Accelerated Velocity: Building Leaders

Note: this article is part 2 of a series called Accelerated Velocity.  This part can be read stand-alone, but I recommend that you read the earlier parts so as to have the overall context.

Positive changes require a guiding hand.  Sometimes this arises organically from a group of like-minded people, but far more often there’s a motivated individual driving the change.  In short – a leader.

Here’s the rub: the tech industry is notoriously deficient in developing leaders. Too often the first step in a leader’s journey starts when their manager leaves and they’re blessed with a dubious promotion… “Congratulations, you’rein charge now.  Good luck.”  If they’re fortunate their new boss is an experienced leader and has time to mentor them.  In a larger organization they may have access to some bland corporate training on how to host a meeting or write a project plan.  But the vast majority of people thrust into leadership and management roles in tech are largely left to their own devices to succeed.

Let me pause for a moment and highlight a subtle but important point: leadership and management are different skills.  Leadership is creating a vision and inspiring a group of people to go after the vision; management is organizing, equipping, and caring for people as well as taking care of the myriad details needed for the group to be successful.  There’s some overlap, and an effective leader or manager has competence in both areas, but they require different tools and a different mindset. This article is focussed on the leadership component.

So what does it take to develop competent and confident leaders?  When I look at some of the best-in-class “leadership-centric organizations” – militaries and large consulting companies for example – I see the following common elements:

  1. Heavy up-front investment in training
  2. High expectations of the leaders
  3. An reasonably structured environment in which to learn and grow
  4. A continuous cycle in which role models will coach and mentor the next generation

How did this look at Bonial?

Upon arriving I inherited a 40-ish strong engineering organization broken up into five teams, each headed by a “team lead.” The problem was that these team leads had no clear mandate or role, little or no leadership and management training, and essentially no power to carry out a mandate even if they’d had one.

This setup was intended to keep the organization flat and centralize the administrative burden of managing people so as to allow the team leads to focus on delivery. Unfortunately this put the leads in a largely figurehead role – they represented their teams and were somehow responsible for performance but had few tools to employ and little experience with which to effectively deploy them. They didn’t hire their people, administer compensation or manage any budgets. In fact, they couldn’t even approve vacations.  To this day it’s not clear to me, or them, what authority or responsibility they had.

This arrangement also created a massive chokepoint at the center of the organization – no major decisions were made without approval from “above”. The results were demoralized leads and frustrated teams.

Changing this dynamic was my first priority.  To scale our organization we’d need to operate as a federation of semi-autonomous teams, not as a traditional hierarchical organization.  For this we needed leads who could drive the changes we’d make over the coming years, but this would require a major shift in mindset.  After all, if I couldn’t trust them to approve vacations, why should I trust them with driving ROI from the millions of euros we’d be investing in their teams?  Engineers have the potential to produce incredibly valuable solutions; ensuring they have solid leadership is the first and most important responsibility of senior management.

We started with establishing a clear scope of responsibility and building our toolbox of skills.  I asked the leads if they were willing to “own” the team results and, though a little nervous, most were willing.  This meant they would now make the calls as to who was on the team and how those people were managed. They took over recruiting and compensation administration. They played a much stronger role in ensuring the teams had clarity on their mission and how the teams executed the mission. They received budgets for training, team events and discretionary purchases. And, yes, they even took responsibility for approving vacations.

We agreed to align around the leader-leader model espoused by David Marquet ( in his book “Turn the Ship Around!  We read the book together and discussed the principles and how to apply them in daily practice.  The phrase “I intend to…” was baked into our vocabulary and mentality.  We eliminated top-down systems and learned to specify goals, not methods.  We focussed on achieving excellence, not just avoiding errors.  The list goes on.

I also started a “leadership roundtable” – 30 minutes each week where we’d meet in a small group and discuss experiences and best practices around core leadership and management topics: motivating people and teams, being effective, basic psychology, communicating, coaching and mentoring, discipline, recruiting, personal organizational skills, etc.  Over time, dozens of people – ranging from prospective team leads to product managers to people simply interested in leadership and management – participated in the roundtables, giving us a common foundation from which to work.

As I’ll share in a future article, we also created a career growth model that fully supported a management track as well as a technical track and, most importantly, the possibility to move back and forth freely between the two.  We encouraged people to give management a try and offered mentoring and support plus the risk-free option of being able to switch back to their former role if they preferred.  In the early days this was a tough sell – “team lead” had the reputation of being mostly pain with little upside.  Never-the-less a few brave souls gave it a shot and, to their surprise, found it rewarding (and have since grown into fantastic leads).

It wasn’t easy – we had a fair share of mistakes, failures and redos – but the positive effects were felt almost immediately. Over time this first generation of leads grew their teams and created cultures of continuous improvement. As the teams grew, the original leads mentored new leaders to take over the new teams and the cycle continued. As it stands today we have a dozen or so teams/squads led by capable leaders that started as software engineers, quality assurance pros, system engineers, etc. 

For what it’s worth, I believe the number one factor driving Bonial’s accelerated velocity was growth in leadership maturity. If you’re looking to engineer positive change, start here.

Some closing thoughts:

  • Positive change requires strong leadership.
  • A single leader can start the change process, but large-scale and enduring change requires distributed leadership (e.g. ”leader-leader”).
  • Formal training can be a great source of leadership and management tools, but mastering those tools requires time, a safe and constructive environment and active coaching and mentoring.
  • Growing a leadership team is not a linear or a smooth process.  The person driving and guiding the development must commit to the long game and must be willing to accept accountability for inconsistent results from first generation leads as they learn their trade.

Read part 3: Building Great Teams