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Amara Graham
Amara Graham

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Software Development and Transformational Leadership

Early in my career as a developer I always found myself in some kind of leadership position. As this was unfolding, I listened to a number of podcast and audio books to "see" how other people worked through this.

Part of this was spurred by the somewhat rigid looking career paths presented at large corporations - you'll reach a point (seemingly too soon) where you need to decide (declare) if you want to be a people manager or remain on a technical path.

Did I want to be a people manager? Would I be good at it? Could I come back to an IC role as a developer? Could I find someone to mentor me through this? Hello... is this thing on...?

A brief rant

First, I want to say that a career path that doesn't allow some amount of switching between management and technical roles is antiquated. If this doesn't exist at your company, people will make it themselves, often by leaving your company.

Flexibility and purposeful change can be the key to managing burnout.

Second, why we force this path choosing so early in careers is beyond me. Sure, training individuals early is important, but making a decision like this can be overwhelming and distracting.

At the time, I didn't have enough (recent) examples of devs turned managers. Everyone I worked with and around had been managers for YEARS and simply didn't remember when/why/how they decided to go into management.

I spent so much of my time wondering how would I know whether I wanted to be a people manager or deeply technical. And what happened if I made the wrong choice?

I'm a "transformational leader"

Fast forward to now, I learned there is a term for my leadership style - transformational leader. I usually referred to this as hands-off, coaching over mentoring, and some other smattering of words and phrases. But how cool that there's actually a word for it!

I didn't go to business school or just suddenly have an epiphany, I read this article. I've switched from podcast and audio books back to print!

If you've had a bad or incompatible manager, you know it's super draining to your mental and physical health. As much as everyone will be quick to say something about how "work is just work," it's a significant portion of your day and depending on your role and seniority, your manager may have significant influence over that portion of your day.

I want to do everything I can to avoid negatively contributing to someone's day, whether I'm their manager or not.

My working mode

In order to provide this transformational leadership in action, I need to provide a vision or roadmap for my team so they understand how everything fits together, without being too prescriptive.

There will always be a balance here, often due to seniority, but also due to whether or not individual contributors have worked with this management style previously. (It's also possible this management style is just not compatible with how they like or need to be managed, but more on this in the next section.)

I lean heavily on roadmaps, visions, and epics, then designate a directly responsible individual (DRI) or someone to take the lead on items. I encourage them to "own it" and I'm happy to collaborate with them on it, but I want them to feel empowered to make decisions.

I may give DRIs a vague goal or hints along the way, suggestions of how I would tackle a particular issue, but I want to be as hands-off as I can. As long as I see transparent, significant progress (growth, tangible deliverables, completion of tasks), I have what I need from them as their manager.

Knowing when to change your style

This style of leadership doesn't always resonate with everyone all the time, just like any other style. I would argue good leaders of any leadership style recognize when they need to adjust their style either to offer a personalized experience to a particular individual or when to shift temporarily.

For example, giving someone a vague goal when they struggle with focus isn't going to work for you or them. Conversely, forcing someone into a transactional style won't provide the autonomy they may be looking for.

As an IC (or a manager), you could also let your manager know their style doesn't work for you, either for now or in general. Your manager should be receptive to feedback.

In fact, my manager acknowledged recently he was asking me "micro-managing questions" because we are still relatively new to learning each other's management styles. This was great because I could hear it's not his ideal management style and it certainly isn't mine either.

Wrapping up

I'm curious how many software engineers recognize their preferred management style and then how many are vocal about it in interviews and 1:1s. Do you know the name of your preferred management style?

If you are a manager, do you know your preferred management style, or were you like me and just had a collection or smattering of words to describe it?

An aspect or role I didn't touch on is project or product managers. If you are on a product team, their management style may have just as much impact on your day-to-day as your own people manager. If you work with a project or product manager (or maybe both!), I'd be curious if you notice and impact or recognize different management styles with this roles.

Top comments (3)

davidgs profile image
David G. Simmons

Thanks for clarifying for me how I do things. :-) This is 100% my style as well. And my experience that it works very well with some people, and not well at all with others aligns with yours as well.

jasonstcyr profile image
Jason St-Cyr

I really enjoyed this article, and connected with a lot of the notes you brought up here. I find the situational leadership style change the hardest thing as I find it difficult to gauge what is working for somebody or not, unless they directly tell me. This leads to me to being in my 'default' management mode usually, which doesn't always work, like you say.

Thank you for naming 'transformational' as a style. My style is a mix of that and 'servant' leadership, with an unfortunate smattering of command and control when managing a project! 😲

missamarakay profile image
Amara Graham

I'm so glad this resonated with you! I have to imagine servant leadership is quite big in the DevRel space too.