So here is the scenario ...
I'm running as fast as I can alongside my 5 year old son’s bike, initially holding onto his seat to make sure he does not fall.
I’ve made sure we are on a quiet road and there are no cars or obstacles for him to seriously hurt himself.
Now it's all about knowing when it's time, time to let go, time to let him ride off himself.
What I do know is that this setting will allow him to learn in his own way and whilst it’s tough for us to let our kids go out into the world and learn by their mistakes, it’s also the aspect of parenting you accept and almost naturally absorb, despite the reservations
Strangely I have seen tech leaders (including myself) forget that we have to apply a similar approach to the development of our teams!
“Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.”— Phil Jackson
Those of you who have read my previous blogs and/or who I coach, will be familiar with the similarities I draw between leadership and parenting.
Personally I believe it goes beyond an analogy because the emotions, actions and responsibilities are very similar between that parental/home setting and the leadership/work one.
As a leader of teams, we are not only accountable for their output, but we have a responsibility towards them as individuals.
Effective leaders understand the duality of leadership between helping your organisation and stewardship of the people in the team that they can learn and grow around you and one day leave to further their own career.
Ineffective leaders look at the short term and often selfish benefits of motivating their team, without pro actively encouraging people to build out their technical skills, develop longer term soft skills, and create a working environment that encourages a more rounded and structured way of learning, that thinks of the long term benefits for individual as well as the organisation.
For this to happen, we need to ensure we give them the chance to take on new opportunities and the freedom to make mistakes.
But I think letting go is even more of a challenge for the CTO and tech leaders than most other C-suite roles because we are instinctively problem solvers, lateral thinkers and love getting under the bonnet of a technical challenge. Our instinct is to dive in deep as soon as possible but in a leadership role this is neither a good idea for your own ability to make an impact nor for your team to grow and learn into their roles.
Alongside that natural instinct to get our ‘hands dirty’ we have the pressures of clients, management, deadlines, technical challenges, all demanding rapid answers and results, so it's perfectly understandable for us to want to just shred all plans to delegate and just dive right in.
If there are consistent themes to my coaching sessions with tech leaders around the world they are …
“it was just easier for me to clear down tickets today”,
“I quickly just wrote the code for the new function x last night as I had some spare time”,
“I decided to draft the documentation before giving it to the Head of XYZ so that they only needed to finish it off”,
… different statements, familiar theme?
It’s easier and faster if I step in and do the work, rather than spend the time to train, teach or let someone else have a go.
This is such a fundamental leadership mindset that we have to train ourselves to change and it’s sometimes quite a personal challenge having to push back hard on a natural and extremely insistent instinct to just sort it.
But in the words of Elsa (I could not help the Disney reference) … We need to let it go and give our teams the chance to take over, learn and fail and fall, if that is what is needed. Just like I had to with my son on his bike.
“Are you ready to take the first steps toward leader-leader? Are you ready to take the first steps toward an empowered and engaged workforce? Are you ready to embrace the changes that will unleash the intellectual and creative power of the people you work with? Do you have the stamina for long-term thinking?” ― L. David Marquet
To let go, and to let our teams grow, we must first recognise what we are holding on to.
This can be challenging but if you’re in any form of leadership position then you’re likely to have done some of this in the past or seen colleagues adopt techniques that help them understand what needs to be kept, or released.
Maybe when you stopped writing production code because you realised your team were just better at it than you,your time better spent looking at the bigger picture of the product.
Or you stopped prioritising tickets and let the Operations team follow the processes that you originally helped create, or it could be you stopped writing user stories and allowed your product managers to have full accountability of the direction of a product?
These are scenarios I’ve seen myself and with my coaching clients, where they’ve realised (not always very quickly) the longer term benefits of delegating certain tasks.
It’s that dawning realisation that a key part of your job as leader is to trust your team and that if you’ve recruited well then they are as qualified and skilled and maybe even more up to date than you to do a particular task.
There needs to be a realisation also that your pay grade now is such that the other managers and leaders around you are looking for you to add value at a higher, more strategic level in your organisation and remaining down in the technical weeds will not reflect well on your operationally or strategically.
Your job is to inspire and facilitate the team in a servant-leader structure or a leader-leader culture.
There are many techniques of letting go and letting your team flourish, but a style described in Turn the Ship Around! by David Marquet is the Leader-Leader culture, one of my favourite methods for empowering your team to take ownership and win.
This technique moves away from detailing exact processes and systems that your team must follow or articulating tasks they must do. It enables the team to make their own choices and do ‘work’ they decide on.
To deploy this type of culture in your organisation, your role as the leader has to change.
You need to let go and step away from the day-to-day and your role is to create an environment for your team to thrive and lead in. You must communicate and empower the team to understand what the overall outcomes need to be and importantly why those outcomes are important to the organisation.
You need to be clear about the context of each situation and challenge, allowing them to come up with the solutions and providing them with the autonomy to execute in the way they best believe it will meet those outcomes.
This technique is hard to execute because as technical leaders we find it difficult to step away from making those hands-on operational and day-today decisions.
But this is the key learning point as leaders. We have to remove ourselves from some of those micro decisions being made day-to-day, especially when we see a potential mistake, or a delay due to an inefficiency in a process.
We must continue to support the team to make the decision and if something goes wrong our role is to support them to learn from the mistake and move forward.
This takes time, willpower (I tell you that from my personal experience) and you will make mistakes and regress to a previous way of working, but your job is to persevere with fostering this environment and over time, your team and the individuals in those teams will perform and deliver more and deliver faster than you could have ever done without this technique.
You will also start to step back as a leader and celebrate the impact you’re having on the organisation, the individuals and your own wellbeing.
Not letting go is not good for your own mental health and quality of life.
In every leadership position you will have situations where you don’t have enough time or budget or both to be able to execute on the priorities the business is demanding of you.
In these situations our natural instinct as technologists and sometimes uncertain leaders is to dive into those weeds and help the team deliver.
This may help in that immediate moment, it might give you a short term hit of camaraderie and team bonding but what you will lose is the longer term learning culture that fosters innovation and the real leaps in product, quality and team bonding.
In those moments you must stay strong and remember that your job is to create the environment for your team to become hyper engaged, supportive and productive.
By creating a safe environment and having the courage to step back, you’re enabling that individual to ride like the wind.
Sanjay Mistry is an experienced CTO and leadership coach with CTO Academy who regularly contributes some wonderfully personal blog articles and also delivers some of our course material, including a recent masterclass on How To Build a Tech Strategy.
CTO Academy provide leadership skills training and career development support to tech leaders around the world. Recently reviewed as one of the leading CTO programs in the world, we focus on helping our customers build the soft skills that really matter to high impact CTOs.