Who Are You Growing?

Who are you growing?  It's important for leaders to ask themselves this question regularly.  And if the answer is "I'm not sure" it's time to get busy.  Building up your leadership bench is among the most important things you can do.  And you don't need to manage people to be a leader.  Are you a Tech Lead or someone that has a strong influence across your organization?  If so, you're a leader.  Read on.

Leadership development isn't a luxury.  It's a necessary risk reduction technique for your business, one of the basic facets of succession planning.  For every leader in your organization (that includes VPs, Directors, Managers, Tech Leads, etc.) it's ideal to have someone that could step into their shoes (with support), ideally someone they have been grooming for some time.  Key leaders will depart the organization or move on to other roles.  They're in high demand and have no shortage of opportunities.  It's not a matter of *if*, it's a matter of *when*.  The departure of a high-impact leader without a plan for quick recovery can turn an organization into a tailspin.

Meh.  We can just find a replacement!  Sure.  Welcome to the life of an executive recruiter.  There are about 1/10 the number of managers as there are IC engineers so the pie is small from the start.  Directors are more rare than managers.  VPs more so.  And, sadly, many are ineffective (manager horror stories anyone?).  The best ones aren't looking and are hard to engage.  (And you only want the best, right?)  If you're lucky enough to get their attention they then have to get through your simple, 37-step interview process where you ask them to estimate the number of Starbucks stores in Manhattan, reverse a linked list, design Google Maps at a virtual whiteboard they've never used before, convey executive presence in a video conference with their dogs barking in the background, tell you about a time when they demonstrated customer obsession while cutting costs, do a take-home assignment and then be excited about joining your company for a smaller role with less pay because you're changing the world through platform-enabled AI-driven workflow-based autonomous microservices powered by the latest in blockchain technology.  (It's going to be huge!)  Meanwhile your competitors are banging down their door and they're fairly happy where they are.  And then, when you can't put your finger on why they don't "feel" right (hiring a leader is scary so people use their gut more than they admit), you stumble upon some other "minimum qualifications" that you didn't include in the job description.  After all it should be obvious that you want someone "seasoned" who has done this 2 or 3 times, has 13+ years of FAANG experience, knows how to step into an existing team with no context, boost morale, set a vision and strategy, recruit great people, build credibility, be able to talk about distributed consensus protocols, understand your tech stack, jump into the code if need be, build relationships, call bullshit on a technical decision and yet somehow not get too involved all while being a "cultural fit" which is code for "supporting the un-stated values and practices that we aren't willing to put into writing (because then we'd admit that they're real) that can only be discovered by violating them".  It's easy!  Finally, when the leader joins nobody will trust them yet and there's a decent chance they'll turn things upside down and piss everyone off in the process.  :-)  Bringing in external leaders is important and necessary to expand the thinking of an organization.  But it takes a long time and the risk has to be properly managed.  It's best done strategically and not reactively.

More than just a risk-reduction technique, growing leaders is also one of the best ways to build up the capability of your organization and your company.  It demonstrates foresight and commitment.  You're thinking like an owner.  It's great for the leaders that you develop - they are exposed to new opportunities and they can stretch themselves, but in a setting where you can provide proactive support.  Your teams can see that good work exposes people to new opportunities and that managers aren't (solely) plotting how to take over the world in the back room while smoking cigars and laughing like Dr. Evil.  And if you successfully reach the "payback period", you will have improved the effectiveness of your organization.  You've engineered yourself into redundancy, which is actually a good thing.  It may be time to take on a new challenge.  Finally, there is one more benefit: it feels good.  As leaders we often do tiny things all day and wonder whether we're making a difference.  Seeing someone progress quickly, someone that you admire, someone that you learn from through teaching them, someone that's grateful that you're looking out for them - that's a great feeling.

So why don't we do it more proactively?  We're busy.  There's always going to be something more urgent.  It takes a while to pay off (months, sometimes years).  All these things are true but we have to remind ourselves that it's strategic, it's essential for the business and for your organization, it's a way to create a multiplicative influence - and when you step back and see someone get closer to realizing their potential and to know that you played a part, even a small part, in making that happen -- it can be rewarding beyond compare.

So -- who are you growing?