Web Reliability

20. The quiet, low friction leader

Mitchell Kimbrough
Written September 5, 2019 by
Mitchell Kimbrough

Good leadership and ego do not go together. Those who crave recognition and those who believe their opinion is the most important one of all will always ultimately fail. In the desire to always be right, the ego destroys relationships, communication, and business success. The best leaders are always more concerned about the needs and accomplishments of their team than with themselves.

This last (and most successful) chapter in the life of my company has been led by two people who exemplify this good leadership trait. These two leaders, one who runs the software side of the company and one who runs the client services side of the company, have a way of flying quietly under the radar - stealth management. This is to their credit.

When she first joined our team I would often ask Janet, the leader of the client side of my company, what exactly she had done in a given week. Because I couldn’t see what she was doing, and couldn’t quantify what was happening, I was very nervous. As the weeks went by, all I could see was that things were extremely quiet, even peaceful. I will confess that at this point, I hadn’t matured as a leader myself, and I found this extremely unnerving and thought this was a bad sign. Nothing was happening! I would ask her, "Are you actually working? What are you doing all day? Why am I paying you?" And she would keep her calm and tactfully answer, "Try not to be alarmed by the quiet. It’s one way you can tell I am actually doing my job well! Did you notice there aren’t any more big blow-ups? And there’s a lot less stress and complaining. The team members aren’t calling you asking for help. When I am doing my job right we’re not reacting to crisis after crisis. Things just hum along nice and steady, day after day, and the work gets done."

It took some time to come around to see the wisdom of this, but Janet was manifesting the ideal approach to management; keeping the path clear and staying out of the way. In other words, she knew that her job was to optimize flow by reducing friction.

On the software side of the company, the story was the same. I would often ask Kelsey why things were so quiet. He would tell me that things were quiet because they were running smoothly. And they were running that way because he had been enabled and supported in recruiting and cultivating talent that was service-driven and annoyed by friction. When I got out of Kelsey's way and empowered him to engage a team that was properly motivated and freed from work friction, what resulted was the excellence of the product, the excellence of customer support, and ultimately increased profits. So when Kelsey is quiet, I now know that things are flowing smoothly and lots of great software is getting built.

Every team needs to have some type of project management structure. There are a surprising variety of effective approaches to choose from. But in my view, no approach is valid if it is getting in the way. The biggest common factor in management style and how Kelsey and Janet stay out of the way is by setting clear expectations from the beginning. This means a commitment to thoughtful planning.

Aristotle said, "Well begun is half done." In our team's experience, leadership focused on reducing friction is the very best form of leadership. The only way to do this is to invest completely in the planning process. The goals and process must be crystal clear. Team members’ roles and responsibilities must be defined. The correct resources must be allocated. Clarity of mission and priorities must be established. Communication channels must be established. Only then is the project set in motion. And then the leader steps out of the way.

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