It’s been an amazing week, and we’ve covered so much ground, but we still have one more day of “doing the thing with the stuff”, and that day is today. I am attending an un-conference dedicated to Test Leadership and Test Management.

Anna Royzman and Thomas Vaniotis, along with Matt Barcomb, are our facilitators and content owners for the day. The morning started with breakfast, and then we all gathered to introduce ourselves and explain what we hoped to get out of the sessions today.

At this point, after nearly a full week of engagement, we all know each other really well. Still, even with all the time we have spent together, we still have a lot of variation to what we are looking for and hoping to work on. We’re putting together topics now, so this seems a good place to take a break.

We split up into three groups to generate ideas. Many of these may become actual sessions. We’re going through and describing a variety of goals, based on where we are. Some of us are managers or directors, some of us are individual contributors, but each of us in our group has determined a variety of ideas to consider and pitch. I’m saying that vaguely because I don’t really know what’s been proposed; it’s all on my laptop, as Ray Oei can attest (he took the shot 😉 ).

Gotta’ get in line to make my pitch…

We have put together an interesting program, lots of information and lots of great topics to cover. Many of them were blended together as there was a fair bit of cross- coverage in the topics that were provided. I proposed a topic called “Usurp the Throne: Don’t Ask, Make” and as of right now, I will be blending my topic with Richard Robinson’s, which is “Be Brave: Integrity and Bravery as a Tester and Test Leader”. We will be covering that in the next session, but right now, we are discussing “Leading from the Front”, or better stated, how can individual contributors manage their managers and executives of the organization.

What does leading from the front mean? It comes down to the reality that even individual contributors want to offer their own leadership and lead where they can and have opportunities to do so. We looked at the factors that helped us see where we can be leaders and can be effective in driving change. We discussed the metaphors of leading from the front and leading from behind as a military metaphor, and I might have gone a little overboard explaining how “lead from behind” came into such derision.

In truth, we need to lead from the front always. What we refer to as “leading from behind” is really delegating what we can to others so that they can likewise lead, and trust the individuals that we have delegated to that they will be able to do what they have set out to do. Autonomy is important for individual contributors, and even junior members of a team want to know that they have a certain sense of autonomy to accomplish what they need to (within the scope of their responsibilities and abilities).

If we as individual contributors want to develop our chops as leaders, we need to develop a thick skin, and the best way to do that is to practice effectively communicating.  While tact and diplomacy are critical, we can’t be afraid to be blunt and tell the truth. We need to show courage, and part of that also comes into play when we do something wrong. We need to accept our failures honestly, and above and beyond that, we need to show what we have learned in the process of our failures. If we only celebrate successes and bury our failures, we will have a difficult time developing the trust necessary to be allowed to lead in our sphere. We also need to show trust to get trust.

One of the tools that we can use to help us make sure we are clearer in our communication is to make sure that we are listening well and asking clarifying questions where needed. there’s a value in being direct, but it can be seen as steamrolling or being rude, or undermining direct communication. When we as a few clarifying questions, and make sure we use them to understand what we are being asked to do, we can also guide and lead those discussions using the Socratic method. the danger with overusing the Socratic method, especially with managers, is that you can be seen to be evasive at the most minor, and downright obstructionist in the worst case. Therefore, by all means, use the Socratic method to get clarification, but also use it to be direct and see if your opinion of the situation is correct, and if your course of action is clear.

The next session was a blending of thoughts and ideas regarding the courage it takes to be a leader and the attributes necessary to make the decision to be a leader even when there’s not a direct mandate for you to be one. this is where my “Usurp the Throne” topic was deemed to fit alongside, so many of the comments below also fit that topic. In short, I suggested that, if you want to be a leader, then step up and lead. More times than not, if you do well, then you will be given more opportunities to lead. The traits that we discussed were similar in both cases. There is a need to be courageous and be direct in our focus and what we are intending to do. One comment was “do not be afraid to be fired”. Other ways that we should be willing to act/embrace if this is how we want to work/be:

– Be clear about how you will be have in your job when you are being interviewed. Make clear that you see yourself as a leader, you intend to work and act as a leader, and you will demonstrate the competence and give them confidence that you should behave accordingly.

– Know when to say “no”, and say it. More to the point, mean it when you say it.

– Do not be afraid to be open to comments or criticism. Do not overreact when problems arise (as they will) or if someone blames yo
u for a failure (which they will). Instead, address the situation honestly, own up to mistakes, and work to do better in the future.

– Be a shield / support for others on your team. Not a martyr or a whipping post, but know when others are being problematic for your team, and back them if they are doing tie right thing, and counsel them when they re not and help to guide them.

– When discussing challenging questions, take a walk with the team member, sit in front of a computer with them, sit side by side with them when discussing issues and challenges. The biggest benefit of doing this is that it sets you up as peers, and lets the person being counseled know that you do not feel like you are putting yourself above them or that you are dictating to them. By talking in front of a screen, or on a walk, then it’s a totally different dynamic, and much less likely to be seen as contentious.

– Avoid pathetic compliance. If there is a business process that is wasteful, or is unnecessary, or is done as C.Y.A. work “just in case”, get together with the decision makers and discuss why we are doing what we are doing. In extreme cases, be prepared to say “I’m not doing this. It’s a worthless task, and it costs us in time and energy for other testing.” Note, see the section where “do not be afraid to be fired” is listed ;).

– Don’t discourage discussion you might disagree with! This is a big one. If you really aspire to be a leader, then you need to be willing and able to take some lumps, or talk about things that might not be pleasant or fun. More to the point, other members on your team may have a difference of opinion compared to you. Be willing to discuss that from that position, but let them talk, share their views and in the same collegial environment, be willing to share your own views and reasoning. If their views make for the stronger argument, admit it, and be willing to see if what they are saying should be tried.

– Recognize personality mismatches (and the severity thereof). If there is an issue or a clash of personalities or culture, don’t wait and delay to address it. These situations rarely get better over time. Focus on the conflict and try to address them. It’s possible that the other party (or you) may need to modify approach and behavior, or leave the organization and find something else that’s a better fit. Both demonstrate real leadership. Don’t be afraid of either, but use and counsel for each.

– Blame others (when discovered and appropriate). This comes down to being honest, being credible, and standing up for what you know and believe in. If bad behavior or bad decisions have been made, address them. Do not be contentious, but be frank and be direct.

– Offer positive deviance. Great suggestion, and a little clarification might be in order with this comment. If you want to shake up the system, and go against the normal order, be prepared to show examples of what you are doing and why it is good to do it.

There were several talks that I recorded but didn’t actually get to attend. Each of those deserve a bit of time of their own, and will more than likely get their own blog posts in the coming days. As it stands now, I’m back home and getting ready to take my daughters out camping, which means I will be of the grid for the next few days. It’s been seriously fun hanging out with and learning from everyone this past week, but I need to disengage for awhile and recharge. Thanks to all the attendees of TestRetreat, CAST and TestLeaderCamp. It’s been a fun run. Let’s do it again next year :).