Our Ask the Coach series shares perspectives from experienced coaches and consultants working to build strong leaders, teams and organizations. This week we’re sharing our conversation with Sam McAfee, senior coach and founder of Startup Patterns. Learn more about Sam’s work and services by connecting with him.
RB: How would you describe the work you do?
SM: I have worked in tech for over 20 years. Startup Patterns is a coaching practice that I started to help Agile teams, tech leaders, and startup founders.
Several years ago, I helped to develop a structured framework that combines the best practices of Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile development into one seamless approach, and I have been applying that framework to a wide range of clients ever since. We have thus traditionally worked with Product and Engineering executives and their teams to help them develop and ship new digital products from ideas to product-market fit and beyond.
In recent years we have broadened our focus to include larger, more organization-wide challenges of leadership development, strategy, and growth, and even conflict management and personnel issues. I am the senior coach at Startup Patterns, but I work with several excellent colleagues with different specialties, such as branding and content strategy, or relationship and conflict management.
RB: We're in a pretty unusual time right now. We had a lot to adjust to going into the pandemic and it's the same now on the other side as we begin to emerge. What do you see as the most challenging work-related adjustment for folks right now and in the coming months?
SM: One challenge area will be integrating the new COVID changes to work culture, policy, etc. with some strong pushes from certain leadership to just go back to “normal.” The work world has changed and the best leaders are working hard to keep the good work that came from the rapid change cycle needed during the pandemic.
RB: One area where there’s clearly been a lot of spirited debate is on-site versus remote employment. Do you have a strong opinion?
SM: Prior to the pandemic, I’d been a very strong advocate of co-location, especially for product teams that have to work collaboratively day-in, day-out. I was downright skeptical that remote work could be as effective. The pandemic really put that theory to the test, and I think the results have clearly been mixed at best. On the one hand, I do believe that executives have learned that not every type of work needs on-site infrastructure, that employees can be effective working from home, and that (hopefully) workers do not require monitoring as extensively as may have been believed.
On the other hand, I have seen few teams produce outcomes as brilliantly working remotely as had been the case when they could gather in a conference room at will, or go out together for drinks after work. Knowledge work requires a high degree of trust, and that trust is hard to reinforce from a distance. The companies that have not been thoughtful about their remote work situations from a relationships and trust perspective have indeed suffered from the pandemic.
RB: What are the most common leadership challenges you’re seeing right now among your clients and colleagues?
SM: There have been a lot of reorganization efforts at companies, so managing up to new or current executives has been coming up a lot. It’s probably the most common request I get, how do I manage up to senior leaders?
Also, many of the people I work with have moved to new positions so building relationships and influence in a new company, especially coming out of a pandemic, requires a lot of thought and attention.
With teams, I’m also seeing the ramifications of lack of consistent management and culture affecting people’s ability to perform at their highest capacity and get the support they need. This leads to individual and team insecurity and chaos. We all need to take a step back and focus on the people we work with and how we can best support them.
RB: I know you have a special interest in supporting tech leaders as they give up micromanaging tendencies and enable their teams to have more autonomy. What advice do you have for leaders who know they need to delegate more, but have a really hard time doing it?
SM: It starts with empathy. The best leaders build empathy within their teams by learning how to listen to their teammates and by asking the right questions versus just answering questions. Leaders need to build trust with their teammates so that both they and their subordinates can trust that each of them will do their job and ask for support when necessary.
Next, you need to get out of your people’s way. Good leaders empower their people to think instead of just do. It doesn’t help anyone in the long run if your people are just doing what you tell them to do. It’s not sustainable, scalable or effective. Micromanaging takes away your team’s power to be flexible and adapt to changing situations because they are forced to escalate every challenge to the manager for approval. When instead, the leader gives their teammates the authority to make decisions and think critically without needing to get a pat on the head for following directions, you’re moving in the right direction.
Tech folks who are just moving into leadership roles are often staggered by the reality of how much of their job is just communication. Well-crafted emails, public speaking, conflict resolution, translation of complexity into simple to understand bites. That is the job for a tech leader, and it’s very different from writing code.
RB: And what do you think is behind that psychology of struggling to let go of control as a manager?
SM: There are a few factors. The biggest, I think, is just fear. We live in a work culture (at least here in North America) where the stakes for failure feel very high. There has not been, until quite recently, the idea of psychological safety or a growth mindset, in corporate culture. Many leaders feel like they live or die on the success of their projects. That leads them to feel intense pressure to try to control the outcomes. Of course, such control is only an illusion since the real business outcomes for today’s companies are non-deterministic and dependent on a huge array of variables. But, paradoxically, facing that uncertainty, the average leader will just fall back on the ineffective but familiar behavior of trying to control everything.
I think the second big factor is that the Taylorist model we inherited from the industrial revolution fails to see colleagues as people. Indeed, how often have you heard employees referred to as “resources”? That kind of says it all. The industrial models of the last century went a long way towards dehumanizing our view of our fellow coworkers, treating them as interchangeable cogs in a machine or numbers on a spreadsheet.
The biggest benefit from the digital revolution we’re now currently living through is that it has shown that successful product development is built through teams of people, respecting each other, sharing ideas, and being creative, open, and honest with each other. Those ideas are diametrically opposed to Taylor and Gantt thinking from the industrial age. And I say good riddance to that stuff.
So, for leaders to really be able to let go of control in the way that will produce the best outcomes, they need to reconnect with their people in a real and authentic way, provide them with the support they need, and then let them do their creative jobs without micromanaging.
RB: What about individual contributors. What can I do as an individual if I want my manager to give me more autonomy?
SM: It’s easier for me to say this than for you to do it. But the truth is, take it. Use your initiative, and think of ways to add value to your enterprise that are creative. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to wait for permission. Of course, don’t do anything that gets you fired or puts you in jail. But I think we have a false sense of how constrained we are in organizations. There is usually some way to find autonomy that you’re simply not looking for.
Also, I would talk directly to your manager about what your goals are and why autonomy is important. You may be surprised that they have been waiting for you to take some initiative. Don’t expect to be given the keys to the castle on day one. Autonomy must be earned. But surely you can find small experiments in autonomy that you can run with your manager in order to show how responsible you can be.
And if you’re really running into a brick wall at your company, take a hard look at that. Maybe the company values aren’t in line with yours. There are certainly many other organizations out there who would love to have more people taking initiative and thinking creatively. Go talk to them about what roles they may have open.
RB: Are you seeing any new opportunities or ideas in your field that excite you?
SM: What I am most excited about is the subtle merging of mindfulness, health, and wellness into product development and engineering methodologies. Five years ago I was fighting with tech conference organizers to add a track on culture and leadership. Now, we’re getting to a point where human-centric thinking is becoming more central to the discussion about how to create effective Agile organizations or startup companies. And I love it.
In particular, I am a big proponent of mindfulness and meditation, with this new emerging renaissance in neuroscience and psychology fields being applied to work situations. The research in the relationship between mental and physical health and well-being of the individual and the correspondent business success of the organization are becoming more and more irrefutable. That’s really exciting to me.