What I learned from leading people for the first time (but remotely)

Andy Nicholson

Andy Nicholson

Builder of people, builder of software

Recently I notched up 6 years at Cogent. During that time, I’ve been privileged to experience excellent leadership modeled across a number of teams and projects. Having excellent leaders on a team provides so many opportunities to grow and develop, and I’ve tried to grasp as many of those as I could. And even though no project or team is ever perfect, I gained so many valuable insights & lessons from my leaders.

And then, like a rite of passage for many senior developers, it was my turn to be a leader.

While this piece touches on my first experiences of formal leadership, there’s good stuff here for team members too! Leadership isn’t about formal titles, but about the act of leading.

So here’s what I’ve learned about looking after a team of software people during the rollercoaster ride that’s been 2020.

Staying connected doesn't just happen

It's 10am, and standup is finished. You would normally grab a coffee with a couple of colleagues before zoning in for the day. But everyone's WFH now, so you log off Zoom and head off to the kitchen to make yourself a brew. The coffee might be just as good as your barista used to make, but something's not the same.

Lots of what keeps teams connected is informal and intangible. You wouldn’t list “the team gets a coffee together 3 times per week” on a Ways of Working list, but you can feel it when it’s no longer there. Connection often happens at the edges: the banter between meetings, the quick chat you have as you pass a co-worker’s desk, the lunch trains that form each day. If people are going to work remotely most of the time, though, these options aren’t available! If you’re going to work well together, you’ll need to find ways to connect.

The tools we use to collaborate aren’t drop-in solutions, either – as we’ve all been discovering! Adding yet another Zoom meeting to everyone’s calendar is not going to cut it!

Here are some ideas that worked for us:

  • Quick check-ins on Slack, where people shared how they were going in our team’s channel. Scores out of 10, mood emojis, frustrations – and above all, letting teammates be there for each other.

  • Random 1:1 conversations. Chatting to someone for the sheer pleasure of enjoying each others’ company is notthe same as spending several hours together in videoconferenced meetings. Even if you’re all Zoomed out, try having a phone conversation while you spend some time outside. Or if you do video call, keep work off the table as much as possible – you’ve got the rest of your calendar for that 🙂

  • Leave more allowance for fun and distractions. We weren’t always 100% focused when everyone was together – so don’t aim for it now! It wasn’t possible then, so it won’t be possible now. The crew I was working with decided to hold a quick trivia challenge at the end of each week. It was fun, it was silly, and it gave everyone something to look forward to when the weeks all started to blend together.

Every team has its own norms; “the way we do things”. Even when teammates don’t formally codify them, they’re still there. But a big change in context – like everyone abruptly Working From Home – is enough to make a new team, even if all the members are the same.

So make some time with your team to re-establish what your team treasures, and how you will express those desires & goals together. The best things about a team are rarely formalized – so just try things together and see what sticks.

It's OK to not be OK, OK?

It's 8:45 on a Monday. The kids don't want to log onto their online school platform for the 135th consecutive day. You left your sourdough in the oven too long, and now it's burned to a crisp. You ran out of coffee yesterday, and someone's borrowed your office headphones and forgotten to return them. You sit down at your desk, and take a slow, deep breath. "Morning everyone! 🙂🌻", you type into Slack.

Another day with just your laptop for company. You spent hours last night convincing Netflix you were still watching, and yourself that you were enjoying re-watching Big Bang Theory for the 2nd time. You stifle a yawn and wish that something, anything different would happen. "Hi! How are you going? ☀️", you type back.

Making software these days is almost always a team activity, and most people want to work well with their colleagues. We don’t want to let people down, and we definitely don’t want to share anything that makes us look weak – especially when everyone else seems to be coping fine. (They’re not, though).

So we listen to that advertising slogan, and we “soldier on”. The world may be crumbling around us, but we’re here and we’ve put it aside! We’re not distracted or exhausted, we’re present and we’re here to work!

2020 has made maintaining this facade even tougher than usual. It’s great to be resilient, and it’s amazing what people can get through when they work together. It’s not great, though, to pretend you’re okay when you’re not. Not only does it force you to maintain a happy facade (which is exhausting), but it also robs your colleagues of the chance to help you out. And when everybody pretends? The whole team smiles at each other as productivity and morale dwindle to zero.

Here’s what me and my team stay afloat emotionally:

  • Explicitly welcoming vulnerability, and then backing it up. If you want to have a team to build safety into its DNA, say so! It’s not a given, everyone has to buy in, and you might have to convince people with your actions.

  • Set an example. If you’re having a rough day/week, it’s okay to share that. If you’re not prepared to show vulnerability with your team, why should they share with you?

  • Go slowly, go gently. Don’t share more than the team can take! Otherwise you may overwhelm them, and then nobody has the capacity to help.

  • Have an outlet external to the team. Sometimes the team itself will be the cause of your anxiety! When that’s the case, it’s good to have a trusted friend or mentor to help you process things.

  • Mental health days are fine, but don’t make them a big deal. It’s great that companies are starting to recognise that sick days aren’t just for tonsillitis – but the term “Mental Health Day” can be interpreted with many different levels of seriousness. If your workplace hasn’t normalised mental health days yet, allow your team to use the term but be more vague externally. “Sam’s taking a mental health day” sends a different message to “Sam’s not in today”.

This year, everyone’s carrying extra burdens and worries. Using this wisely can help your team help each other, and build trust very quickly 🙂

The Cogent Slack has it’s own #mental-health channel 

Conclusion

Like most professions, the career path for software focuses very heavily on individual competence at the start. This makes sense: if you’re going to spend a large amount of your time performing a skill, it makes sense to be as proficient as you can be. Plus, it’s fun and fulfilling to watch your skills and experience develop as you design and build things! There’s a limit, though, to how much you can contribute as an individual – and this is true even if you stay on the tools your entire career! If you want to keep growing as a professional, you’re going to need to expand your horizons.

Don’t try and be a hero; you’re  part of a team for a reason. You need your team, and they need you. The tools and processes that relied on a physical connection need to be rethought, but together you can find new ones that don’t. Try things! If they work, keep doing them. If they don’t, figure out why and try something else. Nobody gets things right the first time – but with the right attitude and a cooperative crew, you’ll get it right more often than you don’t.

What’s worked for your teams during 2020? What things were surprisingly effective (or ineffective?) Send me an email, I’d love to hear from you.

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