What I recently learned about leadership

A few months ago I became a team lead. It was a pretty unexpected role shift. I’d always considered myself more of a worker bee than a leader. When the opportunity was presented to me, I didn’t let the idea sink in very long before I said ‘yes.’ Only I didn’t really say ‘yes.’ I said something like ‘Well, there are a few things about that role that I feel I might be good at, and lots of things that I’ll definitely need to learn.’ Luckily that passes for a ‘yes’ at &yet, and I was henceforth the Design Team Lead.

Then I panicked.

Here are a few of the fears that were swirling through my head:

😰 I’m too pragmatic and risk-averse in a team full of big thinkers…

&yet as a company has built its identity on thinking outside the box, taking risks, solving things in really unconventional ways, and I guess just bucking the system in a way. I’d always felt a bit insecure in my propensity toward worry, overthinking, and pragmatism. I actually like systems. Am I even capable of making decisions that align with the company’s values?

😰 How do you even lead leaders…?

One of the most intimidating things about this role is the fact that the &yet design team is amazing. Every single person is really accomplished. Every member of the team is a leader in some capacity; of big complex projects, of ways of thinking about tech culture, of design approaches, of mind-bending ways of using CSS. What value could I possibly bring to this role that everyone wasn’t already bringing to the team in spades?

😰 What if I make a mistake…?

What if I miscalculate, miscommunicate, misinterpret, miss a meeting, miss an email, miss a detail? What. If. I. FAIL?

Hello, hi folks. 👋

It’s been, oh gosh…6 months-ish. And guess what? I haven’t failed. Not even close. I have made mistakes, cried in front of my teammates 😳, and missed plenty of details. I’ve also seen the team flourish, maintain its soul, do amazing work, score major wins, and even grow in number!

It’s safe to say I’ve learned a ton in the past few months. I’ve grown personally in many ways, and have received support and wisdom from so many people. Much of what I’ve learned has been through trial by fire; just diving in, coping, figuring things out as I go, and (occasionally when I muster up the courage) trusting my gut. But I still have a long way to go.

It hasn’t been until pretty recently that I’ve had the mental space to reach out to the wider world and seek out what others have to say about leadership. A few weeks ago my coworking space hosted a conference for leaders in tech. I waffled back and forth for a while before I finally signed up to attend. I’m an introvert for one, so I really have to psyche myself up to go to a conference. And honestly I was pretty skeptical, thinking that I’d get a lot of really eye-rolley, corporate, blanket advice on Leadership with a capital L.

I’ve never taken so many notes in my life.

To my surprise, I got a ton out of it. Turns out, leadership is hard for everyone. But there are a lot of really great, really relatable people out there who have amazing things to say about it.

Here are a few things that stood out to me:

🤯 If you have a tendency toward perfectionism, it affects your team.

Maybe this seems obvious? I don’t know about you, but I’ve always considered my perfectionism to be a personal trait, affecting only tasks that I personally was working on. One of the most impactful talks for me at the conference was Colin Flanigan’s talk about being a perfectionist as a leader.

He pointed out that perfectionists have a tendency to:

  • Waffle on decisions
  • Misinterpret confidence
  • Cling to broken tools/systems/ideas

It’s true these symptoms of perfectionism have a far wider reach than my individual projects. It’s easy to see how these would affect a team.

🤯 Know the difference between burnout and depression.

I didn’t really know that I didn’t know this…if that makes sense. My understanding was a bit hand-wavey before, but a key misunderstanding I had (as evidenced by this tweet) was that burnout can be caused by anything in life. Dr. Sherry Walling’s discussion at the conference actually taught me that the main difference between burnout and depression is that burnout is inextricably caused by your work. And because burnout and depression have a different cause, they have different intervention methods.

While burnout tends to feel and look a lot like regular depression, it can also bring along unique symptoms, like the feeling of a lack of efficacy, and cynical detachment from your work. This is something I’m really interested in learning more about. It’s a huge priority for me as a leader to learn to recognize burnout in myself and others and do whatever is in my power to prevent it.

🤯 There’s a difference between having values and living values.

Sometimes at conferences I get asked “What makes &yet unique?”…or questions to that effect. A lot of things that come to mind are characteristic of our team values. We care deeply about what we do, we design and build things with our heads and our hearts, we’re human-focused, we’re people first.

‘People first’ has gotten to be kind of a popular phrase, I’ve noticed. Many tech companies these days list values that look really quite similar to ours - which is great. They’re great values. But…stating those values no longer answers the question, “What makes &yet unique?” What makes you unique these days is living your values. Figuring out ways of doing this authentically may be the hardest thing about being a leader.

I’m lucky to have mentors at &yet who care deeply about meaningful leadership. Have you heard of Leadershippy? Sarah Bray, Adam Brault and many others at &yet have worked super hard to create resources for people-first leaders that go way beyond the obvious. I mean way beyond.

I honestly could go on and on. I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg here. I’d love to know what other people have learned, read, and experienced. Please share with me!

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