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Being a great leader seems like a straightforward job because there are no super-secret techniques in it. But while great leadership mostly consists of simple things, many leaders forget about implementing them for some reason.
Of course, the following leadership tips are just the tip of the iceberg. Theory alone is not enough here—active practice is needed here, just like everything else in life.
1. Be humane
Never forget that you are managing real people, with their own struggles and stories. For many leaders, people at work are nothing more than man-hours who need to be managed and optimized.
Your team always knows who they are for you, whether they’re your people, friends or man-hours. And a man-hour will never help you when you have a problem.
2. Learn to manage
Directing people is not something that comes to many of us naturally, and I haven’t found any “leadership courses” that are truly worthwhile. Fortunately, we have a much better thing at our disposal: books.
As a leader, you will need to defend the interests of your company. And you will do so much better if you know the theory of negotiations and understand the psyche of the person you are talking to.
Therefore, a leader needs to read books. Not only should leaders read about management, but also about psychology, the structure of thinking, hiring people, negotiations, marketing, project management and economics.
3. Understand what you are managing
Authority can only be won by expertise. You have to understand the things you manage, and this applies to leaders at any level.
For example, to lead a development team you must know a fair bit about the tools, APIs, arrays, functions and algorithmic complexity. Ideally, you should be a developer yourself, at least in the past. There is no wonder Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg became as successful as they did at running IT companies — they could talk to people in their language.
You may not know all the subtleties of the programming language, especially if you have a large team that uses many languages, but you should be able to read their code and know the existence of the main frameworks.
Without an understanding of what you manage, you will not be able to properly assess the timing, risks or costs.
4. Admit your own and others’ mistakes
You won’t deceive anyone by trying to dodge the bullet. And even more so, you will immediately lose your authority within the team. Even if it won’t be noticeable at first.
Public recognition of your faults has a truly magical effect. The team will gain a clear understanding that it is not scary to make mistakes and that mistakes are absolutely normal. Once they understand that making mistakes doesn’t mean ridicule, they become more courageous in their work, take responsibility and take risks more often — all this, in the long run, gives strong competitive advantages to you and your company.
If people always work with the fear of making a mistake, they will be very conservative, stop trying to innovate in their approach and will not gain fresh and valuable knowledge.
5. Let the person correct their own mistake
There’s no need to show how “genius” you are at the cost of exposing one of the employees in a bad light. Instead, it is better to write to that person directly and tell them where they made a mistake. Discuss the solution, and let them correct it on their own behalf.
No need to publicly put people in an uncomfortable position — allow them to rehabilitate themselves. This will make their work much better in the long run.
6. Protect your people
You have to be the shield that takes all the impact. No one in the world should have the right to influence your team past you. If someone wants to criticize your employees, let them do it to you, and you will figure out what to do within your company.
7. Be honest and talk about the future
Always say it like it is. If the project has ceased to receive funding and will die soon, tell them honestly about it. If there are plans to change something, also tell about them in advance, and do not put people before the fact.
If the company has plans to reduce staff — do not be silent about it. It is better to say later that the plans did not come true than to put people before the fact. If the company plans to raise everyone’s wages, tell them too. It builds trust and increases retention. Not to mention the culture in teams with transparent leadership is always better.
The team should be aware of what is happening to the company and it is better if they learn it from you.
8. Within the team, everyone should have a fair salary
Sometimes you can’t make an employee’s salary the highest on the market. There will always be a company that pays more and a person who earns more. But people need to see that for your company their salary is fair, so they feel like they have enough value for you and your company.
To understand whether the salary is fair or not, I use this technique: Imagine one day all salaries in the company become public. Will I be ashamed in front of someone from my team? If so, their salary is not high enough and it needs to be fixed.
This goes the way for a salary that is too high. If somebody earns a lot more than the people inside the team would think, is it really a good idea? What if the word gets out?
9. Take all the blame
As a leader, you are responsible for everything that happens. Once there’s a mistake, you have to take all the blame, and only after that you can decide what you need to do internally within the team.
For people on the outside, it doesn’t matter who truly was responsible, but people on the inside need to feel protected and cared for. Even if you fire the employee that made the mistake later on, the team needs to feel that you did it not because of the external pressure, but because of the internal logic and after fair consideration.
10. Trust your employees
Your employees are highly paid specialists, whom you hired because of their knowledge and skills — so trust them. No need to double-check their work and no need to micromanage what they do. Along with that, no need to arrange meetings that don’t decide anything. Daily status meetings for 1.5 hours are a clear sign of a low level of trust. One 10-minute Zoom call or Jira conversation is enough.
11. The team must be able to work without you
Making yourself irreplaceable feels great, but it doesn’t lead to great results. If something happens to you, everything falls apart. Processes should be built in such a way that the team can work without you and be perfectly fine. You know you’ve achieved this when you have not been disturbed during two weeks of vacation.
This in no way makes you a useless person. Exactly the opposite — this indicates that you have managed to build processes in such a way that they have no points of failure.
12. The team should not have irreplaceable people
This is not just about you, it’s about everyone. Sure, maybe someone is better at certain tasks, so there is a temptation to give these tasks to him. But this is a dangerous path. Anything can happen to people. For example, once my main system administrator was hit by a car. We had instructions and access, but suddenly we didn’t have a person who could properly do the work. It took our smartest guys half a year to understand what to do and how it needs to be done.
Therefore, try to rotate tasks. Yes, one may be slower and worse at this task than the other, but now one more employee will understand how to complete that task and can try something new — a double benefit.
In the same way, find a person who could perform your function too: Entrust them with part of your tasks and teach them. Your replacement must always be ready. It has saved me many times.
13. Respect boundaries
Do not claim the personal time and personal space of your employees. Do not actively campaign for any team building. People will want to socialize outside of work anyway, and they will do so without your “let’s go today”.
Vacation is a sacred time. If someone needs to regularly call a person on vacation — you did something wrong.
14. Collect feedback
Periodically ask the team what they like or dislike and what they would want to change. You can do it one on one, you can do it collectively or you can do it anonymously. Preferably, all of the above: Maybe some people on your team are shy or speculative, but they would still want to be heard.
15. Keep in touch even after the employee leaves
You can start a new company, or maybe a new spot will open up. If they are no longer in your company, this is not a reason to stop communicating, sometimes even the opposite. Try to keep in touch, it is possible that in the future you will need some of them once again.
Periodically inquire about their affairs and ask if they would like to return. Someone may be disappointed in their new employer and feel ashamed to ask you to try to go back.