A couple of years ago, I was thinking about promotion to Senior Consultant role, which required me to demonstrate my leadership skills and abilities. Working solo on an engagement, or just being a member of a team, I hadn't had an opportunity to lead a team, and this had made it challenging for me to demonstrate my team leadership skills. So I thought since this might be happening to many developers who want to step up and are in a similar situation, it is worth sharing my experience.
When your manager hands over the reins of a project to you, it’s a sign that you are a safe and trusted pair of hands. Here’s your opportunity to highlight your leadership skills and abilities. But what if you’re put in charge of leading a team without a formal title, or worst you're not in charge at all but have to prove your abilities?
I did some research on how you can demonstrate your leadership skills and abilities without a being officially in the role, and found some interesting articles around this topic.
Let’s discuss some critical areas that we should all consider when in a position of influence and leadership to other team members in a way that enables them to trust and follow you throughout the journey.
Irrespective of role, everyone has the ability to demonstrate leadership skills and abilities by doing something practical. Demonstrating leadership may involve taking on something complex to support other team members, defusing a conflict, making difficult decisions, having tough conversations etc.
But remember, it’s not just about ‘what you do’, but also ‘how you do it’ and the ‘outcome of the activity’. Some examples will be measurable by your manager/team lead, and others may be more subjective.
On one of my engagements, some practical examples I have undertaken have included picking complex backlog items, helping the team lead with complex decisions, doing this in a way that he didn't feel I was interfering (using subtle influence techniques to get him on-board), but at the same time he could see I was the one who helped him get there (reinforcing my value to the client).
Consequently he started to trust me little by little and our relationship became stronger day by day. These days he became confident in letting me drive the direction of the project based on my knowledge of the client, project and its requirements. Later on, he specifically called me out when giving feedback about the success of the project. The effect of that was that other team members became aware of my abilities, such as strong communication skills and increased influence, and this resulted in a noticeable shift to the level of respect team members showed towards me and my decisions.
The team gradually started coming to me to ask my opinion on how to do ‘stuff’ better. Aside from being able to demonstrate my leadership skills and abilities, the feeling was so amazing and unbelievable that I started to realise what a great achievement was this.
This is very critical in a sense that sometimes we think we should take control of the situation and talk and talk for hours so others would know how awesome we are and how much we know, or because we think they need to hear what we have to say.
However, throughout my experience and with help of an internal training on soft skills, I realised that one of the most required leadership skills is to encourage dialog.
By doing this you show you respect everyone equally, you get a diverse set of ideas and opinions, you will learn something about the people, their business, and/or the project, it will help you avoid assumptions, and you will have time to think about everything being said.
As they say, if you’re busy talking, you’re not listening. You can guess that by respecting others this will help you gain their respect.
If you’re in a role which requires you to assign tasks to others, it’s important that you don’t deliberately or accidentally assign the favourable tasks to your close friends or the people you get along with the most, whilst assigning less favourable ones to others.
It’s important to ensure that all team members have a good mix of tasks where practicable and tasks are assigned in a way that everyone feels happy or at least that it has been a fair process, and is motivated to do a great job to deliver the desired outcome.
By doing this you show that you are fair and trustworthy, and this helps to keep the environment as harmonious as possible. Let me give you an example to elaborate more on this:
I was working with some other local developers on a project. I had already built the trust so that was my chance to assign tasks between ourselves in a way that everyone was happy about it.
Since one of them was a back end guru, but, didn’t have any experience with front end development, I suggested to assign a UI task to him and the rest to others as we were already engaged in previous similar tasks.
He was a bit hesitant at first but by explaining my goal on how much fun he would have working on the UI side and also how he would able to build his experience in this area, he accepted the decision happily.
I was constantly supporting him by giving guidance and support as required, and he was enjoying the sprint. To be honest I had never seen him as happy as he was after he had successfully completed the work.
On the other hand, others were happy as well since they had a chance to work in the different areas and explore the patterns we were using. A total win win situation you might say.
We discussed how you should assign the tasks in a way that keeps everyone happy or at least keep things fair, however, you should always demonstrate that you are ready to get your hands dirty (do the hard and less favourable stuff), and help others along the way if they need it.
I’ve been always ready to pick the toughest tasks and the ones that nobody was willing to do.
For example, converting a legacy app or fixing a bug that was there for a long time and nobody knew why it was happening.
Whilst others see the negative, I identify the silver linings. This has helped me showcase my strengths and that I care about the team and its success. You’ll exert the most influence when others see you leading by example and working as hard – if not harder – than they are.
This point is as important as any of the above points. After completing a project or any milestone there would be always moments where the team can receive both positive recognition and constructive feedback to help them grow.
The most important part is that no matter what, how, and when something went wrong, a true leader will take responsibility and support their team rather than apportion blame.
A true leader should show everybody that they can be depended upon, that they're a reliable person. Avoid pointing fingers and call out a blaming culture if you see one. The same thing is true about when everything goes well and there is praise.
You should remember how you got there and always acknowledge the contribution of others. In the case that a specific person has done a great job, ensure they receive the right level of recognition for their contribution.
I have had the chance to express someone’s good efforts as well as other times when I had to admit that my decision was not the best one and take responsibility of my choices.
Admitting that you were wrong and could have done better is a great sign of strength, maturity and leadership.
Some people are born leaders, but most of us have to learn it the hard way.
The best way to boost your leadership skills is via on-the-job training, with regular feedback and coaching to help you to continually hone your skills.
In my case I didn’t have a chance to be a lead, however, I had proactively arranged shadowing opportunities, requested peer and client feedback, and seek coaching.
This has not only helped me improve my skills, but also demonstrate my skills and abilities, the progress I have made, the trust I've gained amongst my peers, leaders and clients, and the reputation I've built, has enabled me to be the lead behind the scenes.
There are other ways like researching, reading books and articles on the subject, classroom or online learning, and also learn from those around you how to be able to be a good lead.
Being entrusted with a team project is an exciting opportunity to demonstrate your leadership skills. Even though your official title hasn’t changed, there are many ways you can show your client and colleagues that you’ve got what it takes to be a leader and earn their respect.
Hopefully this post has inspired you to try to step up and show your skills in this area if you're facing a similar situation.