This is not a new story. We start as techies, in love with technology and excited to develop elegant solutions. Because time doesn’t stand still, some of us start moving in another direction, and we eventually surrender to the dark side (minus the cookies). We start seeing fewer and fewer lines of code and start leading other brilliant developers instead. The precious solutions we love so much start to fade from our daily tasks, and we find ourselves focusing more on supporting the people implementing them.
Well, that’s my story at least. And I know I’m not alone. I started out as an intern when OutSystems was still a small company, and my path was pretty standard. I became a software developer, then a team leader, and now I’m facing the biggest challenge of my career. I’m the head of the development practice, which means I spend half of my days mentoring or coaching and the other half thinking about how we can grow and become a stronger tribe.
Even though I’m no stranger to leadership positions, I know that I'm still young and that I still need to gain a lot of experience with leadership. Ultimately, I want to be a great leader.
If all goes well, in five years’ time, I'll look back and think: "I was so naive and young,” as has happened to all of us in one or more areas of our lives. In fact, I consider reflecting and learning to be major influences that guide our daily lives and eventually inspire others. At least that's what I tell myself and others whenever someone seeks my advice.
Leadership is about being both a student and a teacher. Besides being an avid student, always eager to learn, I’m actually also a teacher. I teach Aikido, and during the last couple of years, I have had the privilege of teaching many students from different age groups, from small children to grandparents. I’m constantly seeing multiple generations interact, and I have observed some fundamental changes. So like I said, not a new story, but the characters and the action scene are somewhat different. At work, the experiences I've had as a teacher can help me as new people join my team. Let's take a look at how to be a role model for them.
1. Embrace the Ever-Changing Generations
There’s a new generation of young adults, the Plurals, who are finishing their studies and are now looking for their future tribes. These are still young adults who share many of the same traits as the Millennial generation. They are independent, energetic, enthusiastic, and full of ideas that will change the world.
They are also part of the Facebook generation. A generation that spent their teenage years, a crucial time for every person, looking at how apparently perfect everyone else’s life is. Almost no one talks about their problems on their social networks, but everyone shares how perfect their lives are. The internet is a big mask for us all, some even feel unbeatable when we are online. And now these young adults are starting their awesome careers. There are so many cool companies, thousands of promising startups, and so many opportunities. Of course, they believe they will be the best because that’s what their social networks tell them.
So once you think you have leadership figured out, a new generation will appear with its quirks and traits, ready to challenge your skills. So, instead of being frustrated with these quirks and traits, look at them positively and see what you can learn with them.
2. Anticipate the Shock of Company Culture
You see these young adults entering the workforce and joining one of those cool companies. The hiring process went quite well, and they are loving their initial months at the company. Everything seems to fit perfectly. This new generation will see the tons of opportunities their new co-workers and future friends are having and will believe they are also destined for great things. Some of them are becoming the new leaders, and the old leaders are doing even more important stuff.
This is the time to be mindful, though, because as time passes, the newcomer who wanted to become a leader starts to think: "When will I have my opportunity? When will I manage a team? I've been at this company for the past year, and everyone except me has had their chances. That's unfair."
And suddenly, the company is not so cool anymore. It's an unfair company. As a leader, you can anticipate this, and prepare for the rising frustration that will ensue.
3. Look out for the Aftershock and Morale Crumbling
After this point, each week is tougher than the previous one. This is not anyone's fault, although talking openly with their manager might ease the pain. As a leader, you might feel that you have failed. I know I've felt this several times, and probably you have felt it too. Not necessarily your co-workers. You have failed yourself. You have forgotten to learn and adapt. You didn't adopt a new way to lead.
Remember that this generation is independent and is used to comparing their lifestyle and opportunities with their peers. More than you or I have ever done. And they only see the green field on the other side, as they have been taught to do so by the social networks. So before it goes awry, adapt so you can be the new leader they need you to be.
4. Learn to Give Space
To lead these new members of our organizations, we really need to learn how to give them space. To put it more blatantly: we need to learn how not to lead in the traditional way. I’ve always loved the following quote, but it now makes more sense than ever to me:
“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.” - Stephen Covey, The 8th Habit.
We need to help others gain recognition in the organization. Set their expectations by telling them that they are responsible for their own careers. Focus on helping these amazing young people to be a part of a larger team, a team full of brilliant people like them. Make sure that these new guys are focused on collaborating, assuming responsibilities, acting instead of complaining so that they quickly start leading their own areas of interests. We want them to understand that leading doesn't necessarily mean to be a team leader, a manager, or a senior director. Roles are not relevant anymore. Modern leadership is about influence; it’s about being searched for by your peers as a reference. So, we should help this new generation quickly find their social space, their peers’ recognition.
We need to set the correct expectations: explain to them that they may end up leading some areas without much experience, but that others may require more experience for other things. This experience is not necessarily professional, it’s also a question of maturity. If we are not able to do that we will fail.
5. Get Personal, Get Social
These new team members are social animals, probably more social than you and me. Not that we didn't like to hang out with our friends. But these people are used to having social validation. That's why I believe that more than ever, we need to be humble and work as peers. We need to show that we are there to listen, take care, and share what we have to share: experience. We are not smarter than they are, and they'll have more crazy ideas than the ones we may dream of. Remember they believe that they'll build the next Facebook (that's why this generation is also called the Founders). These young adults must fuel their daily job with their contagious energy while we are there to support them with our experience.
We want them to feel safe, to help them trust their team, us, themselves. At the same time, we’ll teach them that not everything is green, but that the whole team will be there for them when things are grey. We are responsible for their morale and their success, and I'm sure that if we do this right, they will be responsible for our success. For the company’s success. And for a couple of crazy ideas you would never have dreamed of yourself but that we'll cherish forever.
So don’t be afraid to get a little personal. Share your own stories and insights. And socialize, spend time with them. Learn with them. The more you know who they are, their stories and insights, the better you can support and lead them.
You Are Not the Boss
Two years ago, during a Christmas dinner with college friends, it came up that I was “a manager” at OutSystems, and I found myself having to explain that doesn't mean I tell people something and they do it. The mindset that seniority equals boss is deeply ingrained in our culture. But ultimately, being a leader is much more about how to listen and pay attention than to boss people around. Observing the constant change of pace and the nuances of different generations is a powerful tool you can use to adapt the environment where people work. There are many styles of leadership, and you may not necessarily wear all the hats. But you need to adapt and become your best version of yourself to inspire others to do the same—whether they want to lead or not.
- Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, L. David Marquet
- Managing for Happiness: Games, Tools & Practices to Motivate Any Team, Jurgen Appelo
- Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, Stanley McChrystal, Chris Fussell, Tantum Collins, and David Silverman
- Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, James Kerr
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink
- Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek
- Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, Dave Logan, John King