“Daddy, what do you do at work?”
“I’m a team lead.”
“So you’re the boss of people?”
“No, not really.”
Over the years I’ve heard many definitions of the role of a team lead. Here’s my version of the one I liked the best:
Imagine a race track. The developers are the racers. My role is to make sure the track is well lit, has clear signage, is free of debris and oil slicks.
What does that look like in a distributed team working remotely?
I believe that people do their best when they have:
1. TRUST – a safe work environment
Without trust the natural tendency is to be territorial, defensive and holding your cards close to your chest. I’d venture to say that without trust it is impossible for the team to build anything truly great.
But exactly how do you nurture a culture of trust?
For starters, don’t tolerate toxicity.
- If you have someone on your team that’s proven to be toxic to the rest, remove them without delay.
- If you have a toxic client relationship seek to terminate it as soon as possible – before you lose members of your team.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about trust. How do you really know if you can trust someone?
The only way to find out if you can trust someone is to… trust them.
As a leader you cannot generate trust without trusting first. Yes, that makes you vulnerable. I’d argue that’s not a bad thing. As a leader you need to be able to take risks pursuing what truly matters. Trust matters a ton.
It is not possible to take shortcuts here or fake trust. It’s only meaningful if you’re entrusting something that, if things went wrong, would hurt you.
What if you trust a team member with something important and they don’t do it right or sufficiently?
2. CLARITY of values, goals, processes, responsibilities and priorities
For a remote team to function well, it has to be clear who is responsible for what.
One of the things I did early on was to spell out what a proper handover requires. For example:
- Before work tickets show up in the team’s queue they must have specific acceptance criteria. Think S.M.A.R.T.
- When we deploy changes to a staging server for the client to review, we need to provide clear instructions.
A commitment we made each other is to be as predictable as possible. The combination of flexible schedules and a big span of time zones of our distributed team creates room for uncertainty in who is working at what time.
So at the start of our day we’ll post on Slack what we plan to work on that day and at the end of each day we’ll comment on that post with what we got done, what we didn’t and what blockers we ran into.
One particular ambiguity I worked hard on fighting is the team not to have to ask “what should I work on next”. When a developer finishes a development task (with a proper hand-off) and there’s nothing in her queue, there’s a defined list of steps she can take to pick the next task to work on.
Once a team is used to operating in clarity they won’t tolerate anything else.
Does it feel too rigid when you have lists for everything?
3. AUTHORITY to match the responsibility they carry and FREEDOM to be creative
Once obstacles and ambiguity are removed, stay out of the team’s way. At the foundation is the belief that the team performs best when given freedom to self-govern.
This means that when there is a change I’d like the team to make, I propose this to the team along with the value I foresee the change to bring. The team reviews my suggestion and makes a decision. I have had pretty good luck getting my changes implemented (I try to be reasonable) but there were times my ideas got shot down.
As a team lead, I really want the team to be willing to take risks in exploring creative ideas and innovation. The way I go after this is to be willing to explore and propose creative ideas myself – whether they get accepted by the team or not.
The self-governance of the team and their freedom is more important to me than being right or having things my way.
I’ve learned that it’s OK to be wrong sometimes. It’s good for my ego to be reminded and it’s good for the team to hear me admit it.
Are there any other ingredients to build a great team?
Luck and Fortune
I’ve often been very intentional about how I exercise my leadership responsibility. I’ve also been true to who I am so when I didn’t have an intentional plan I did the best my gut told me.
HOWEVER, I would be foolish to claim that the greatness Team Atlas achieved is due to my leadership. It’s a group of extraordinary individuals with whom I’ve been fortunate to work and craft who we became together.
Andrej inspires us with his deep commitment to the well-being of his team and success of our clients
A Servant Leader
Andrej joined XWP 3.5 years ago as a WordPress Engineer. For the past 2 years he has served as Team Lead for Atlas, one of our service delivery teams working to build a faster, more performant web with clients like The Chive Media Group and Interactive One.
Words that come to mind when describing Andrej are commitment, generosity and humour. He inspires us with his deep commitment to the well-being of his team and success of our clients. He inspires us with his generosity towards his local community, where he dedicates so much of his own time to helping at-risk youth, all while still making plenty of time for his own family of 7. He shows us how bringing humour to work conversations creates a lighter and more positive experience for those around him.
This week is bittersweet here at XWP as we say goodbye to our colleague and friend.
Andrej is rejoining his former workplace to help with a project management challenge. While we will sorely miss his contributions and presence, we support and applaud his decision to pursue this higher calling.
We are so grateful to Andrej for his service to our clients, partners, team and our company, and for sharing his thoughts on leadership with us before he leaves; what he has learned about leadership and how he has practised it at XWP.