Recently I caught up with another leader who I greatly respect. We met to discuss a project we were collectively partnering on. Our conversation revolved around what makes a software project delivery successful. Very quickly our discussion turned to the element of leadership in software delivery.
What makes one team successful and another unsuccessful? There are many factors that contribute to project success including how to build the right team, but the element of leadership is what I’d like to focus on today. If you think you’re not a leader because you don’t have a titled position of power, let’s reconsider. For delivery projects, leaders can surface in many roles. I’ve mentored many junior managers about the opportunity to influence their teams and demonstrate leadership. Likewise I’ve worked with more experienced team members about their expertise and how they can leverage their knowledge to lead teams.
Strong leaders possess many qualities, but one of the most important is the ability to listen to their team. Often, I see leaders come in and take over the conversation, typical of their exuberant type-A personalities that got them the position they’re in. In some ways that can be very helpful, especially because vision needs to be communicated openly and often; however, a leader may miss key insights if he or she doesn’t practice the discipline of listening to the team.
I use the word “discipline” with purpose. Listening is not a passive activity where you sit quietly or listen but then do nothing. It’s an active and crafted skill where you learn to ask the right questions and set aside other distractions to stay focused on the person speaking to you. Only when you truly hear your team can you successfully motivate, support and coach team members to serve the collective group for success in their mission.
This is a lesson I was fortunate to learn early in my career. I gravitate toward extroversion and have to remind myself almost daily to listen more, talk less. I started my career in the US Army and as a young lieutenant I was thrown into the position of leading a platoon of soldiers. I quickly realized that my team was more knowledgeable in just about everything we needed to do. It was both humbling and motivating.
Whether by circumstance or intention, I started doing daily “walk-abouts” as my soldiers worked. Walking about meant spending lots of time outdoors in the uncomfortable Savannah, Georgia heat, sweating it out and rolling up my sleeves. But that time spent working and talking together was crucial in building trust and identifying each team member’s strengths.
Fast forward to today. As a software development partner, the ability to listen to clients remains a critical part of the process. What are you really trying to solve? Is it a software problem or are there process and organization elements that need change? What are the goals? What does success look like and how does it get measured? What is the one thing that we could help start right away?
As I wrapped up my conversation with my friend and leader, we talked about leading the whole person, not just the project. Leaders who listen and truly care and value the people on the team will quickly learn what motivates them. They will build successful teams and at times even long-lasting relationships. Software projects can be challenging throughout the journey as the team faces differing opinions, setbacks and normal tech challenges. A leader and a team that support one another through it allows for transparency and resiliency.
A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.
Douglas MacArthur, US Army General