In praise of the incomplete leader

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to be a complete leader. And that’s ok!!!

Just to be clear, by complete I mean good at everything that a team needs a leader to be good at.

That’s not to say that a leader shouldn’t always strive to be a better leader, but being a better leader doesn’t mean being good at everything. Means understanding weaknesses and having a clear plan to address the weaknesses. This plan can be either some skill development plan or having someone in the team that can address the weakness or, my preferred option, a mix of both.

When I joined Lopes, the biggest real estate company in Brazil that I joined to lead the digital transformation process, one of my first focuses was team structure design. During this process we envisioned a team focused on franchises and brokers. I had a few options as Group Product Manager for this team. I could bring someone from outside of the company, with product management leadership experience. I could bring someone from the product development team, that already know the company and the systems. I could bring someone from the business side.

I decided to go with one of the least obvious options. There was one Lopes leader who was at the company for more than 12 years and had worked in sales operations, was a partner of one of Lopes franchises for a few years, and was now working in franchise management. He was also working on some of the digital initiatives, very hands-on, together with the digital team. He had business experience, leadership experience, Lopes experience, and a lot of interest in digital initiatives, to the point that he worked on these initiatives in addition to his day-to-day job. For this reason, I decided to offer him the opportunity to become the Franchise and Broker Trybe Group Product Manager even though he did not have any formal product management experience. He sort of had some informal experience in the digital initiatives he participated but I could certainly find in the market more experienced product managers leaders. However, this person had the business experience and company experience that would be very beneficial for his role. He then took training on product management and we hired product managers and product designers with experience in product development to join his team. And this was clear to everyone, including the experienced product people joining the team, that they were joining a team where the GPM was very experienced in the business and the company, but not so much on product management, and that we were counting on the more experienced product people to level up the overall team product experience.

Common CTO blindspots

CTO, Chief Technology Officer, and all similar heads of technology and engineering positions are very well-known positions in the tech market. Normally people occupying this position came not only from a technical background but from being a hands-on developer. In tech startups, it is common that the tech founder who wrote the first lines of code of the product becomes the CTO. This person normally knows a lot about technology and writing code but, more often than not, this person has little to no experience in other important areas of leadership that may be needed as the team and the company scale:

  • business: connecting the technology to the business, its objectives, and its customers. A tech leader needs to be able not only to understand this connection but also to explain this connection to the product development team and use this connection as the context for every new step that the team will give. I common way to overcome this is to bring a head of product to the organization that could report to the CTO or be a pair to the CTO reporting to the CEO.
  • people: leadership is all about people. Understanding people, what motivates each person in your team, what are her weaknesses and strengths, and how you can help her improve even more in her strengths while getting better in her weaknesses.
  • process: another common blindspot of CTOs and heads of engineering is process, i.e., the ability to define and track a set of metrics to measure the product development process and then define what needs to be improved. Are we delivering better software? Are we delivering software faster? Are we delivering software aligned with business results? Are we improving in these metrics?

When I joined Gympass there were already 2 very good heads of engineering. We still needed to hire another 2 heads of engineering for our team, so we were actively hiring. When I discussed the candidates’ profiles with the 2 existing heads of engineering, the common feedback I heard was that the candidates were not technical enough. Then I asked them, “but aren’t you quite technical?” They agreed they were quite technical and could provide the needed tech leadership. We then discussed that maybe we should look for other leadership qualities, like people and process leadership to add to our team of leaders. That’s when we started to analyze candidates through this perspective and brought a very good tech people leader and a very good process leader to join our leadership team.

My weak spot

I’ve had the opportunity to lead amazing product development teams. From my own startup back in the 1990s to Locaweb, Conta Azul, Gympass, and, most recently, Lopes digital transformation. Even though I have some technical background and used to write code at the beginning of my career, the more I entered into leadership and product management the more distant I got from the technical details of the products built by the teams I led, and that’s my weak spot. I cannot help much when conversations go too technical. Fortunately, I always had very good technical people in my teams taking care of the technical aspects and I could focus my energy where I’m a bit better, such as helping people evolve, setting and communicating vision and strategy, organizing team structure, and defining processes.

It is very important that a leader and her team know what are her weak spots and her strengths so she can build a team with people that can help her and the entire team in all aspects of product development including the ones that are her weak spots. Weak spots should not be hidden. They must be known by everyone in the team so they can properly deal with them.

Summary

  • It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to be a complete leader. And that’s ok!!! Just to be clear, by complete I mean good at everything that a team needs a leader to be good at.
  • A leader should always strive to be a better leader, but being a better leader doesn’t mean being good at everything. Means understanding weaknesses and having a clear plan to address the weaknesses. This plan can be either some skill development plan or having someone in the team that can address the weakness or, my preferred option, a mix of both.
  • Heads of engineering normally came from a strong technical background and may lack some other important leadership skills such as business, people, and process. It’s important to map these possible blindspots and design plans to address them.
  • I’ve had the opportunity to lead amazing product development teams. My own startup, Locaweb, Conta Azul, Gympass, and Lopes. Even though I have some technical background and used to write code at the beginning of my career, the more I entered into leadership and product management the more distant I got from the technical details of the products built by the teams I led, and that’s my weak spot.
  • It is very important that a leader and her team know what are her weak spots and her strengths so she can build a team with people that can help her and the entire team in all aspects of product development including the ones that are her weak spots. Weak spots should not be hidden. They must be known by everyone in the team so they can properly deal with them.

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