Digging Deeper: switching from a maker to a leader

In this edition of Digging Deeper, we sat down with Tony, our Head of Development, and got him to share his insights and experiences regarding the process of switching from a development maker to leading a large team of developers.

OK, you started your career at Bornfight as a Software Developer and now you’re leading the entire Development department. What was the biggest surprise you encountered when you first became an IT leader?

Well, the biggest thing that surprised me, and that became immediately clear, is that every single person in the team is completely different. Before you start leading a team, you don’t have that insight, but as soon as you start talking to people about their work, needs, interests, problems, goals and personal development, you see just how unique every person really is. There isn’t a single thing, a single way of doing things that you can apply to all of them collectively and say – oh yeah, this will surely work.

Here’s the deal – although we all work in the same team, the needs and interests of one person is completely different from the needs and interests of the other person. You always think that the people in the team you work with are just like you, but when I became the head of the department, it really surprised me that a thing that means the world to one person hasn’t even crossed the mind of another. And we’re talking about a wide variety of things – from money, complexity of projects, other people in the team, personal goals and things like that.

Everybody is completely different, and you really need to form a deep relationship with each person to really know what’s important to them and how you can help them to achieve it. There are no generic, one size fits all ways to help people grow both personally and professionally.

So, how did you handle that situation?

As I said, the most important thing is to build open relationships with every single person in your team. This is important because it leads to mutual trust, and that results in people sharing all information with you as the person who leads the team – all the problematic, the bad, the good and the great. If you don’t have that relationship anchored in mutual trust, you’ll have a hard time finding out what the people in your team need.

At Bornfight and in our development department, we do it through one-on-one ‘Quality Time’ meetings and by building a strong set of team leaders. Those Quality Time meetings are all about talking to people in your team and getting to know them in order to see what’s important to them. This channel of communication really enables all heads of departments and team leaders in our company to connect with the people. And it ultimately results in creating custom activities that boost growth and professional development of every person, and allows them to achieve their goals much faster and grow more efficiently both on a personal and a professional level.

Is there anything else that helps?

Yes, I mentioned building a strong set of team leaders as a prerequisite for building relationships. You see, before we introduced team leaders into my department, I had 13 people under me – handling that number of people makes you lose focus because you jump around a lot. You work with every person a small bit because you just have so much of your time to give them, but that’s not enough – small issues start piling up, people in your team start stagnating, and the entire thing can quickly turn from good to bad. Now I have 5 team leaders in the department and each of them has 5 people in their teams, and that gives all of us much more time to work directly with every single person, to talk with them regularly and to build that trust and relationships.

Another thing we implemented is the structured onboarding process where every person takes two months to go through and meet all of the specific departments in the company. People find this extremely interesting because they get to know all other people, they see how they work, what their goals are and what are their expectations. But most importantly, it’s interesting to them because they get to find out where they are in our large system and how their work directly helps other departments in Bornfight. This really is a crucial element of building that initial trust and relationship.

What advice do you have for new IT leaders who may run into similar situations?

Well, the first and the most important thing I would like to point out is – don’t make assumptions. Assumptions will lead you to the wrong track. Instead of making assumptions, it’s much better to directly ask people. So yeah, take all subjective assumptions out of the picture. That’s number one.

Number two is – talk to people in your team and talk with them often. It doesn’t even have to be structured, but it needs to happen. Create a channel for communication, I mean literally, organize a monthly one-on-one meeting with a person in your team where you can talk about anything. You see, when you say “my doors are always open” you think that people will come to you and talk whenever they feel like it, but the truth is they’ll only go through that door when something bad happens, and that may already be late. By opening a communication channel like this monthly meeting I mentioned, you’re making sure people in your team will come to talk even before something bad happens, and that means you can predict and prevent it. In addition to these meetings, make sure to also go out of your way to check out on your team members from time to – see what they’re up to, ask them about the meeting they were on and how they feel about it. Be involved and take an active part in your team members’ process of personal and professional development.

One thing that’s connected to this point about talking to your people is the ability to sense when an answer you get is not 100% completely open. For example, a person might say that the project they’re working on is great, but if you sense from their tone or body language that they’re not really feeling it, there may be more to it than they’re telling you. So, ask them some more about it – they don’t have to be complex questions, you can ask them to tell you a couple of specific things they really like about the project or something like that. Gather any additional information as that will enable you to get more context and paint a clearer picture. In my experience, people are wary of pointing out when something starts going bad – they often wait, so you need to know how to sense that ”but” in their answer and prevent a small issue from turning into something bigger.

To conclude this – don’t make subjective assumptions, open a communications channel and talk to the people in your team as often as possible and learn how to sense the “but” in their answers.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just one thing – make sure to understand that people are much more complex than you might think and they know everything that goes on around them. You have to know that people build relationships with each other, people share things with each other and they talk to each other. And often, they talk about the things that bother them – and it spreads. That’s why it’s always good to be open with all the people in your team and prepare beforehand to work on the things that might bother them.