How to turn IT team players into leaders

To help develop team players into team leaders, you need to focus on three values: Transparency, responsibility, and empathy
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Fostering leadership potential is critical for the health of any company, but it isn’t always prioritized at technology organizations, thanks to intense competition and high turnover. The irony is that if cultivating leadership skills within engineering teams were given more priority, companies could improve job satisfaction, boost employee retention, and increase overall company productivity.

As an engineer and now CTO of Remote, a 100 percent remote startup, I’ve seen typical career plans outlining the job roles, skills, and projects that signal an engineer is ready to move up to the next rung. These roadmaps, however, can be deeply problematic – because they are often prescriptive and encourage a templatized, “cheat sheet” approach rather than feeding into one’s passions to improve their leadership skills.

[ Want data and advice on today's IT job market? Read: 5 flourishing and 5 fading IT careers. ]

3 ways to grow up-and-coming team leaders

There’s a common misconception that managing and leading are interchangeable skills. Managing is about organization and tracking progress and is goal dependent. Leadership is more about guiding and empowering the people around you.

To help grow team players into team leaders, you need to instill three values: Transparency, responsibility, and empathy.

1. Transparency: Practice open communication with your team

To effectively work with a team requires clarity on processes, expected outcomes, flow of information, and team responsibility. Many managers misunderstand transparency: It does not mean that all the pressure managers face should be inflicted on the whole team – this does not spread responsibilities across the team but rather amplifies the stress. Managers should be able to accept the pressure from higher up and channel the goals, priorities, and urgency in more effective and motivating ways than to project the tensions they are feeling.

For leaders, transparency is about trusting your team to make decisions and allowing everyone the same access to the necessary tools and information. I’ve known managers who believe that transparency means working without a filter and taking up hours of everyone’s time to outline every detail of a project and how it interacts with every other project.

For leaders, transparency is about trusting your team to make decisions and allowing everyone the same access to the necessary tools and information.

While you don’t want to keep information from your team, you also want to value their time and filter the most important information to them. If you’ve created the right dynamics, team members will let you know if they need more information or have questions. And we’d all rather attend fewer meetings, wouldn’t we?

2. Responsibility: Share the wins and own the failures

Trust begets trust: To earn trust, you must first extend trust to your team and let them know you are their safety net. You need to be willing to take responsibility for any missteps and be able to move your team in the right direction. It takes a lot of practice for most people to clearly admit fault, but it is crucial to take responsibility if you seek to be a good leader.

Responsibility also means highlighting and celebrating wins as team wins, not as leadership wins. It may seem out of balance that failures are on your shoulders while wins are shared among everyone, but that is what good leadership looks like. Your ego needs to take a backseat to the team.

It may seem out of balance that failures are on your shoulders while wins are shared among everyone, but that is what good leadership looks like.

As Remote’s CTO, I’m ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of everything that requires engineering input, but how it’s implemented is up to the team. When a feature is delivered, it’s because the team worked hard to build it, so the credit is rightfully theirs. However, when something is not delivered as expected, given how amazing the team is, it is probably because I didn’t account for all the variables.

3. Empathy: Get to know the people on your team

Great leaders are active listeners. They show empathy, have a positive attitude, and are able to key into different personality styles, changes in mood, and shifts in individual performance. This type of social awareness is probably the hardest skill to learn or teach, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be more perceptive.

Many people think of empathy as having compassion for those going through difficulties, but it goes beyond that – it means understanding their desires and motivations. Once you understand a person’s passions, strengths, weaknesses, and goals, you can assign specific tasks that excite and challenge them. This means you need to have the time and the emotional acuity to check in with every member of your team regularly to assess how they are doing both personally and professionally.

I was once briefed that one of my direct reports was doing mediocre work. After communicating with them for a few weeks and giving them a range of different tasks, I realized that they were an exceptional engineer who was just mismanaged and given projects that didn’t excite them. When I knew what made them happy, I changed the projects they worked on and they quickly became my highest-performing team member.

Put your leadership into practice

While I have been working remotely and with dispersed teams for many years, a generation of people is just starting to get accustomed to the physical and psychological distance of today’s work environment. Be willing to take a little extra time to jump on video calls to maintain that connection.

No matter how long you’ve been on a team, there is no wrong time to start finding ways to lead. Make the time to get to know everyone both personally and professionally. Establish clear communication and find new ways to divvy up responsibilities that speak to each person’s strengths. Whether you are a team leader or a team player, exhibiting good leadership qualities is welcome on any IT team, anywhere.

[ Are you leading through change?  Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Jim Whitehurst. ]

Marcelo Lebre is CTO and co-founder at Remote. He previously was Vice President of Engineering at Unbabel and acted as CTO at several startups. Marcelo was always passionate about building products, scaling architectures and teams. He is also a startup advisor and mentor.

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