Leadership, Management, and Culture

A few months ago I shifted to a leadership role in my workplace. Moving from network engineer to network lead felt inevitable; my positioning in every team I have been a part of has melted into leadership beginning as a recruit-turned-guide in Marine Corps boot camp when I was seventeen years old. I rarely asked for a lead position in the last decade…it always seemed to be thrust upon me in the wake of others’ incompetency, laziness, or lack of desire to lead. When employers would ask what my future plans were, I always gravitated towards middle management, wanting to bridge the gap between the technical employees and the programmatic bosses, managing large technical design and equally large personnel issues. So when the network lead position of my Department of Defense project opened, I mentioned that I was interested and I was promptly asked to fill the position.

This is certainly not my first technical lead position. I was the network operations chief for everything west of the Mississippi in the Marine Corps when I was twenty-two years old, leading a number of Marines in providing network stability and support for operational events. However, I led ruthlessly and was known for making my “employees” (Marines) cry. I had zero compassion or empathy for them, seeing only the tasks to be done and not the people completing the tasks. My bosses loved me…my Marines hated me. I had missed the point of management as a twenty-two year old…your leadership and the culture you create impacts the lives of your employees, the development of your product, and the future of your company. I have reflected upon leadership and culture immensely over the last few months as I have stumbled to re-position myself as a leader in the tech field. I have closely watched the culture of other teams and businesses, and have compared some of my experiences as a leader, as someone who has been led well, as someone who has been led poorly, and as someone who has been impacted by the negative culture of a few companies. I wanted to discuss some of the things I have learned about leadership through trial and error, observation, and a lot of mistakes.

The Marine Corps has an acronym for leadership traits: JJ-DID-TIE-BUCKLE (grouped as such for ease of verbalization). Marines are taught that justice, judgment, dependability, initiative, decisiveness, tact, integrity, enthusiasm, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty, and endurance are the fourteen qualities of a good leader. And that is certainly a good list to begin tackling if you want to emulate good leadership…in the military. However, I want to expand beyond such a ditty to include other traits that were left out and I believe to be extremely important.

Compassion- If you are a leader, you are in charge of a complex team of different personalities, different levels of intellectual and emotional aptitudes, and different backgrounds and experiences. You are expected to make this hodgepodge (and sometimes volatile) group work together to produce something, be it a product delivered or a service rendered. You cannot expect to be a good leader unless you have compassion towards the trials of the human experience. Your team members will have bad days, just as you have bad days. And you must take their problems as they affect the workplace and inspect them with measured judgment (to ensure you’re not getting taken advantage of) and with a ton of compassion. Children get sick, cars break down, divorces and court dates happen, and people have rough periods in their mental and physical lives. If you are unable to see past your team members as employees and view their human condition, please exit management. Encourage the welfare of your team by reminding them to take vacation and mental health days. It is your responsibility as a manager to ensure you have enough resources to continue meeting deadlines and product delivery dates without adversely affecting the health of your team. If your schedule will be impacted, then ask for more resources. Management is a balancing act between producing something quickly and producing it well. You cannot expect to provide quality products quickly for any length of time if you do not take care of your team.

Awareness- The personnel aspect of managing a team can be daunting. Awareness of what is happening to and within your team is paramount. There will be relationships and secret alliances internal to your team and encompassing other entities. It is your responsibility to be aware of such going-ons and how they can affect the workplace, moving to minimize impact prior to things going awry. This does not mean a manager should gossip or try to extract information from their team…but it means a leader will look at the body language of the interactions they can see, they will pay attention to the patterns of each person, and they will draw intuitive conclusions based on what they see. This does not mean a leader will act upon anything they see…this means they are simply being aware of what is happening that is not getting verbally discussed. An observant person can see irritation, discomfort, and anger before it becomes a problem and address it, if needed, with compassion.

Humility- It is impossible to know everything. If you are in management, you have hopefully influenced the hiring of the people who work for you…which means you have hired smart and capable people whose knowledge and experience you trust. Accepting the likelihood that one of your team members can teach you something is invaluable. Setting aside your ego is a key component of leadership, because you have at your disposal a group of talented and multi-faceted people. Draw upon others’ experience as you become more aware of your lack of knowledge. Because trust me…you don’t know everything.

Delegation- Doling out tasks is something I have struggled with as an engineer-turned-lead. It is hard to take what has been your baby for years and hand it to someone else…because you have to teach them what you need done. This requires immense amounts of patience during the turnover time…because you are trying to do your other work while slowly teaching them the work you’ve been doing. It is easier and faster to take over the tasks and do them yourself…but you are only shooting yourself and your team in the foot. Front-loading the teaching after delegation is necessary to continue to produce the results you would expect from yourself. Over time, your team will be more skilled and confident in their tasks. However, you also have to realize that who you are delegating tasks to are not you…therefore the execution of the task might be different and it might even be better than what you have done, which brings back in ‘humility’. Teach them well, and trust your team.

Communication- A well-informed team produces less single-points-of failure. A middle manager’s job is to protect their team from the bullshit from upper management, but this does not mean they restrict access to information and upcoming events. It is the responsibility of the leader to use their judgment to determine what is restrictive and what is protective. An overload of information encroaches on the autonomy of an individual’s work within a team. A lack of information means your vendor shows up for a lab tour and your team has no idea (whoops…sorry, guys).

And to repeat one of the Marine Corps’ leadership traits:

Courage- The courage to have hard discussions, the courage to apologize when you are wrong, the courage to take accountability for your actions and missteps, the courage to be compassionate, and the courage to keep learning and growing.

Leadership is a learned skill, and it is one that I am continuing to learn and trying to execute well. Hopefully the traits here will help other leaders develop a culture of happy and understood people who produce innovative and well-designed products…because we aren’t just employees; we are complex and intelligent people who WANT to create and provide products and experiences for those around us.