The best product and design leaders don’t just help their organizations deliver a great experience. They cultivate skills, motivate teams, improve processes, strengthen human-centered values, and build relationships – in other words, they foster sustainable systems and cultures that will continue delivering great experiences over time. Sometimes, I think the best measure of a leader’s impact is what happens (or no longer happens) once they leave the organization.
What determines the impact we have as leaders? There are plenty of fundamental skills, like communication and coaching, that always make a difference. However, I would argue that there are four meta-skills necessary to bring all the other leadership skills together:
- Accurately assessing the multiple factors that influence a situation.
- Adapting our approaches to what’s most likely to work in that situation.
- Knowing when we are not suited to lead in a situation – whether we lack the skills or lived experience, have conflicting values, or just find it too draining – so we know when to step aside and let someone else take it on.
- Being mindful enough to do all of those things, consistently and over time.
In healthcare, where I often work, there is a growing belief that some of the hardest problems–like defeating certain cancers or convincing people to get a vaccine–require individualized solutions. One person might be able to prevent a disease with more access to fresh vegetables; another may require an individually tailored drug. Our genetics, environments, behaviors, goals, and other factors all combine to determine which approach is best for us. This is the promise of “precision” healthcare.
Leadership in an organization is a sort of precision health intervention, too: promoting strength and resilience, identifying dysfunction before it becomes a problem, and treating any major concerns that exist. As in medicine, the thing that works for me may not work for you. The approach that worked in your last job may not be effective in this one.
Consider just a few examples of why this is the case:
- Large, mature organizations need us to be good at optimizing: using data to fine-tune an established process or important metric. Using an optimizing approach when we don’t yet have product-market fit, though? That’s a disaster in the making.
- Coaching team members requires understanding not just their skills and goals, but also their confidence level. An uncertain team member might need a small success to keep them motivated; an overconfident one may need more room to fail and learn.
- What works to ship a consumer app feature in a sprint can fall apart in a specialized or regulated industry. Co-designing with subject matter experts, navigating multiple internal and sometimes external approvals, and thorough documentation can be burdens or benefits, depending on how we approach them.
- An organization that’s just invested in a high-stakes “transformation” can be dogmatic about process; a team that’s digested things for a while may be more open to adapting.
- Our relative power (and societal privilege) affects how others perceive us, what leadership risks are safe for us to take, and how we perceive and influence others. Who we are affects whether the same action is considered assertive or abrasive, bold or reckless, confident or arrogant.
Contextual differences like these are why I often see people struggle when they change jobs. The product manager who can’t let go of how they did things at another company. The big-company executive who struggles to build new capabilities in a startup. The front-line manager starting a director role and not being sure how to empower their management team. The engineering whiz who thinks they’re going to “fix” government by making it more like tech. These people aren’t making good assessments about the situation (or themselves), so they’re not adapting as they need to.
Being able to assess and respond appropriately to varied situations starts with understanding the evidence. What makes people trust leaders? Are job simulations (like design exercises) usually good predictors of success? What factors lead to improved decision-making? Most of these questions are not new or unique to technology teams. Other disciplines, like industrial/organizational psychology, can teach us a great deal about what works and why.
The second ingredient in developing these meta-skills is practice. Have you ever worked with someone who made leadership look effortless? Somehow, they can wrangle stakeholders one minute, handle a tricky coaching situation the next, and never seem to sweat. That’s because they’ve encountered similar situations a dozen times already, so they’re more prepared to diagnose and intervene in a constructive way. What we don’t see is the first three or four times when they got it wrong….or all the behind-the-scenes effort it took to set up that effective meeting agenda.
Leader-context fit is an essential but often neglected aspect of any conversation about leadership. Knowing when we’re not the right person to lead is a matter of introspection and willingness to be honest with ourselves–which can sometimes be the hardest part. We need to normalize the idea that no leader is the right person for every situation, and that a mismatch is not necessarily a judgment on that leader’s skill or value.
Finally, effective leadership is not just a skill set. It’s a conscious daily practice. Bringing our best leader-selves to work every day is far more difficult than learning how to lead. Do you have a mental list of times when you weren’t the leader you wanted to be? I certainly do. We mess up as leaders when our minds are on other things, when we forget that conversation IS our main deliverable, or when some need of ours is not being met. We may know the most effective approach, but that knowledge doesn’t help if we aren’t in the right mental space to apply it.
What makes a leader successful in one place? It depends. What makes a leader successful for a whole career? In my view, it’s the meta-skills: developing an observer’s perspective on ourselves and our situations, applying the right approach for the task, knowing where our limits are, and doing what it takes to bring the best, most mindful versions of ourselves.
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