A part of my journey
As a child, I grew up admiring the story of Ekalavya from the epic Mahabharata, who found creative ways to learn by keen observation and reverence of Dronacharya who was teaching the craft and skills of archery to the young Pandava and Kaurava princes.
I feel I have been learning from various “gurus” (unbeknownst to them) that I came across in my profession. I transitioned from an individual contributor (IC) role to a management role rather drastically when I went from being a Principal Architect at Sun Microsystems to VP of Engineering at JackBe. By then, I had worked with various teams and studied some of the leadership and management dynamics and behaviors. I have been fortunate to be associated with some great leaders and managers in my career going all the way back to my first job out of college at CMC Limited in India. CMC was a unique endearing company with an amazing mission and purpose, thoughtful and compassionate leadership, a fantastic culture of empowerment, learning, and development with amazing incredible smart, and intelligent workforce. To this day, the CMC alumni stay strongly connected and we keep re-sharing and reminiscing our collective experiences. I have observed and learned as much as I can from all those that I came in touch with throughout my IC career, some of the best people from CMC, Sun, and eBay. It was all these years of learning that had prepared me to step into management.
Later in my career, as I started working with senior leaders (VPs and CxOs), it seemed like everyone I looked up to had a guru/coach, that guided them. To me having a “coach” seemed (and still does) like such a luxury. For brief moments in my career, I had experiences of “professional” coaching, but that didn’t really help me. I felt I shared more than I learned, maybe that is how it works. Though I have sought out my own coach and guru, to help me see my blind spots and help me work on myself to develop further in leadership and management. To this day I haven’t found one and I don’t know if I ever will. I suspect that many managers and leaders — new or experienced — feel the same. Sometimes, I reach out and get real-life advice and experiences from someone else more experienced in my network. Yet nothing replaces that 1–1 relationship we seek between the student and the teacher. So, with no one to teach and coach us, we have to find ways to feed our hunger for learning, growth, and development.
I resort to self-learning: reading lots of business books, blogs and listening to podcasts — teaching myself, turning to what works best for me. Self-learning also requires us to commit to practicing what we learn and remind ourselves to not be afraid to fail. I remind myself that not only must I learn from my failures, but not neglect to learn from successes too. Reflect, question why and how — see what patterns can help me succeed and minimize failure in the future. And when I do fail, be prepared to have the strength and courage to face it head-on, for failure will always be one of the greatest teachers.
Much has been said and written about management and leadership and the difference between the two. Every person I have coached, I coach them to become a leader in their own right — the title or level should not matter for you to practice and demonstrate leadership. You may be a developer, technical lead, architect, QA engineer, technical writer, designer, or any other type of individual contributor — you are and should be a leader in your own right. To be a leader, you don’t need to be conferred any title, you don’t have to be anointed by “management”.
Which leads us to the question — what is leadership? There is enough literature on this topic that you can find elsewhere. For me, I keep this list below as a simple reference. I find it useful to consult this during difficult or confusing times, helping me to find my way through. So here goes.
Serving others, first and foremost. Not self-serving
Dynamic, not idling or cruising — always keeps the organization and the people moving forward changing positively
Action, not a position or title
Collaboration, not politics and jockeying
Results, despite all the challenges
Accountability, not excuses
Transparency, not secrecy
Contribution, not control
Inclusive, not elitist, not favoritism
Listening, not preaching
Sharing, not hoarding (ideas, information, connections, feedback)
Clarity, not confusing, simplify the complex
Execution, not (just) plans
Influencing, not waiting for others
Coaching, not limiting
Communicating, not gossiping
Growing leaders, not counting followers
Recruiting talent, all the time
Succession planning, get yourself out of that job
Humility, control that ego
Learning by doing, learning together
Focus, not spraying and praying
Empowering people, not overpowering people
Doing the right thing, not being right all the time
Lastly, the 5 levels of leadership paradigm developed by John Maxwell is a great way to think about where you are in the journey of leadership.
Level 1 — Position — People follow you because they have to
Level 2 — Permission — People follow you because they want to
Level 3 — Production — People follow you because of what you have done for the organization
Level 4 — People Development — People follow you because of what you have done for them
Level 5 — Pinnacle — People follow you because of who you are and what you represent
As I made my way into management, several books and articles have been a good influence along the way. Here are some of the most impactful ones:
High Output Management, by the legendary Andy Grove. The great famous classic. 12 quotes from the book. A review and top takeaways.
The Trillion Dollar Coach, by Eric Schmidt et al — a book on the amazing leadership and coaching legacy of Bill Campbell. Captured nuggets on leadership principles (good reminders even if you are already aware/practicing these) in this slide deck. Here is a book review.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, and The Infinite Game — all by Simon Sinek (does it show, I am a big fan)
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
The Manager’s Path, by Camille Fournier. A book review and another.
Turn The Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard
The 5 Levels of Leadership by John Maxwell
What Great Managers Do by Marcus Buckingham
An interview with Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify
An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson. Things I wish I knew 15 years ago… This is a must-read for all engineering leaders. His must-read blog is here.