During a global crisis like this, every type of leader is being tested. I believe the pandemic will be a reckoning in more ways than one, as the global economy’s once-in-a-lifetime contraction is rewriting the social contract between employer and employee in real time. Uncertainty for workers is higher than it has ever been. Real leadership, arguably in short supply even in the best of times, is needed now more than ever.
In considering all of this, I’ve realized there’s one question that tech leaders need to answer for employees: Why are we doing this work?
I believe this is the first and most fundamental question of leadership and the basis on which all successful leaders lead — regardless of style or field. Here’s why.
Empowerment comes from the ‘why.’
Consider the opposite of an empowered worker: an employee who’s kept in the dark, told to do their work because “we said so,” and denied even a glimpse of the big picture for fear they might realize how blurry that picture is. Empowered workers understand the “why” of what they’re doing — it’s even more important than knowing how. And therefore, it is the job of a true leader to communicate the reason that drives the work, something bigger than code debugging and more tangible than a vague “digital transformation.”
So whether it’s a new project, a new team or a new company, one of the first things I do is figure out the reason for the work I’m about to undertake. And the second thing I do is share that with my team in a way they understand, including all the context they need and a vision of what the work is for. Developers create value through code — they know that’s the day-to-day job. It’s our job to communicate why the product matters and ensure that they are connecting teams to that “why.” The same goes for any other position or team in any department.
‘Why’ is a shield against uncertainty.
A solid answer to “why” is the ultimate safeguard against uncertainty, and as we’re seeing now, the how and the where can change, and fast. But the reason for the work that underlies everything the team is working for should be the constant that a team and their leader can focus on. Even when many of the basic assumptions about how work is done are swept away, you’ll have a lighthouse helping you reorient yourself. The problem then becomes finding a way, using whatever you have, to begin again working toward that reason.
Sharing the ‘why’ builds trust.
Being a leader is not just about a title — it’s not a spectator sport. Leading means building relationships. Building good relationships means building trust, and one of the best ways a leader can engender trust is by showing their team how they trust in them. Parts of the corporate world have fallen into some bad practices, and chief among them is the tendency for the long-term strategy to be a secret kept by those at the top.
Sure, there are trade secrets or moves that need to be kept quiet, but there should always be an overarching vision that everyone at the organization understands. You can’t just blurt out every plan, projection or merger straight out of the gate, but you should make sure the company’s moves make sense to your employee bases. Make the work experience more human, and enable cultures that put people first.
Today, we’re facing a true singularity of a leadership challenge. We don’t have to — and shouldn’t try to — go it alone. Businesses have always depended on networks of leadership; this business challenge is unique but must be approached in the same way. Not to be trite, but we really are in this together.
Why are you working at what you’re doing? What are you changing? Who are you helping? How will it make things better? Today is the day to ask yourself — and answer — those questions. You’ll learn a lot in doing so, and be a better leader for it.