Over the years, I’ve had the chance to observe several mid, high and executive level leaders in action, in very close quarters. I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with several of them as well as observe many more in their journey to deliver strategies and results. Those of us that have attempted leadership know that leadership is hard and involves much more beyond technical expertise. Every now and then, we run into leaders that are not great at what they do. After observing several managers and leaders, I’ve realized that there is one cardinal quality that makes or breaks a leader – and that is the ability to motivate people.
Especially for engineers, the ability to motivate is inherently hard. This is because in order to motivate, they need to focus on the positives. And as engineers, we’ve been trained to identify problems and continuously strive to optimize further. A good engineer is able to identify problems, solve them and optimize the solutions until it is nearly perfect. A less than perfect solution is not satisfactory. And this attitude poses a huge challenge as engineers grow to be leaders of other engineers.
Being an engineer as well as an Indian is a double whammy, speaking for myself. Indians are trained for competitive spirit with the mantra of being first and the best in everything we do. I am quite sure there are other cultures that fall into this category, but I cannot speak with confidence about that.
As I sat through all-hands meetings at various levels of leadership along the years, in successful companies nonetheless, I’ve seen some leaders that are able to instill an enthusiasm to deliver even more amazing things and some that are downright awful at inspiring. For some, even as they talk about the wonderful accomplishments of teams, it is difficult not to follow that up with “but, we have big challenges ahead of us”. This shows they never dwell in their glory and keep their eyes on the future (which is good for a leader), but, it also shows that they don’t quite understand what drives people.
This morning, as I fought one of my son’s worst tantrums as I got him ready to school, I gave in to my anger and frustration. Ultimately, I managed to get him in the car – but, it made me reflect on just how I failed on infusing the motivation of going to school (to be sure, I broke down after several attempts of motivation failed, but that is only incidental in the big picture). Engineering leadership is not unlike that. We will run into people of varying capabilities and drives that makes motivating all of them a tough job.
Motivational ability is hardly a singleton quality in engineering leadership. It is often the confluence of several other qualities. Leaders that inspire must be capable enough in the eyes of the teams they lead or their words will not be construed as inspiration. This does not mean that they know all the details of the team’s work, but it does mean that they can understand the details when they need to, connect the dots and provide guidance at just the right level.
Great leaders are those that junior members aspire to be someday. They show by gestures that they care and want the best for their people. Some of the qualities they possess are worth highlighting.
- They take the time often to reflect on the team’s accomplishments and truly recognize them, in words and gestures. Their voice shows they mean it when they publicly recognize the greatness of the team. They say it multiple times to be sure beyond a doubt that the team understands how much their efforts are appreciated.
- They take the time to learn how to say people’s names (they can never be caught pronouncing your name incorrectly).
- They ask often how they can do better on ensuring a job match for you.
- They don’t try to do your job for you. Engineers have a hard time with this, as they have this urge to do better and feel they can do better than others. As they get less time for detailed analysis, this leads to frustrations on both sides.
- They don’t wait to have tough conversations. They have it early so they can provide the opportunity to course correct where needed.
But, above everything, great leaders can motivate. All else is secondary as they march their teams forward!