Coaching Leadership

Carrying the Pager

I prefer to build teams that own the whole lifecycle of their work. They get involved in the design, understanding the problems of their customers. Everyone pitches in to build the solution, whether it’s describing possible features, writing the software or packaging it up to deploy.

Most importantly, the team run and operate the systems they build. There might be supporting ops teams, but if something goes really wrong, the team is on hand to fix it.

This model encourages the team to work in balance. No one behaviour is over incentivised. They are encouraged to solve problems rather than build systems for the sake of it, and they feel the pain of something being broken straight away.

Maybe it means that new features are not delivered quite as quickly as they could be if the team are just building them and having someone else manage them. However, this split model causes more dependencies. The management teams are often a bottleneck, so when things go wrong they can be harder to fix, and if it’s not an urgent issue, it may never be looked at all.

So, if you are just starting out you can drop features at pace, and if you are running them as well you can fix up what you need to immediately. You have fast feedback loops.

In bigger orgs, you move at the pace of your customers, you cut dependencies and aren’t at the mercy of an overstretched ops team.

Carrying the pager instils the philosophy of care and concern in your team, forces them to feel the pain of their users and to resolve issues when they come up.

You should then also take a turn. Leaders should also carry a pager. Maybe an escalation rather than sitting on a single rotation, but in the same way that the team feels the pain, you need to feel the pain of being on call. You make sure that you don’t let this pain get too much. An occasional page for a real issue is fine, constant noise of a system working as expected should be squashed immediately.

We should all carry the pager at some point, it’s one more way to stay connected to what’s going on!

Coaching Leadership

Small Efforts, Big Improvements

I’m a strong believer in the power of small efforts to make some big improvements. It’s particularly powerful when you need to repeat a task often, but just getting into the practice of making things slightly better each time almost always pays off.

There are a couple of XKCD comics that illustrate when the investment might be too large, or ways you can distract yourself from the original goal. Get in the time sweet spot and stay focused, and that’s where you make the big impact.

It can be especially satisfying to put the small effort up against something that’s slowly been getting worse. When you don’t notice the daily change, but looking at it over months it’s maybe half as good as it used to be.

I recently spent some time fixing up all my taps. London water is hard, each day you get just a bit more limescale and a slightly slower flow. Leave it long enough and you can be sitting around for ages each time you fill the kettle!

So I grabbed some tools, stripped back the offending parts of the taps and gave them a proper clean. Each one took less than ten minutes, and it got quicker as I went.

Each little fix has massively improved how the taps work, and now I know how easy it is to fix them up, the motivation to keep them maintained is high.

So what can you do that’s only a small effort but will make a big improvement to your daily life?

Book Review Coaching Leadership

Managing Humans

This is Michael Lopp’s first book, now on its fourth edition. It’s sixty chapters, short pieces of advice, anecdotes and stories.

If you are familiar with the blog, then it’s very much like revisiting some old friends, but polished up and putting their best foot forwards.

It covers every core leadership topic, from how to hold a 1-2-1 to how to manage the rumour mill, and on to navigating reorgs and the politics that go with them.

I read through the fourth edition in couple of sittings, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of “just one more” as each chapter really is only a few pages long. However, I’d say the real value lies in dipping into a particular chapter that’s related to current concerns, absorbing the lessons and putting them to use in your context.

Not everything will be valid for you. If you are in a high growth tech start-up then a lot of it will be, in other organisations you might be able to take less overall. Lessons on individual leadership, meeting culture and the needs of people will be universal.

I found that the thread running though the book was less well formed than in The Art of Leadership, which Rands recognises as having the fuller arc.

As a leader, especially in a tech org, if you were only going to read one, I’d point you to Art of Leadership, but I really think you’d benefit from both!

Coaching Leadership

Fail in Novel Ways

To be successful, you have to take risks. If you take risks, then sometimes you are going to fail. When you fail, you need to learn from what went wrong.

As a leader, it’s important for you to put in the effort to learn some things before they are actually seen in your context. The risks you take should be smart, and they are smart if you’ve thought about, and mitigated, the familiar ways to fail.

You should always strive to make your failures novel.

If it’s easily predictable, something that’s failed similarly before or a direct repeat of a failing in the past, then you haven’t learnt what you needed. You are letting down those that rely on you.

This Saturday, Swatch launched their Moonswatch, a collaboration with Omega. Only to be sold in stores, available on launch date in limited numbers. Wildly anticipated, certain to be incredibly popular.

These types of product drops are becoming more familiar in retail environments, and there’s a standard playbook to manage them.

Unfortunately, this playbook didn’t make it out to every store. Some managed well and gave people a great experience. Some really didn’t, leading to scrums in the street, the police being called and stores closing a few minutes after opening.

There’s a school of thought that all publicity is good, but here the company could have avoided the bad with better planning and just basked in the good of a well managed launch, a popular item selling out fast and lines of people waiting for their chance.

What basic mistake are you going to avoid? What can you learn today to make sure your next failure is a novel one.

Coaching Leadership

Burnout is Bad Business

Every so often we need to put in some extra hours to get something done. The reasons that we decide to do this are many and varied, but it usually comes down to someone being over optimistic about how long something will take to do, versus the time available to do it.

If it’s something you’ve committed to, where you’ve been overoptimistic and where you see the value of getting things done, then it’s fair to accept the extra push. In this scenario, you are motivated to achieve the outcome, so it can feel exciting rather than draining.

However, sometimes it’s not what you’ve signed up for. The deadline is unfair and unrealistic, and you are being held to it by management or external stakeholders. In a perfect world this wouldn’t ever happen, but this world isn’t perfect. Short term incentives can support the push, but it’s not sustainable. Good leaders will reflect on what caused the crunch, and put practices in place to stop the situation happening again.

Bad leaders will see that we hit the date (that they likely just made up) and tighten the schedule more for the next time round. This is a classic recipe for work related burnout.

There’s lots of ways for people to get burned out in the workplace, for all sorts of reasons. The consistent crunch is one of the more obvious ones, and one of the ways that can take down entire teams if left unchecked.

That’s why it’s bad for business. You get short term benefits from the push, but it’s empty calories, any success or celebration is short lived without balancing rest.

If you keep crunching, the only things that are done are the urgent ones. In software teams that means your system becomes less stable and harder to change over time. Shortcuts get shorter and become more impactful. Valuable change starts to take longer to deliver.

Eventually, the team get burned out. They are constantly rushing, always in high-priority mode and chasing harder for smaller returns.

All this increases your costs, but it’s even starker when people start to quit. Someone leaving the team unexpectedly causes a hit to the team’s productivity. A team that’s in crisis will lose people more quickly, won’t have time to bring people up-to-speed and hits a spiral of declining effectiveness.

All of a sudden, your experienced team members are gone. You are hiring rather than team building and new people come and go as they can’t settle into the team.

Leaders that push too hard for too long cause this burnout, massively increase costs for the organisation and totally wipe out the short term gains with these costs.

Sometimes you do have to push, but rest and recuperate between these bursts to avoid the burnout that’s bad for business.

Coaching Leadership


As with all things, interviewing is a skill that you can improve upon with practice and focus. A major focus of the people running the interview is to determine if you will be able to do the job. It’s your goal to convince them that you can.

A powerful way to do this is to find examples of times that you used the skills or capabilities that the interviewers care about, and to communicate them in a tightly focused way.

You need to do this whether interviewers are using highly structured competency based questioning, or if they are just freewheeling around various areas of interest.

The model that you can use is called ‘STAR’:

  • Situation – What was the scenario you were in? People involved, deadlines, risks and opportunities etc.
  • Task – What were you tasked to do. This is the last time you can say “we”
  • Action – What did you do. Get specific here, this is the key point of the narrative
  • Result – What was the outcome of your actions, how did they achieve the task and why was your specific contribution important?

There’s often a follow-up question regarding what you learnt or what you’d do differently next time. This is also given significant weighting in the assessment, so make sure to have an answer here.

For any given role, there are probably fewer than 10 core competencies that interviewers will ask for. In a leadership role that might be things like:

  • How you bring people together to complete a project
  • How you inspire your group
  • How you deal with difficult situations
  • How you make tough decisions
  • How you coach or mentor more junior people
  • How you encourage innovation and improvement

For each of these likely competencies, think about a strong example of showing those skills, ideally at levels pushing at the edge or beyond your current role.

Write them down, practice saying them out loud. Get your situation and task outline down to less than a minute. Research the particular common competency areas that align to your role, and make sure your actions tie to the positive indicators of that role.

Build up a bank of these answers that you can bring to bear during an interview. Many of the questions you will be asked will looking at similar skills, so pick something from your list that’s close match, and go with it.

Prepare for these structured sections, practice your answers and you’ll be nailing any interviews you take part in.

Book Review Coaching Leadership

The Scout Mindset

Julia Galef gives us “The Scout Mindset“, a book about developing your skills in seeing things how they are, rather than how you hope they might be.

We start off by looking at two types of thinking, the Soldier and the Scout. Soldier thinking is both defensive and aggressive. There’s a truth, I know it already and I need to protect it against the assaults of others. Scout thinking is focused around discovering the truth that we don’t yet know. It’s about exploring, improving the map and throwing the old map away when we learn more.

The Soldier approach has value in some situations, and is usually our default way of approaching problems. The Scout mindset is less common, unfamiliar, but likely to be better for the complexities of modern life. So how do we move from one model to the other?

Julia gives four key stages to moving towards the Scout mindset:

  1. Develop Self Awareness – Understand when you are thinking like a Scout or a Soldier
  2. Thrive Without Illusions – Get comfortable living with how things are
  3. Learn to Change Your Mind – Be comfortable being wrong, and celebrate steps towards the truth
  4. Rethink Your Identity – Don’t let beliefs define who you are, as it makes it harder to accept change

Through these stages, there’s some great deep dives on some surprising topics, ranging from how boundlessly positive thinking can be harmful, to how you might have to do things that aren’t obvious to have the biggest impact.

It’s well written, and the book doesn’t endlessly labour similar points or loop over and over on the key message. There’s lots of practical advice, and a great collection of references and further reading to pick-up on.

Any leader working in complex spaces would benefit from reading this book, and trying to think more like a Scout.

Coaching Leadership

Continuous Feedback

Why we give feedback, we want to make another person aware of how we saw their performance. Sometimes it’s to say how great something was and how they should do it more often, sometimes it’s to course-correct and help them to be more effective in a given situation.

All too often, it’s too far removed from the situation to be truly useful. This time of year is the end of the annual performance cycle for many of us, and it might just be the only time you give or get feedback from a number of your peers.

Sticking to the annual cycle is super inefficient. Anything that happened more than a week ago will be really degraded in people’s minds. The situation will be hazy, the behaviour non-specific and the impact debateable. So you’ve lost at least 51 weeks worth of opportunities to give valuable feedback. Being 2% good at something is not where we want to be.

Instead, practice giving feedback as close to the activity as possible. Start off with things that went well. Be specific as to what you’d like to see more of. Ask for feedback yourself about specific recent situations, and practice taking it onboard well.

Giving positive feedback will usually be taken well! Showing you can take on suggestions from other will also make them more likely to listen to your own, it builds trust.

Then you can move on to the course corrections. If it’s close in time to the situation, then the correction is likely to be small, and easier to make. Rather than only having a week from a year to draw from, you can make those small positive changes early and often, and really build up momentum.

Finally, to make the performance review easy, capture some of these in the moment pieces of feedback in a more permanent form. Whether it’s Slack messages, emails or you just keeping a note of them, it’s a lot better to build up a picture of the last year with evidence, rather than what you can remember off the top of your head.

Feedback is super important, give it often, hit the positive as well as the course corrective and do it close to the situation and you’ll be massively more effective in the long run.

Coaching Leadership

Fix Small Problems

It’s too easy to get caught up in the big issues, things that are intractable at first glance and that feel like they an never get better.

If you stop and look a little closer, you will find that there’s something that you can do to improve things. It might be a very small step, and it might not feel worth doing, but fixing something small is a great start.

It changes your mindset, you become powerful rather than powerless. It starts to build momentum, powering up the Flywheel of Change. It also marks you out as someone who “gets things done” rather than complaining about the way things are.

Even if you can’t find something that’s tied up to the big problems, there’s bound to be something that’s small but annoying to you and your teams. Set aside a few hours and get it sorted out. Cancel a recurring meeting if it no longer provides value. Fix some spelling mistakes in documentation. Make a template for a weekly update. Delete some tickets that you know will never get done.

Once you’ve started, it’s easier to keep going. You’ll be able to break down some of those tougher problems and make good progress, and each change you’ve made will improve the overall state of play for everyone, so each one is worth doing.

Don’t complain, don’t let overwhelm win, go out and fix those small problems!

Coaching Leadership

Dont Innovate to Hit the Date

When we’re building software, we’re creating something new. It’s exploratory, it’s uncertain and it might not work.

Often in the world beyond the tech teams, we think we’re just following a plan to build to a schedule.

The mismatch between the two causes approximately all of the conflict in a software focused organisation.

We use a lot of techniques to bridge the gap, all loosely badged under the Agile heading. Basically, we always endeavour to have working, shippable software that we can show to people, and we always complete the most important things first. That means we can launch the software on any given day, and it’ll have the most vital pieces.

Engineering have the power to solve problems, stakeholders have the power to decide if their problems are solved enough or not. So when we work in this way, everyone gets their key pain points addressed, and everyone is happy.

This works best when we’re working in an incremental problem space, building out a product that provides benefits with some features, and will provide more as those features are added to and refined.

Sometimes we’re not in that space. Instead we’ve got to hit a fixed date. We know what we need to and we know when we need to do it by. When the date is truly fixed, it’s usually due to some sort of regulation, so there’s the added spice of needing to be compliant with some law or face a penalty.

In this scenario, we need to strip back some of our exploratory instincts and move more towards the schedule model. Nevertheless, we must also keep in focus those agile principles of solving the most important problems with always shippable software.

Rather than innovating, we make sure we hit the date:

  • Pick known technologies
  • Extend solutions that work today rather than starting from scratch.
  • Choose the approach that has least work
  • Sequence your plan to get to done sooner
  • Allocate additional resources

When we know what we need to do, we are following a map along a known route rather than exploring the territory.

Measure your progress, correct your course when needed, and don’t innovate to hit the date.