Diary of An Accidental CTO: Team Member to Team Leader

Andrew Weaver
April 19, 2022

Stepping up from Team Member to Team Manager

Welcome back to Mostafa Khattab, CTO at Wake Technologies in Dubai as he continues to walk us through his experiences as someone who in his words, “became a CTO ahead of schedule”.

Welcome to the diary of an accidental CTO, part 5 ….

“I’ve mentioned in previous articles that arriving unexpectedly into this senior role led to challenges that were very different to those I faced as a team member and brought with them many uncertainties and “unknowns”.

As technologists we don’t generally like the unexpected, we like order, some certainty and mostly “knowns” – or at least that was the place I was coming from.

Suddenly as I stepped up into a leadership role where I was not only facing those unknowns but they were unknowns where my decisions would impact directly on my team and how effective they and I could be.

Looking back now I can’t believe how daunting those unknowns might have seemed to me as a team player, had I known about them in advance. But like many challenges in life it’s amazing how quickly you can adapt, particularly if you have a strong support network around you.

1. Understand the new role and expectations

In this article, I will walk you through my experience of the key changes that took place;

Like any new role, it’s important to understand quickly what is expected from you but if you have little or no experience in a leadership role then beware the risks of running before you can walk, this is especially true when working within a fast growth company where change is constant and there is always a new fire to be dealing with.

It’s super important to have good channels of communication with your direct line manager and to establish regular contact so that you can establish clarity from the start about their expectations and that you and your team are aligned with what senior colleagues are expecting or wanting.

I can see from my experience how easily within a fast paced environment an inexperienced new CTO can be swept up in demands on their time and lose the importance of communication and alignment within the team and wider organisation.

2. Look after your team

When you step up from team member to team leader, hey guess what … you are suddenly in charge of a team and they are in your care.

I have always believed in taking care of people working with and alongside me, whatever the managerial responsibilities, but now it becomes a central part of your job description and whereas before you might have been managing situations within your particular silo, now you’re doing it on behalf of everyone in the team.

They say there is no “I” in team well that’s for sure when you’re the CTO because no-one will follow you if you’re only looking out for yourself. You have to pro-actively care and look after the interests of your team and that means understanding the different characters and demands.

Understand what support they need to be effective and happy in their work, particularly crucial during these difficult days of the pandemic and WFH.

3. Listen and communicate

Key part of this need to provide support is to make sure you listening and as my CTO Academy coach tells me, that you are actively listening.

That’s the first and crucial step to effective communication because if you fail to listen correctly and understand the core of the problem, you can’t support them and communicate with them effectively.

I have found that communication with the team can be very challenging especially when surrounded by work pressures and demanding deliverables but it’s a skill I’ve had to learn quickly, probably more than most other leadership skills. The ability to be available for team members and to understand what they’re looking for and communicating themselves, which is not always obvious from the outset.

Another factor in our global world of diverse teams is that effectively communicating what you want to say is additionally challenging when the office language is not your mother tongue – standard being English, right?

As an Arabic speaker it’s additionally challenging and exhausting at times, for me to communicate away from my mother tongue and it also creates the risk of misinterpretation so accept that’s the case both when communicating with and listening to discussions, not everyone can speak super fluently in the generally used language of the team.

Whatever the demands on your time and the pressure you’re under, don’t jump to automatic conclusions when someone is trying to explain in a language that is not their mother tongue and might have delivered the wrong phrase or pronunciation. This might seem obvious but communication can break down for lots of reasons and within multi national teams, I have seen this become a problem.

4. Be Confident

This is really important because we all suffer from imposter syndrome and I think it might be more of an issue when you have been fast tracked into a senior role but be confident about your abilities and why you’re there.

You got this role for a reason. Someone spotted your potential and your ability to make this happen.

Constantly challenge yourself and question your decisions and focus on learning and growing.

But don’t question why you are there. Everyone has it in them to become an effective leader and your team needs you to project confidence on their behalf so they can be inspired to create something great.

Be confident. Back yourself and trust your team.

5. Re-introduce yourself as a team leader

This is a really important point because to others you might still be seen as a team member.

So you might need to push the reset button and help people understand what you do now as a leader.

Share your vision with your team. Let them understand how you operate as a leader, how you define performance and values.

What are your expectations of them as a leader because it might be different from previous line managers they’ve had and importantly, it might be different from their expectations of you when working alongside you.

Be open to questions, be transparent, while confidently sharing your leadership style and strengths which themselves might be evolving as you grow into the role. Don’t be afraid to own and acknowledge those changes in you, they will happen and more quickly than you appreciate at the time.

Being an Accidental CTO is not a static experience.

6. Find the support

I have said this before but I really cannot say it enough. Don’t get isolated. Seek support because in my case I took too long to recognise or act on my need for external guidance.

There was a clear need for me to work with a coach from very early but I was always postponing, I thought I could do it alone, because I always had.

But definitely moving into leadership roles is moving outside my natural skill set and comfort zone. That’s why I started working with CTO Academy and who have accompanied me through this amazing journey.

Until next time, good luck.

Mostafa Khattab

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