Confidence – The Basis Of A Strong Leadership

Confidence is half the success. I’m making this statement based on the years of working with manager and potential managers, with leaders and potential leaders. Aside of the technical skills or the soft skills needed to do managerial jobs it is also about attitude. And part of the right attitude is confidence in one’s own abilities. Only by being confident in yourself you can inspire confidence in others. If you look unsure, indecisive, and lost you can imagine how difficult it is for others to trust your judgment and follow you. At the same time if you only try to act like you have a confidence then others will see right through you. You actually need to gradually build the confidence to be a good leader.

Admit it

It all starts with an inventory of your current skills and your state of mind. Admitting that you are not sure if you can do the job is always a good first step as it gives you a chance to identify the gaps and work on them. Ask others for feedback and then get some quiet time to sit down and think. Where is the lack of confidence coming from? Is it just from the fact that you are thrust into a new role that you’ve never done before? Or is it that you are genuinely lack some skills to get the job done?

If it is not that much about skills, for example you have already done it only on smaller scale, it is about mindset. This is a good news bad news situation. The good news is that you can change your mindset. The bad news is that only you can change your mindset. There is very little other people around you can do to help you out. You can get some encouragement from your boss or coworkers, but that’s it. The actual work is up to you. I would even argue that too much encouragement from people around you may even stifle your ability to build self-confidence as you will be constantly reminded that others probably believe you need encouragement as you are not confident enough.

Build it

So how do you build a self-confidence to do your job? Step by step. It all starts with some small wins, with some familiar ground and gradually building on top of it. For this to work you need the ability to see the small wins and forget the big stuff for a while. As I wrote in Positive Approach To Life you need to keep positive and optimistic by seeing the things you can do already today. The things you are good at, see the small wins and don’t be afraid to recognize your own achievements and impact you had on creating these small wins.

I have never tried it but one of the people in my team was trying to keep a diary for some time writing down some of the small wins or issues he had to tackle on daily basis. He used online OhLife tool that will send you everyday a random note you made to yourself in the past. Suddenly he realized that some of the issues he needs to deal with today are repeating themselves, but some of them also don’t look like issues anymore. It is a great way how to realize what have you achieved in the last couple of months and how far have you progressed. It helps you to realize that you are much more experienced than you were several months ago and that will give you lots of confidence.

And if the reason why you lack confidence is your believe that you are not good enough, you lack a formal training, or you lack some technical skills? Well, just get out of your office and get these! Yes, it will take some effort but if you believe you need formal education to do your job then you should put in the hours and get the training. If you feel you need more practice, then just go out and practice. For example, I never was a particularly confident public speaker. At some point I felt that it is really preventing me from having a bigger impact on my organization and what I felt I really needed was some practice to build a self-confidence when being in front of large groups. I knew the theory from my past presentation skills training but lack of practice caused serious confidence issues. So I joined Toastmasters and pushed myself to be very active there. Regularly speaking on Toastmasters meetings helped me to build the confidence I needed.

Big part of building a confidence is a simple preparation. If you are nervous and don’t know whether you can do something just make sure you spend as much time as needed in preparation. You will still not have the assurance everything will be fine but you will at least have a feeling that you are as well prepared as humanly possible and that will give you at least some small piece of confidence to start with. One technique you may also consider is to look back into your past. Were you born with ability to ride a bike, drive a car, use a computer, or read and write? And now look at yourself today. You can do all these things and you are very confident doing them. Simple. You can achieve some amazing things if you put your mind on it.

Show it

Being confident means not just knowing how to do stuff or deal with a specific situation it also means stepping up and leading the way. Even if you are not totally confident in your ability to do something just showing the courage will get you a long way. Yes, there is a small part of pretension in this. You could say that you are faking it and actually you are. It is just a question how much out there it really is. As long as you keep this in check and are willing to admit that you are new to the job, others will accept it and try to help you. And again, with every success, even a small one you continue to build more and more confidence so at some point you stop thinking about it and you are an adult, self-confident professional who doesn’t need to think about this anymore as building confidence to do new things will become part of your nature.

There is just one danger you need to keep in mind. Some people have troubles distinguishing between confidence and arrogance. There is a danger that when you try really hard acting like a confident person and ignoring good advice coming from people around you they will see you as an arrogant fool who has no idea what he is doing it. That is the easiest way how to damage not just your image and reputation but once you realize it also your self-confidence.

Twitter type summary: “Confidence is the cornerstone of a great leadership and consciously building it is the best investment of your time.”

How confident are you and how did you get the confidence to do your job? What do you advice to people who are good but lack the self-confidence to use their whole potential?

Introverts: Who Are They?

We are all different. There is nothing strange on the fact that each of us sees the world in a different way, acts differently and interacts with others in a unique manner. And still, in the years as a manager I have consistently seen that there is this notion of “the one correct way” how a leader should act. Too many times I have been involved in a discussion whether someone is “a leadership material” and too many times the answers where “no, because he is too quiet on meetings” or “no, he needs to speak up more”. There is this ideal of a perfect leader as seen in the western society: outgoing, outspoken, overconfident, overoptimistic, always stepping up, always talking and always being the first everywhere. In simple terms a heavily extroverted person.

Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that this type of person can easily lead other people like him because that is the sort of people he understands. It would sound great, except that this type of person has usually troubles with listening to others. And it would sound great, except for the fact that there are (depending on research) somewhere between 30% – 50% of introverts in the common population. For the full disclosure, I consider myself pretty introverted person, at best an ambivert, if some tests are to be believed. Even with that “fault” I built and led global teams in several companies and countries. And it is not just me. Look around you and you will see that there are many introverted leaders. For example, does the name Bill Gates ring a bell? If you ask what prompted me to think a bit about how and why I got where I’m and why and how I lead people, I just finished reading a great book Quiet by Susan Cain. This book resonated strongly with me and triggered a series of articles I’m about to write in coming weeks and months describing my own experience.

Introverts x Extroverts

Let us start with answering a basic question. Who is a typical introvert and extrovert and why should you care? I don’t like generalizations but since the introversion and extroversion are terms described by scientists let’s revert to them. The terms were originally coined by Carl Jung and the definitions below are taken from Wikipedia.

Extraversion is the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self. Extraverts tend to enjoy human interactions and to be enthusiastic, talkative, assertive, and gregarious. Extraverts are energized and thrive off of being around other people. They take pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or political groups. An extraverted person is likely to enjoy time spent with people and find less reward in time spent alone.

Introversion is “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life. The common modern perception is that introverts tend to be more reserved and less outspoken in groups. They often take pleasure in solitary activities such as reading, writing, or using computers. An introvert is likely to enjoy time spent alone and find less reward in time spent with large groups of people, though he or she may enjoy interactions with close friends. They prefer to concentrate on a single activity at a time and like to observe situations before they participate. They are more analytical before speaking. Introverts are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation from social gatherings and engagement.

To complete the record these traits are not so black and white. Introversion and extroversion is a continuum and many people sit close to the middle (so called ambiverts). In fact if someone was a hundred per cent introverted or extroverted he or she would probably end up in asylum for insane.

And why should you care? If you are a leader, chances are you have a team mixed of both personality types. The knowledge of how each of the types interacts with the world, what motivates them, what makes them happy and what they don’t like can help you to use the right strategy and be more successful at leading them. And yes, I mentioned it at the beginning, each of us is different so not everything applies across the board.

No mind-reading please

The single most important mantra you should follow when leading anyone is to “listen and don’t interpret”. Don’t try to read minds of other people around you and you will save yourself lots of misunderstandings. If you are extroverted person working with another extrovert with similar educational and cultural background you can probably guess why he or she reacts in a certain way because that is how you would act. However, the moment you start working with someone significantly different (being it different culture or different personality type) chances are you will misinterpret the behavior.

For example imagine this situation. You are having lunch with a friend and after couple of minutes talking there is suddenly a silence. And you may think “oh, this is awkward.” You feel that the other person must feel the same and you are compelled to say something. Well, chances are that your introverted friend didn’t find the silence awkward at all and in fact may even enjoy it for a while as small-talk may not be his most popular thing to do.

The lesson learned is that you should always listen and look for clues, and you should never try to interpret what they mean. If you see some behavior you don’t understand and you really believe that it means something then just ask for clarification. Describe what you see and ask whether your interpretation is correct.

Twitter type summary: “When developing and leading people always make sure you consider even introverts for highly visible leadership roles.”

Are you introverted yourself? Or do you interact with people who are on the quiet side? What are your thoughts on introversion versus extroversion?

It Is Personal, Even When It Shouldn’t Be

It’s all about appearances. If you work hard and focus on your tasks and your tasks only in the hopes your superior will recognize the achievements and helps you to the next level you are mistaken. At least most of the time. There certainly are great managers and leaders who recognize the potential in their subordinates and provide the opportunities where the employee can prove they can do the job but most of the time you need to be a bit more pro-active if you want to get to the next level. And when you have a remote manager who doesn’t see what you are doing every single day then this applies even more. So what do you do to make sure your boss recognizes your contributions and helps you to the next level?

Image matters

Doing a great job is important but it is not enough. You may be the best software developer or tester in the world but if no one knows about your work then no one can recognize your achievements and appreciate of what you are doing. A bit of self-promotion never hurts if done carefully. In fact, in some cultures it might be even expected. And if you feel like you don’t want to promote yourself you may ask your team mates or informal leaders to help you out here. Some managers even have the habit to finish their team meetings by giving kudos to team members who achieved something significant and also asking anyone from the team to speak up if they want to recognize some of their colleagues.

Being honest with yourself

Are you sure that the way you see yourself is also the way how others see you? Are you sure that the work you did is really that significant and worth recognition and promotion? Are you sure that you understand what shortcomings are holding you back? Most of us tend to overestimate our own achievements and contributions and marginalize the achievements of others. And as I wrote in Human Brain, The Biggest Liar Of All Times our memory doesn’t really help here. So before you start complaining that you were once again skipped for promotion be honest with yourself and look deep down into your inner self whether the problem is outside of you or whether it is something internal you should work on.

Getting feedback

The best way to learn how others see you is to get feedback. How to do that? There are tons of different ways starting with anonymous surveys and ending with actually talking to people and asking them for their honest opinion. The important aspect is to pick the right people you ask. It should be people that have at least one of these qualities: you respect their opinion; they have been in your shoes; they genuinely want to help you; they know you; they know your work; they are very different from you; they are your bosses, peers, subordinates and saw you in action; they have nothing to lose by being honest with you. And if you still don’t know how to do it you can always ask for help either your HR department or some close friend who will be able to gather the feedback for you and then will be brutally honest with you.

Having a mentor

When you know what your strengths and weaknesses are then get a mentor. Find someone who you respect for the particular skill you want to build and ask him for help. Most of us are happy helping others and sharing our experiences and wisdom. You may ask your HR department to help out, you may ask your boss or you may just actively seek someone by yourself. And depending on what skill you want to build you may look even outside of your company. When you ask HR department then ask for several options. The worst thing that could happen is that you get an official mentor that you don’t respect or where there is no chemistry or enthusiasm. Such a mentoring would be waste of time of both of you. If you find a mentor within your company and ideally also somewhere up the ladder it may help you tremendously as he or she may not only teach you a trick or two but may become your advocate and share your accomplishments with the rest of the management team. And that usually means higher visibility and more opportunities.

Building alliances

Don’t leave all the work to others. Regardless your position in the company you should always do all your best to help others. Make it a point of knowing people not just from your department but also from other groups, make it a point of greeting everyone in the company, be positive and willing to help out others even when there is no immediate reward. Give credit to others and do your best to promote the good job done by others. Why? This is the way to build alliances. This is the way to truly understand the business, to expand your horizons, to get your name out there. Next time there is a discussion about who should lead a cross departmental project, guess who will be on top of everyone’s mind.

Getting back on your feet

And what if for whatever reasons your reputation took a hit? We all make mistakes, and do or say things we would rather take back. Just don’t get too much attached to your mistakes. Get up, dust yourself off and forget that it ever happened. Others will forget in time too. And what if even after a long period of time and numerous successes there is still a shadow of that past mistake lingering above you? You have two options. First, confront whoever still holds the grudge with the new reality and ask what more you can do to show that you have learned from your mistake. Second, consider whether it is really worth your effort to try to prove that you changed to someone who doesn’t want to see it and possibly leave for a team or organization that is more open minded.

Twitter type summary: “You might be the best of the best at your job, but if no one knows then no one will recognize your achievements.”

What are your thoughts on hard work and recognition? How do you ensure that you understand who the best people on your team are even when they work remotely?

No Surprises Please!

Surprise – the arch enemy of good management. If there is a single thing that shows bad management it is when the manager gets surprised. Has it ever happened to you that you were surprised by feedback from someone on the team? Has it ever happened to you that you were surprised that someone on your team quit? Or that the project is delayed? Or that competitor introduced a new product way better than yours? What went wrong? Why were you caught by surprise?

Not understanding the risks

One of the most common reasons why you get surprised is not understanding and not tracking the risks. In project management one of the basic tasks of a project manager is to constantly track and evaluate risks, both internal and external to the project. On a regular basis you should sit down and consider all the risks, their severity and probability of occurrence. Based on this analysis you can then devise mitigation strategies to lower the chance of these risks materializing or at least limiting their impact.

The same goes to people management. If you are surprised by feedback you are getting from your team or by someone on your team quitting it means that the communication between you and the team is broken. It means that you were not able to create environment where people are open and trust you. The way out of this is to gradually build trust by trusting your team, and by providing regular feedback and getting one. It is also important to have a contingency plan. This means removing single point of failure situations so even when there is a surprise in the form of key person either leaving or suddenly underperforming you have someone else who can easily step in. You can read more on this in How To Avoid “Single Point Of Failure” Situations In Your Team? post.

Not communicating with stakeholders

Sometimes people know about the problems but don’t realize that you are the one who also needs to know. You then get surprised by something that everyone else actually knew about. This usually happens when people responsible for the project don’t know who all the stakeholders are and who should be informed about potential risks and issues. To remedy this we need to get back to open and honest communication and especially to setting up the right expectations.

If this is the situation you find yourself in the last thing you want to do is to blame others for not telling you. Most likely it is completely your fault and again one that is easy to solve in the future. If you want to get some pointers check this post One Question You Should Never Ask.

Being afraid of negative consequences

If the project gets delayed chances are that someone on the team knew about it but was afraid to speak up. It is never good to be the bearer of bad news especially if there are some past instances of people being punished for it. For many people it is better to risk the future wrath of their manager than the wrath that can happen today if they speak up. The thought is that something may happen to fix the problem or there can be other problems, bigger problems that will hide the issue they see.

If this happens in your team you have a serious problem as it points to a really toxic culture where open communication is being punished, people are afraid to take risks and mistakes are not being forgiven or forgotten. It is also more likely that you will not learn about issues until it is too late or until there is someone to blame. What to do in such environment? There is no easy fix. You need to change the whole culture of the company or the team and that means significant changes in the way you behave and most likely significant changes in the management to get some fresh wind on board.

Having over-optimistic expectations

This is essentially underestimating the impact the external environment can have on the project. It might be that you forgot to consider a holiday or flu season coming. You may have underestimated the time your partner organization needs to deliver their piece that is key for your team to finish the work. Or you may have underestimated changing needs of your stakeholders.

External factors are always difficult to predict and usually impossible to influence. To be able to deal with issues coming from outside you need to go back to your list of potential risks and mitigation strategies. If there is some external influence that has a high probability of occurrence but at the same time you don’t have means of mitigating it then you need to have a way how to remove it completely when the time comes. As the saying goes “If you don’t have a plan B, you don’t have a plan at all.”

Playing a super hero

This point is about overestimating the abilities of your own or of your team. Managing software development projects for years I learned one basic truth: software developers are chronically over optimistic about estimating effort needed to develop new features in the product. Even when they start to feel that things will take longer they will do their best to still manage it rather than admitting there will be a delay. They believe in their own skills and abilities to catch up and deliver what was promised.

Unfortunately, this often leads to situations that you learn about delays at the day when the feature or the product was supposed to be finished. What to do with such situations? Couple of steps pop up in mind. First, you need to spend time and effort on educating your team about how to properly estimate the effort to get something done and build environment where people are willing to raise their hand at the first sign of issues and ask for help. You also need a good way to track the project and that usually means regular review of the progress. To be able to track where the project is you need to split it into manageable pieces. If there is hundred hours for a particular feature it may be difficult to track and you may learn that it will take double the time only after spending ninety hours on it. If you divide it into ten smaller features each taking ten hours you will discover issues maybe already after ten hours spent as the first smaller piece will not be delivered at time. If you want to know more about how to manage projects in this piece by piece way consider learning more about agile methodologies like SCRUM.

Twitter type summary: “A good manager should never get surprised by anything as it points to a failure of understanding risks, miscommunication or broken trust.”

What are your tips & tricks on how to deal with surprises? Are there some situation when you believe surprises are good for business?