D. Caulfield

Leading Within Your Team

When we talk about teams, particularly teams in an engineering context, it is very easy to fall into the habit of viewing the team as a single leader with everyone else. This is dangerously misguided. A team should not operate as a dictatorship with the team lead telling everyone what to do and they simply follow.

Rather, we should consider the team as a car. Each individual within the team is a part of the car which has a particular purpose. We have the wheels, the engine, the body and so forth. Each part of the car is just as important as the other parts, since without any one of the single parts, there would be no car. In the same way, each team member has a unique place in the team. To replace anyone with someone else means you replace the team as a whole.

If each person has a particular place of responsibility, this means that each person must lead their responsibility. As a result, what we have in a team is not a group of interchangeable individuals, but a group of leaders, each of whom have a particular responsibility to lead.

A lot of team members don't realise this simple fact. Whether you are someone who doesn't see how important it is to lead your team from within, or if you are someone who is looking for ways to lead your team from within, you should be able to pick up some wisdom in the following paragraphs.

Be Proactive

Has your manager sent a poorly worded email to your team's distribution list without any actions attached to it? Trust me when I say your team lead hates these kinds of emails. It's one of those emails where you say "So what??" after reading it.

Rather than leaving it to your team lead to figure out, take it upon yourself to respond back and ask your manager to clarify their request. Once the request is clear, accompany the request to its completion. You will stand out to your manager and will improve the image of your team.

For example, if your team received an email asking: "Can someone on Team Xtreme meet someone from QA to figure this out?", respond back and ask for some clarification. "Hi Jane, I can help with this. I understand that X needs to be done, but can you clarify what you mean by 'figure this out'? Furthermore, who is best placed on our QA team to take this conversation with me?"

The same goes for any request that is made 'generally' without any specific actions for anyone. I often get general emails send to a distribution list with a question attached. However, when the email is addressed to 50+ recipients, everyone says to themselves "Someone else will answer that".

Rather than say "Someone else will answer that" to myself, I briefly analyze the email and see if I can answer the query directly. If not, I usually respond with something like "I think Tom worked on that before. He might be able to answer. Tom, any ideas?".

Team participation

I should go without saying, but I am surprised how often I see people not taking part in their team conversations. The worst thing anyone can do to their team is to not participate in the discussions. Silent team members who give no opinions or ideas are of little use to the team.

When you are at team meetings, speak out and argue with your team mates (politely of course). Demonstrate to your team that you are capable of free thought and happy to defend your opinions.

The same goes for team outings. Whether your like it or not, if your team are meeting up outside of work hours and you are not there, you will naturally be left out of conversations during work hours. A good leader understands that you can't have all work and no play. Attend as many gatherings with your team as possible. Show that you want to get to know everyone better.

Leading from within the team means engaging everyone in the meetings and driving the conversation. Don't wait for conversations to start from the "top" (ie. team lead, technical lead). You are as much a part of the team as anyone else, so your opinion is equally as valid.

Look Foolish

Yes - you read the title correctly. Look foolish! One of the main reasons people don't speak up when they are confused is because they are afraid of looking foolish. It is our pride that gets in the way of furthering our knowledge.

To be an effective leader, you must have the humility to ask silly questions and expect to sound foolish. If you do not take this risk, you will be very slow to learn new things.

This was the piece of wisdom that accelerated my skills forward as a team lead. By lowering the bar to a point where you don't care whether you look foolish, you will find that you can ask questions a lot easier and learn quickly.

Team Improvements

Always be conscious of the tasks you find difficult, repetitive or menial. Leading the team is about figuring out solutions to problems you regularly have. Ask yourself questions like "Is there a way we can automate this?" or "Is there a new process we could introduce?". "Why do I dislike this task?" is a good question to explore the things nobody on the team wants to do.

Request to be assigned to improvements (especially your own suggestions) as much as possible. The improvement work is often the most interesting and rewarding work. You are contributing to making the team's lives easier as well as improving your product.

Make sure you demo your work to the team - it gives them an insight into how things are improving in the background. Your team will know you are looking out for them and will appreciate your contributions.

Menial Tasks

We all know the tasks that nobody wants to do. Documentation, admin, bug reporting etc. But it has to be done for every team, including yours.

If your team lead asks for a volunteer for a task, put up your hand! Your team will thank you for taking on a menial task so that someone else doesn't have to. You have also set an example for the rest of the team to follow.

Don't Whinge

This is my pet peeve. One of the most frustrating things anyone on my team can do is to state a problem without having thought about a solution first.

When you state a problem without a solution, you essentially say "it's your problem, not mine". Instead, say to the team "I've had this problem for the last couple of weeks. Here's what I think we can do to fix it." In this way, you have switched yourself (and the team) from a state of whinging about your problems, to a state of problem solving.

As part of a team, you will regularly come up against problems that require solutions. So make sure that you get into the habit of being solution oriented, not problem oriented.