Thought leadership is a term that’s thrown around in many performance reviews, and seems to have a rather amorphous definition.
Don’t I perform thought leadership daily in my job? The answer is yes, but as you transition from executing with excellence to thinking more about persuasion, influence and managing, thought leadership becomes increasingly important. It is a critical attribute for senior leaders, and you might come to a point where you can’t be promoted without demonstrating the skill. And usually it’s not defined.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to a leader at my first post undergraduate job, who wrote a one-pager to define thought leadership. I carried this one pager for about a decade, job to job, and I handed it to people on my team. I should have laminated it.
I asked several senior developers on the team: How has thought leadership been important for you? Did it matter in your career? The answer was a resounding “Yes, if you want to make an impact with your work, get promoted, or transition to a role that is more business oriented.”
So what does it mean? And how can you adopt those skills?
Here is my recipe for removing the roadblocks to help developers (or anyone looking for advice) get to that next step in their career.
5 Elements of Thought Leadership:
Always have a recommendation
It’s not enough to do, connect to the bigger picture
Use your time with your boss wisely
Come with solutions, not problems
Make sure your colleagues know what you’re doing
1. Always have a recommendation
“What do you think?” is known to inspire some angst among my direct reports. I pull this out when I know folks know the answer, they are hesitant, or just haven’t verbalized what they want to do. Ninety percent of the time saying it works, and results in a verbal stream of consciousness where by the end all I need to say is, “Sounds like a great plan.”
Waiting for your boss to provide the next step is like telling your boss you don’t have answers. I would rather have someone make an effort, than use me as their crutch for answers. Oh, and managers, please don’t supply the answer.
This is the theory behind the case methodology used at some business schools versus textbook learning. You read about the problem, you present an answer, it’s discussed. It leads to better learning, memory and recognition of what to do when the situation comes around again.
“Recommending upwards” can help leaders recognize your skills and ability to think strategically.
2. It’s not enough to do – connect to the bigger business picture
The next step is to take that recommendation and execute. It’s a proof point, and helps demonstrate you can convert your thoughts and mission into reality. In addition, at some point, you want to help create the mission. Additional objectives, next steps, future ramifications, evangelism – thinking beyond the day-to-day tasks to a bigger picture that you create.
Without growing beyond execution, you are likely not going to get additional responsibilities. As a leader, your job changes from execution, to guidance, coaching, observing, support, politics, and strategy setting. Usually you’ve got to demonstrate the skills before you get the stripe. Practice by reminding yourself to step away from the task list to ask yourself:
Does anyone else need to know what I’m doing?
Are there any obstacles I haven’t thought of?
Has anything changed in our mission/goals/purpose?
It doesn’t need to be every day, but it should happen.
From developers on our team:
“Take something futuristic and possibly abstract and connect it to the work happening today. Alternatively, take something from the past and draw parallels on how you would transform the reality of today towards creating a new future. This gives people and teams purpose and direction – a quintessential ingredient for success.”
“Make a clear correlation between what you’re building and what was going to be the net business impact. Don’t be siloed. Don’t just focus on requirements. If you understand the broader context, you’re better off building to the story, and ensuring what you built stays relevant. Don’t type cast yourself into an engineering mindset alone. The best engineers are not just great coders, but are also leaders who understand the business impact. Ask your product managers questions about consumers, use cases, revenue, etc.”
3. Use your time with your boss wisely
Hopefully you have some sort of standing meeting with your manager. A weekly, bi-weekly, whenever you can get on their calendar. The worst thing you can do is show up, stare at your boss, and ask them if they need anything from you. This is YOUR time to sell yourself, your projects, and ask questions or ask for support. Do you need to come with a 52 item agenda? No. (In fact, please don’t create the laundry list. Your manager might end up reading it, aghast, instead of focusing on you). Pick the 1-5 things you need to show or ask about, and that’s your agenda. It is not important whether it is written down. The point is, you know it, and you guide the conversation.
This isn’t saying you aren’t worth your manager’s time. It’s the exact opposite. You are worth the time, and it’s your opportunity to show YOU ROCK. Potential topics:
Important milestones your boss cares about and needs to know for others
Obstacles you’ve broken through
Important people you’ve spoken with
Where you need the manager’s help – tell them specifically what you need them to do
I’m stuck, here’s why, please help me – this can be perfectly appropriate if you give context
Important problems your boss should be aware of, and what you’re doing about it
Asking questions about team/company strategy tied to your projects
I wouldn’t recommend coming in with a daily play-by-play and every single thing that happened with your project last week. Or coming in with problems that aren’t really problems. I promise you, your boss is likely not going to care, and it might land you in step #2 above.
If you don’t need your meeting? Cancel it, make it short. Don’t invent reasons to be there. If your boss needed you for something, they’ll come find you.
4. Come with solutions, not problems
On the problems front, you’re ready for the next step when you show up to your weekly and tell your boss there was a problem, it was fixed by you, and here’s what you did – without causing swirl along the way.
Sharing the meaty problems and associated solutions demonstrates stellar cross functional leadership and thinking skills. Your manager will likely walk away impressed and you will have impressed several colleagues in the process as well. As you go up the food chain, you might have fewer meetings with the boss (if at all), so being solution oriented means you can solve your own problems, showcasing to other leaders you can handle difficult situations on your own.
“Know something, be perceived as an expert, and use that knowledge to solve problems. You need thought leadership to avoid the trap of coming up with things that are hard to implement, and are just fluff.” – Developer on our team
5. Make sure your colleagues know what you’re doing
When your boss is in the talent review meeting talking about you, you want to make sure your coworkers aren’t saying, “They work here?”
As much as we want to believe everything we work on will get the recognition it deserves, in reality what you build might need some socialization. Socialization of your code, project and strategy is important to get the word out, and that starts with your leaders. But, don’t forget cross functional meeting updates, newsletters, the company website, twitter, Slack, and coffee meet and greets as well. This isn’t the case for every project. Pick the biggest one, and for that you should have some sort of evangelization/socialization plan that involves more than coding, debugging, answering email, and having meetings with your boss. If your company policy allows for it, consider leveraging social media to raise awareness with your followers.
If at the end of this piece, you think to yourself, “boy, all of this was obvious” because you already do it – great! It means you likely have this skill listed as one of your strengths. But if it’s not mentioned in your reviews, give it some thought on which elements you’re missing. Your manager will likely thank you for it, and ultimately, you will too.
Contributor: Ilkay Can is a Vice President, Visa Partner (Visa Developer Platform, Visa Ready).