At Automattic, I’m a team lead in charge of wrangling cats other Humans. I’m naturally a “fixer” and “doer” so this role isn’t completely outside my comfort zone. Recently, I crossed the 2 years of being a team lead and it’s created a strange crisis of “what do I want to do now?”. Fair warning: I haven’t figured this out in the slightest and this post doesn’t get me any closer 🙂 It’s not meant to though so don’t worry.

I don’t want to be needed or necessary for a person, a project, a team, a division, etc. to succeed. Perhaps at the beginning, I’m needed to do the hard work to get an idea going. Perhaps at a crucial point, I’m needed to give my take and advice. With that said, I’m realizing that the times I feel most successful is when something I started working on morphs into other people’s roles until my work in it becomes a mere memory. Others are fighting the good fight and the work gains momentum it didn’t have before. If I do my job right in sharing knowledge along the way and creating a structure/process for the work, I find this outcome to be quite reachable.

I test how needed I am by taking full weeks off a few times a year. It’s grand – I get a break AND the areas I may not realize I’m still needed in come to the surface. When this comes to leading people, I find this involves teaching others how I got to a solution rather than giving the solution. Working remotely aids in this as my team has a 17 hour spread and I am often not online when my team is. As a result, I teach them how to find and think about answers. When I’m gone, they apply that knowledge to brainstorm, troubleshoot, find the right person to talk to, etc.

Each month I do reviews of everyone’s work and write recaps for HR. It’s one of my favorite and most time consuming things I do each month. It takes nearly a full day to do. Every time I do this though, I always uncover work that folks on my team have done that I wasn’t full aware of. Someone buddied a rotation… another owned testing a really difficult bug… yet another wrote an amazing post wrangling together work of multiple teams. I’ll never know what everyone is doing and I don’t want to – that’s micromanaging :). What I do love is catching people in the act of doing the right thing and being in line with the Automattic creed with ZERO input from me. That is success to me as a lead as it shows me they don’t need me in order to thrive here. It’s what I aim for these days.

After on-boarding numerous people I find the conversations I have go from starting with “Can I? Should I?” about our work to conversations around how to approach work and projects mainly with them asking me for a second set of eyes on something they have already started. It’s so damn cool.

Being needed feels good in the short term. You feel important. You feel relevant. Long term, it’s dangerous. I had a therapist tell me once as I was ranting about a problem my friend was having and how I wanted to fix it: “If you fix that problem for her, you are stealing an opportunity from her to learn and grow.” I didn’t understand it at first and, of course, there are grey areas to this statement. She’s right though. As a lead, I’m presented with numerous opportunities to jump in and “just fix it”. Doing so, robs people of a chance to learn and to grow. One of my favorite things to do now when someone comes to me with a complex problem is to say “Want to go through this together?”. When I first started at Automattic, I would have just taken on whatever it was and robbed someone of a chance to get outside their comfort zone. Now I show them the path and let them walk it – I don’t carry them.

What opportunities are you robbing from other people? This is something I still struggle with at times but am repeatedly surprised by what happens when you give people the chance to grow and you stop hand holding or propping someone up. There are now numerous parts of Automattic that I had my hands in when it started that run with zero involvement from me. It’s a wonderful feeling even if it’s not the kind of success thrown in our faces in today’s world.

3 comments

  1. This is a great post. Something I’ve been thinking about lately along these lines is that everyone really _wants_ to feel needed — and not just needed, but irreplaceable. People want to feel necessary to their teams and jobs, that they bring something to the table that no one else could bring. I think that’s why people naturally attempt to “own” certain areas and define themselves by expertise. How do we as leads help people to earn the type of personal recognition that makes them feel important and irreplaceable, while still guarding against silos?

    1. > How do we as leads help people to earn the type of personal recognition that makes them feel important and irreplaceable, while still guarding against silos?

      I try to do this by reframing success. Success isn’t championing a project and being the only expert. Success is teaching others, documenting what you are doing, leaving a legacy, getting other people excited about your work, etc. I find it actually lessens stress and excites folks to see others take on the work they are doing! It’s the same reaction I have. It’s just a different kind of accomplishment. For example, having your legacy being one of “you did the hard work of paving a path behind you so others could follow” vs “you hacked a path deep into the woods and no one knows how to find you or get to where you are”. You can be an expert in both situations and sometimes both are needed but I try to focus on the former in developing folks 🙂 Don’t be a bandaid!

      I also think the tricky part is when there isn’t excitement around a certain area. It becomes harder to pass off that expertise. I frankly felt this with D&I at first. That’s where it seems it’s even more important to double down on leaving resources, finding new creative ways to engage people, and lowering the barrier to entry. This takes more time and may limit short term success but again paves the way long term.

      It’s up to us as leads to identify potential silos and to prevent them. This is honestly how hives started in JPOP actually. Merging groups of folks with enough overlapping passions and identifying that they should work together to be better and to create a legacy.

  2. ….. more of a ramble… it’s a different kind of irreplaceable. You move from the person pushing the project uphill to being the expert who is brought in for advice in tricky situation (as I talked about in the post). I can’t tell you how awesome this has been with D&I at automattic. I have moved from having to push all the things to now being brought in with folks asking for advice on a project, idea, etc. It’s a different kind of expert. You aren’t the sole owner but you are the institutional knowledge behind it.

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