made, and I would even say you have a point. However, there are several ways in which everyone can exhibit some leadership, even without a formal title.
Here are some ways in which I think I exhibited leadership during the past year:
- I educated a peer product manager on a certain technology and helped him introduce it to his product.
- I demonstrated what level of thoroughness I expect by pushing back on a solution that was failing around the edge cases.
- I really went to the bottom of some data inconsistencies, even when they were so small that we might have waved them off. This signalled to the team that we cannot be sloppy.
- I provided words of encouragement to a struggling junior developer who kept justifying herself for taking so long for a certain task. I made clear that it’s important that she learns this properly, that real learning takes time, and that we will take this time.
- I expressed doubts about the current way we were doing our standup, and suggested a slightly different approach.
- I praised behaviour that I wanted to see more often in others. For example, I went over to a QA engineer to thank him for the flawless release, and how he reacted to an unforeseen situation.
- I volunteered to come up with a new team meeting format.
- I gave a presentation on a concept from a book that I like very much.
Because of such “leadership bits”, I did not miss leading people, because I was still doing it. Not as a team lead, not with direct responsibility for people, but as a peer who wants to improve things and who wants to be helpful to his colleagues.
A shoutout to my team leads
One of my questions before the role switch was: What would it be like to report to somebody who, at least on paper, had less leadership experience than me?
It turned out that I was extremely lucky in that respect. My two team leads during that time, Jana and Maleen, are both outstanding leads and I felt perfectly at ease with them right from the start. They gave me the freedom to do things my way, but also held me accountable when I made mistakes (as you can see on the picture 😉 ). They always had an open ear and provided guidance when I needed it. From the bottom of my heart, I thank them for an amazing role switch experience.
While it might seem odd for some to step “down” (remember, management is not a promotion) from a leadership position, it was a great experience and a great learning opportunity for me. I made new friends, I was able to provide value to a new team, and I took on several new perspectives.
If you are wondering if you should give up a team lead position, ask yourself: Will I learn more than in my current role? If the answer is yes, then I would always put learning above status and say “yes” to a new experience.
Originally published by Tom Bartel on www.tombartel.me