Leadership is: direction, mentorship and coaching. Analysing these components helps identify better ways to deliver and receive each, accelerating individual and organisational growth.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there are roughly three key areas to pay attention to for success, both individually and organisationally.
These are the “Three Threads of Leadership”:
This is the simplest concept: where do my work instructions come from? For an individual contributor on a technology team, this is the Product Owner. By way of whatever ceremonies you use, the Product Owner prepares a list of work, prioritises it and issues it to the team, who execute the work.
As one moves through the ranks this becomes somewhat less clear: consider the Principal Engineer. They may spend some time in a squad, executing work deemed too critical, difficult or experimental for the wider team. They also spend time in craft, pushing the best practices and standards internally. They may also spend time with upper management, ensuring vision and roadmaps are both ambitious enough and possible.
Advice: think about who gives you work direction and why.
Somewhat complicated, as many assume this is also their boss. The reality is that mentorship is a very personal activity, both to the mentor and the mentee. It is an arrangement that should be entered into intentionally and with a goal - learn things the mentor has to teach, because they represent gaps in one’s capability that hinder career movement.
This may be your boss, but this will be due to luck. You may have more than one mentor, depending on where you want to go. I have a couple, each representing areas I need to improve in order to achieve my personal goals. Your Coach will be able to suggest people within the company to fill this role.
Advice: think about where you want to go. Look around you for someone who is there or obviously on their way. Foster a relationship, and potentially explicitly ask them to mentor you in relevant areas. This person doesn’t need to work in your team, department or even company. LinkedIn can help here.
This element of leadership is most often and most easily ignored. A coach is someone who points out areas one can improve in and ways to improve. It isn’t easy to give negative but constructive feedback, and it’s not easy to hear it. Of the three threads discussed in this post, coaching is the most important for the success of the individual and the team.
This is the one element of leadership that really has to come from the line manager. This is because if one has been given constructive feedback about non performance, and over time fails to learn and grow as necessary to remediate it, there are formal processes to follow that typically are initiated by a combination of line management and human resources.
Advice: if you aren’t involved in discussions about your performance with your line manager, start one. If you aren’t having these conversations with your team, start them. There are many tools available to help structure this feedback as a manager. Situation-Behaviour-Impact is a good one for describing the issue, followed up by a conversation about a SMART goal to work towards change.
The Threads Together
An effective team can only work if all three threads of leadership are working together and aligned. The Coach should have a connection to the Mentor and Director to help them understand context around your efforts, and will be the one colleagues come to if they have feedback about you they don’t feel comfortable discussing directly.
Having this clear split between direction of work, mentorship and coaching avoids awkward or stagnating situations that can occur when we perceive one person as taking all three of these roles. It avoids situations like:
- If my boss also gives me work, how can I discuss this topic in a safe space (before perhaps discussing it with the person directing the work)?
- If my boss is a People Lead but I want to pursue the technical track, how can I know I’m getting the right career advice?
- If my team isn’t performing as well as I think they should, who can I direct these concerns to?
Where do you go?
Who do you go to for career advice? Are you being actively coached to be better?
Don’t let yourself fall into career stagnation: think about who provides your threads of leadership. If something is missing, identify the right person in your network or organisation to fill the gap.