Last week, in the so-called „Heads Up“ meeting for my annual 360° performance review for 2018, I was asked to reflect on the things I liked about my current role and work at trivago. I think what still impresses me the most is that we were able to build a successful company around values and team culture, while simultaneously handling the scale from a few hundered to over 1200 employees in only a few years.
trivago‘s purpose, “Empower people to get more out of life“, is lived and breathed by all its employees (or “talents”, as we call them). During the last two years, I‘ve seen Software Engineers moving to our HR team, or people from Country Development moving into a Product role. This kind of job rotation might seem a bit strange or outlandish at first, but it really is about encouraging and supporting talents to leave their comfort zones, if they believe they can contribute more value in another part of the company.
As for myself, I was initially hired as Lead Developer, but only after 6 months, I took on a leadership role that span an entire area of two cross-functional teams of Software Engineers, Data Scientists, Project Managers and Product Managers. Needless to say it was clearly out of of my own comfort zone. I‘ve been leading development teams in the past, but this cross-functional setup was something I‘ve not yet encountered in my former career.
I‘m not going to pretend that everything went perfectly smooth, or that I‘ve found the ideal formula. With every success, there was also something I‘ve screwed up. Leadership is not something they teach you in school or university. But it is definitely something to learn. It is not as straight forward as saying, “Just follow these 10 steps and you will become a successful leader“. It simply does not work this way.
Some people say there are essential leadership skills like Communication, Motivation, or Delegation. In my opinion, those are more high-level concepts to keep in mind and be aware of. The real skill is to take those concepts and create something tangible/actionable out of them that works for you and your team. As you can tell, the outcome of this is most likely rather something very contextual, than a one-size-fits-all solution — which is totally fine, as long as it works for you and you can learn from it.
This is why I‘ve compiled my five biggest learnings as leader of the last two years. Not because I think I can give the perfect advice, but literally because of all the great things I‘ve learned along the way. You don‘t have to agree with everything I‘ve written below. If you want, just pick the things you like and apply them to your own work.
1. Step back and let them shine
It might be appealing to imagine you being the star of the team, because you are literally leading a group of people. But in reality, one the most important aspect of leadership is giving direction. Your purpose is to make your team the star of the game. A boss has people working for them. As leader, you work for your people. It‘s your job to give guidance, and develop and champion them in your organization. If your team is successful, you will stand on the sideline and applaud them while they get all the credit. Given this, your team will gladly take ownership in case something did not go so well. The ultimate goal of leadership is to make yourself obsolete.
2. Be their biggest fan, advisor, and challenger
A common misconception is that a leader should be the most knowledgeable person on the team; the one telling others what to do. I won‘t even pretend that I have more engineering or product knowledge than the members of my team. It‘s a hard thing to accept at first, but you will get used to it. What’s more important is to use your existing knowledge and experience to challenge and advise your team so they can become even better at their jobs. Some people have a strained relationship with being challenged, because they see it as offense to their own expertise. If you‘re facing this situation, you‘re not challenging right and enough. Challenging is not about telling people they‘re doing things wrong, but rather about asking questions to encourage self-reflection, uncovering potential blind spots, and furthering new discussions. Similarly, giving advice is not about giving out orders. A lead‘s best advise sparks new ideas and highly boosts creativity within the team.
3. The strength of vulnerability
A few decades back, being vulnerable or showing vulnerability at work would not bring you anywhere near a management or leadership position. Everyone knows that “real” leaders are fearless and have no weaknesses. That‘s why subordinates would look up to them, right? In my experience the exact opposite is the case. Showing vulnerability as leader is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of courage and strength. Being vulnerable and, in general, being aware of your own weaknesses and emotions is a big part of your own authenticity. For Mike Robbins vulnerability means “Bringing Your Whole Self To Work“, and according to researcher Brené Brown, “vulnerability is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity“. Most importantly, opening up to your team will foster a better, deeper, and more emotional connection.
4. Feedback is key
Giving feedback and (especially) receiving feedback is a tough thing to do. I‘ve learned this the hard way. Everyone likes getting praise for something they‘ve done, but nobody enjoys being criticized for their work, even if it‘s constructive criticism. But, at the end of the day, it‘s the negative (constructive) feedback that will help us the most to be better at our jobs. For the one-on-ones with my team, I‘m now asking them first if they have feedback for me, before I will give feedback to them. If I‘m not „in the pit“ too, ready to get my ass whipped, how would I ever expect them to take my feedback seriously? As for giving feedback, there simply is no silver bullet: Some people prefer written feedback, and some people verbal feedback. Some want feedback as soon and as frequent as possible, while others want it only once a month or every two weeks (depending on the one-on-one schedule). Your job as lead is to evaluate and keep track of what works best for the individuals in your team. But what is good feedback? For me, everything boils down to the simple (not so simple) rule: Make it tangible and actionable by providing examples rather than using unnecessary euphemisms and generalizations.
5. Your guidance, their vision
The last one might be a bit controversial. While most authors and pundits agree that leaders should provide a clear vision to their teams, my take on this is a bit different. Instead of a clear vision, I‘m intentionally providing a more high-level guidance. I rather want my team to develop its own vision, which is then in line with my own guidance. At trivago, we encourage our talents to be independent and have an entrepreneurial mindset. A big part of thinking and acting like an entrepreneur is to take ownership of all aspects of the products and processes you are providing and maintaining. This is and was a big challenge, especially for junior level employees. The biggest learning here was develop and foster decision making by providing enough context and data, rather than to move from giving guidance to giving instructions.
Becoming a good leader is like riding a roller coaster — there are many ups and downs, and even though it might seem a bit scary at first, you will enjoy every part of it.
When I was still developing software a few years ago, most days I had a sense of accomplishment and productivity by simply looking at all the code I‘ve written or shipped. When you become a leader, your overall accomplishments become more long-term, which might be a bit daunting at first. But once you see the positive effects it can have on the people around you, you will realize it‘s absolutely worth your efforts. Developing software is great, but developing people is even better.
Good leadership is not defined by a fixed set of rules or skills — it is defined by the people you are leading. They are your biggest assets and the ones from which you will learn the most.