The books that have shaped my leadership journey
“Which training courses do you recommend?”
In the course of my career as consultant delivery manager, mentor, agile coach, and now Director of Delivery at KrakenFlex, I'm often asked which training courses I recommend to those starting out in the field of software delivery.
While formal training can undoubtedly be useful, particularly in introducing people new to the field to core principles and terminology, I've maintained a healthy scepticism of expensive courses that can leave participants focussed on specific methodologies (e.g. ‘scrum master’ certifications) and practices (e.g. standups, sprint planning) rather than imparting a deep understanding of the core principles.
Furthermore, as I've progressed on my leadership journey I've increasingly come to realise the value of self awareness, self management, and interpersonal skills in fast-moving organisations far above any technical capability skills in the agile and lean space.
Each stage of my leadership journey could be mapped to the development of three different sets of skills and techniques:
● Self awareness & self-management
● Effective interpersonal communications
● Leading teams & multiplying impact
The great news is that these personal and interpersonal skills can be learned, just as any other technical skills can be. One of the best ways to do this is by observing experts in action, and I've been lucky to have worked with and been mentored by many fantastic people along the way. However, you don't have to work with experts, or go on expensive training courses to learn them. These experiences have also been put to paper by some fantastic authors. I wanted to share some of my favourites, and some of the stories from my leadership journey where they particularly influenced me.
Self Awareness and Self-Management
‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen R Covey
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
If you're anything like me, as a child you went through many different ideas of jobs you wanted to do - I recall oscillating between astronaut and teacher for a while! For me, this meandering continued into my early career. I started with a passion for the public sector, working in the government vertical of a technology consultancy. At the same time, outside of work, I was a director of a charity investing in educational resources for schools in East Africa, with a passion for the potential of technology to drive educational outcomes in developing nations. A subsequent move to ThoughtWorks - a technology consultancy with social justice as a core principle - set me up for my most recent move to KrakenFlex and Octopus Energy Group - a chance to work in an organisation at the centre of tackling the climate crisis.
The first thing covered in ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ is the idea of reflecting on your personal vision. What do you want to be known for in your work life? How about in your family life or community?
Like so many things, it's only with hindsight that I'm able to reflect and connect the dots behind each of these ideas and realise that my personal mission is centred around making a difference through people. Over the years the domain I've focused on changed from the public sector, to charity work, to the climate crisis, but the common thread is leaving the world in a better state than we found it, and making that happen by cultivating and leading amazing teams of fantastic individuals.
First published in 1989, the timeless classic '7 Habits' remains relevant today and provides a clear framework for building self-management skills. It starts with the concept of ‘private victory’ and describes 3 key habits to practise in order to achieve this ‘victory’. With it being so easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of life, I found it truly empowering to use the exercises and practical steps of the 3 ‘private victory’ habits to step back and consider what my life goals really are.
Honourable mention: ‘Strengths Finder 2.0’ by Gallup (Tom Rath)
While many 'self-help' books focus on areas of improvement, the great thing about ‘Strengths Finder’ is in recognising and doubling down on what you're good at. I've found this especially important for women I've mentored who tend to be self-critical and focussed on their perceived weaknesses!
Effective interpersonal communications
‘Crucial Conversations’ by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler
"Why didn't we hit 22 points this iteration?"
As a brand new Project Manager at ThoughtWorks, running my first agile project, I was confused by the frosty reception I received from my team when I asked why we didn’t ‘bank’ the 22 points the burnup chart I'd produced said we should have. I'd followed all of the guidelines from my scrum books and knew they understood the maths driving my projections, and hadn't anticipated the emotional and defensive response my question would elicit.
It took me a few days of mulling this over, and seeking advice from team members who I had a good relationship with on a one-to-one basis to realise I was asking the wrong question. I got a far more positive response a few days later when I set the context and asked a different set of questions: "I know we're all here to do a great job for the client and help them launch this software ahead of the regulatory deadline. What's held some of these cards back this iteration? How can I help?"
A year later, while on a tricky project in Johannesburg during a 18 month secondment to South Africa, a colleague recommended Crucial Conversations. The breakthrough I'd stumbled upon in that first project was suddenly revealed as reusable tools and strategies. A few techniques at the core of tackling 'crucial conversations' are:
- to 'Start with Heart': recognise the humanity and assume good intentions of everyone involved in the conversations
- 'Make it Safe(r)': identify and commit to a shared mutual purpose. In my original example this meant doing a great job and delivering for the client.
The process and tools in the book translate across family and home life, and though they're never easy(!) I find having a consistent and considered approach to 'crucial' situations (defined as one with opposing views; high stakes; or strong emotions) has been game-changing.
Honourable mentions: ‘Non Violent Communication’ by Marshall B Rosenberg & ‘Radical Candour’ by Kim Scott
There are so many great books in this area, but two stand out for me in particular. ‘Non-Violent Communication’ was first recommended by a friend who had found it helpful when navigating the acrimonious divorce of her parents as a teenager, and I've often seen it recommended by psychologists. In a different vein, ‘Radical Candour’ is more workplace focussed, particularly useful for those taking on management responsibilities for the first time.
Leading teams and multiplying impact - ‘Multipliers’ by Liz Wiseman
“How do we keep our team and customers healthy & happy through exponential growth?”
When I joined Upside Energy in late 2019, I found a small, plucky technology startup in the Northern Quarter of Manchester with 25 full time staff. We not only survived, but thrived, through the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. This was primarily due to the quality of the people in the business and the relationships built working together on a shared mission to disrupt an incumbent industry and enable a green revolution.
Since Upside Energy’s rebrand to KrakenFlex as part of the Octopus Energy Group family at the end of 2020, we've accelerated our impact,expanded our customer offerings, and more than doubled our team size. This has been an exciting journey, but we've faced some challenges - exacerbated by extended periods of lockdown. We've hired some fantastic new 'Flexers, but communicating our culture, and how we bring this to life in day-to-day behaviours is hard when we're not all immersed collectively in it every day in an office environment. We've also struggled to ensure effective cross team communications take place between engineers, and have fallen into the trap of different teams solving similar problems without knowing the other is struggling and coming together to share solutions. The most keenly felt challenge has fallen on our team leads - who have borne the burden of managing our growing teams, while juggling multiple feature deliveries as increasing numbers of customers come to us for assistance (a great problem to have!)
Exponential growth in a fast growing scaleup demands a different mindset, and ‘Multipliers’ has some fantastic guidance for leaders, particularly those making that first jump from managing a few smaller teams, to many larger teams (or teams of teams). Many of the pointers in the book sound straightforward but are fiendishly tricky to put into practice.
A couple of my favourites are:
- be a Talent Magnet - the leader that everyone wants to work with and learn from
- set out Challenges rather than telling your team members what to do (even when that seems the quicker way to get the job done)
- be a Debate Maker rather than a Decision Maker.
Honourable mention: ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ by Patrick Lencioni
Building great teams is hard, and helping them to continually improve while the individuals and context are constantly changing is even harder! ‘Five dysfunctions’ addresses these challenges with specific examples of what not to do(!) and how to solidify the foundations your team is built upon, from being vulnerable and building trust, to drawing focus towards collective outcomes.
I've loved reading since I was a child and it's important not to lose that passion in a sea of business books, particularly during those times when things get busy or tough at work. During the pandemic I rediscovered my love of fiction books and have enjoyed diving into an eclectic mix of top female authors and old sci-fi. While the books in this blog have helped bring structure and focus to building the skills that have shaped my leadership journey, I've found it equally important to find balance in reading for pleasure.
I hope you find this approach useful, and the books as helpful as I have. They're all fantastic to read and reflect upon alone, but it’s even better to discuss with friends or trusted colleagues (or a local book club!) to really help bring these tools to your work & life as you shape your own unique leadership journey.