8 mins

As the CEO of LeadDev, I’ve had an amazing opportunity to learn from the incredible speakers and the wealth of information and insights they have shared at our conferences over the past 5 years.

April 13 – June 22, 2021 Event series
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We aren’t a tech company, we don’t have an engineering team, and by no stretch of the imagination am I an engineering leader. But the learnings are often surprisingly applicable to my role as the head of a small but constantly developing company with humans in it. 

These are some of the leadership lessons to live by that I’ve learned or had reinforced over the past few years, and some of the talks that have inspired them.

Do less, better

Some of the most successful decisions we’ve made as a leadership team have been the things we’ve decided not to do. The times we’ve said no to what seemed like good opportunities. The occasions where we haven’t taken a new and intriguing path that might have been interesting, but would have been distracting from our mission. Several times we have said goodbye to something that we’ve enjoyed working on but that has put too much on our plates. And we’ve always been glad that we did. 

When things have gone wrong, it’s often been because we had taken too much on and weren’t doing any of it justice. I have learned this lesson multiple times and will probably have to learn it again, but I know for a fact that doing lots of things medium-well is less satisfying, less profitable and more exhausting for our team than doing a few things to the best of your ability.

Sometimes you have to get the post-its out again (literally) and reprioritise. I ask myself:

  • Who is our audience? What do they need? Is this solving that problem?
  • Could our team do their jobs better if there was one less thing to focus on?
  • If the new commercial opportunity distracts from something we’re already doing and makes that thing less successful, is it a good opportunity?
  • If we take this on, will it take us closer to our goal?

That isn’t to say we don’t do anything new. Far from it. But I know that the more selective I am about what we take on or keep on, and the more critically I appraise how we’re spending our time, the more successful (and I would say happy) we are as a team.

Three LeadDev talks about prioritization and decision-making:

Strategies for making impossible decisions – Scott Triglia, LeadDev Berlin 2019
Time to focus on your goals – Maria Gutierrez, LeadDev London 2017
Engineering teams work better remote-first  – Nassim Kammah, LeadDev New York 2019

Put people at the heart of what you do every single time

True in life, true at work. At LeadDev Live in April, Maria Gutierrez spoke about “people, product, profit” and that resonated very deeply with me. Put people first – that’s my LeadDev team, our LeadDev community that we serve, and everyone else we interact with. Product is the quality of our events and other outputs. Profit comes last. It’s obviously vital – we need it to pay wages and give pay increases, improve the quality of our events, grow – but it comes third.

At our events, that means thinking about and investing in inclusion and creating safe, nurturing spaces for people to learn. Other events businesses look at what we spend money on (e.g. hotels and flights for speakers) and do a double take. But because we put people first, this kind of expenditure is vitally important to us. It demonstrates to our speakers how much we care about them, and we know that if we didn’t offer that level of financial support then we would actively be excluding some of the brightest voices in the industry. There is another whole article to be written on building inclusive events and it takes time, energy and some financial expenditure. But it’s worth it.

At work, putting people first means prioritising the health and wellbeing of our team over expansion or profit. I don’t claim to never make mistakes. I’ve stretched our team too far at times and excused myself because we were a small business with even smaller purse strings. In an ideal world, the answer to a stretched team would be to hire more people, but this isn’t always possible. And when the business hasn’t been able to afford to hire more people to decrease the burden on our team, we try to reduce the amount we’re working on instead.

Some of the greatest satisfaction I get from my work is when people want to work with us again; employees staying in the team, speakers wanting to work with us again, attendees buying another ticket for the next year. When that happens I partly attribute it to our people-first philosophy. Consider the human impact of what you do. Trust in people. Put their wellbeing and safety first. Support them to grow. Learn together when mistakes are made. Be kind. 

Inspiring LeadDev talks about people:

Getting an engineering team to eat their vegetables – Duretti Hirpa, LeadDev London 2016
Building engineering teams under pressure – Julia Grace, LeadDev Austin 2018
Creating an inclusive engineering culture – Yenny Cheung, LeadDev Berlin 2019

Hire people who are (much) better than you

And then give them the confidence and scope to be amazing. It feels like cheating and your imposter syndrome will sometimes flair up badly, but if you don’t do it, your whole business or team is only as good as you are at everything your business does. Terrifying.

If someone in your team is bright and has potential, you have to give them the scope and opportunity to develop. You have to stretch them, hear them, credit their work and ideas. You have to give them some autonomy and the scope to develop their work in a way you wouldn’t necessarily have done.

As a less experienced leader, I thought I needed to know the answer to everything and that it was a failure if I didn’t. I’ve slowly learned that it’s fine not to have every answer. Why recruit amazing people if you aren’t going to learn from them and give them enough scope to do amazing things? I believe it’s more important to be able to recognise good ideas and talent in others, and create an environment where they are able to excel, rather than to know best on everything.

Three brilliant LeadDev talks on hiring:

Build a better hiring process with design thinking – Crystal Yan, LeadDev London 2018
How to succeed at hiring without really trying – Melinda Seckington, LeadDev London 2016
Hiring diverse teams with an anonymous recruitment process – Bethan Vincent, LeadDev London 2019

Tell people what’s going on

‘Silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly!' said Paula Kennedy at LeadDev London 2019. She was referring to a team talking to each other but the quote applies very firmly to my third lesson. Communicate with people.

This is one of the lessons I have learned the most recently and know that it’s an area where I have more work to do. When we communicate well as a leadership team, our team feels consulted and in control. When communication slips or we do it badly, people feel out of control, without autonomy, and rudderless. It’s so simple but surprisingly hard because the times you need to communicate the most are the times you have no time yourself to think properly. When things are under pressure, intense, and hard, that’s exactly when people need the clearest and the most communication, and it probably can’t wait a month for things to calm down.

You have to be very intentional about remembering to communicate. I have tried to get into a rhythm of communicating updates with our team after every board meeting (or whatever your equivalent is where business-changing decisions are made by senior people). I have also tried to establish a habit of regular team sessions where we update our team on what we’re aiming for, and what the plan is for getting there - even if it’s only a couple of times a year.

It’s easy to forget the privilege of being in on decisions when you’re in on them. If you aren’t, lack of communication leaves a vacuum and in that vacuum you have the space for doubt and unhappiness. Try to fill the vacuum with information.

Three great talks about communicating:

Better: fearless feedback for software teams – Erika Carlson, LeadDev London 2017
Retrospectives – Jessie Link, LeadDev New York 2017
Navigating team friction – Lara Hogan, LeadDev London 2019

There’s always more to learn

I am overwhelmingly conscious of this and now more than ever. The global political climate teaches me something new, shocks me, and reveals something to me I should have known and didn’t, every single week. The global pandemic we find ourselves riding has ripped up a lot of what I thought I knew about our business and has given us an opportunity to try completely new things, learning a lot in the process. The people I work with teach me new things every day. I learn from my own mistakes and our misfires as a business.

It’s challenging and uncomfortable sometimes to learn new things but also very exciting to have your status quo shaken up and your perspective altered. I’m grateful for all the LeadDev speakers who have put in time and effort, and sometimes made themselves vulnerable, to teach us something new.

Three talks that taught me something new:

Leadership through the underground railroad – Anjuan Simmons, LeadDev Austin 2018
Who destroyed three mile island? – Nickolas Means, LeadDev Austin 2018
Do the most good – Mina Markham, LeadDev Austin 2018

Reflecting

Looking back on the lessons I’ve learned as a leader has been an insightful exercise in itself. It’s made me ask myself what I hold dear, and whether I am holding myself accountable to acting on what I am saying. Interacting with the LeadDev community virtually and in-person gives me this invaluable reflection, and it allows me to look at my style of leadership, my role in a team and my organisation, and it inspires me to do better. I’m looking forward to the next 5 years of inspiration and improvement, led by our incredible LeadDev contributors.