July 23rd, 2020


what did I learn from my first leadership position?

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting on a (virtual) panel and representing my organization. The audience was our summer interns, and they could ask us questions. One engineer asked how we got into leadership, and I took that question, talked about networking and stopping points and approaching a former boss to let him know I'd be interested, and I became a group lead.

Then he asked, "What did you learn from that first role?"

What an interesting question. I was kind of stumped. It was eight years ago or something. To be honest, I gave some non-answer about the importance of thinking on my feet or being confident or developing people, I don't know.

Then five hours later the answer hit me. So I'm blogging about it to collect my thoughts. I'll probably never get this question again, but maybe I can tie it into something related. LJ is very helpful for that.

Before I had employees working for me I was an "individual contributor" for many years, and good at it. I was a self-motivated young engineer, I'd get crazy ideas and my bosses would just shrug and let me try anything. I remember one boss let me work with a whole other organization to complete this application idea I had. Later on when it was working great, he told me "You know, I thought they'd tell you no, I didn't think this would happen. But I also thought you're so new and naive you didn't KNOW they'd tell you no, so I should just let you go ahead and learn for yourself. And they said yes? Go figure, guess I was wrong!"

When I was promoted, I still came up with crazy ideas... but the vibe was different. Suddenly I didn't know if my team was using my tools and processes because they were good, or because I was the boss. They were less likely to collaborate on them, so the end products weren't as interesting. I didn't feel the buy-in. With this new found power that came with my position, I'd lost the ability to just throw out spaghetti to see what would stick. The stakes were higher. I found myself working to get other people to "own" projects, that I would support from behind the scenes. Anything I came up with was now a directive, not a fun grassroots idea. I'd given that up.

There is notoriety from coming from the grassroots. There is brilliance in the honesty that you get as a non-leader. It makes you powerful. And that's really what I learned. I learned it at work, and I learned at volunteer gigs. There were non-profits where I transitioned from being a member to being the president. Suddenly I wasn't someone impartial and exciting, I was The President, saddled with all the baggage and criticism and pressure to be everything to everybody.

I never knew how much power I had as an individual contributor.

I didn't learn about that until I was a leader.