Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Leadership Trio - from the Beginning

(All names here are fictional, and I recommend the readers not to think if they are based on any real characters. The point here is to tell a story about an idea that can be very interesting)

"You should write this down." Andy told me, "The result of your effort is the change in us three leads.We are very happy with how you have coached us and provided clear opportunity for growth. But others in the company might not see it that way. They will see the three of us getting things done and nothing from you. And they will find reasons that they can believe for things that they don't understand. You need to communicate about your work, maybe in the form of blog."

I brushed it off initially, thinking with my work during the day and school during the night, the last thing I want to do is to keep a blog about what I am doing at work. But that idea grew on me. After all, we should only brush off ideas because they are not good, not because we are too busy. Doing so would lead to the possibility that we might be spending effort on less worthy ideas right now and might be wasting our lives.

So here I am, backtracking the footsteps of this most rewarding journey that I have stumbled upon as someone who is searching for the leadership style that fits me as a team member, a manager, and in the future, as a leader of a business unit or organization.


The form of trio was the result of nothing more than pure luck. As I am getting to know the team and the operations after moving over one year ago, I slowly realize that I have been blessed with three capable leads. Believe it or not, it takes some training to be able to reach that realization. Andy, Vitaliy and Bernard are the leads who are ready for further career coaching. I have now established a good relationship with them. At the same time, I took the "Total Leadership" class in Wharton MBA that involves putting myself through a leadership coaching process. While still in the training myself, I can see the power of the coach framework. By the time that my training required me to design experiments that served the interests of my stakeholders and achieve four-way wins in the area of work, community, family and self, the idea came to mind to apply the same coach framework to the leads.

The format of my training made it pretty easy for me to write down essential elements for the experiments. I discussed them with my coaches (TA, Alumni coach and my coach trio) and received positive feedback and strong encouragement.

I talked to the leads, confirmed their desire to be responsible and accountable for all aspect of their teams. I also got their agreement to form a trio as part of their training process.

Leadership Trio

Originally, I called this "Management Trio". However, the term "manager" has raised more eyebrows than I anticipated or wanted to deal with, because of its association with the HR policies and legal implications. Whatever the term is, the idea is to let the team also understand the non-technical side of the team operations. The purpose is to let members with technical background be involved with major decision-making and have a taste of life outside their normal realm. It serves as a natural career path for those who have the potential to become full-time manager, which is extremely valuable yet hard in a technical startup. It can also serve as a valuable education ground for those who decides to remain technical. The extra knowledge will make them more valuable because they can support the managers better.

The trio structure provides quite a few benefits. It provides the check and balances it needs while supporting the coaching style management. It provides a good self-learning foundation, which is more valuable in a process where the main purpose is to promote learning to build a functional team. By leveraging the existing core competency and resources, the trio can effectively work through the challenges. By providing supporting structure for real-life learning, the trio structure can be easily duplicated elsewhere and can lead to grassroots movement.

From the manager's standpoint, this structure is aligned with the change of management style in fast companies. The people with the best information are making decisions. The job of the managers is to communicate and coach the team so that the objectives and incentives are aligned and the teams are making the right decisions. Our company has recently grown from a start-up to a publicly traded company. As tit has grown, I have witnessed many cases where people turn to a manager to make decision for them or the manager steps in to head decision-making process. These behaviors have been pulling us away from the goal of always searching for innovation in organization structure and team governance. We should be mindful of the example set by companies such as GE, Semco who have maintained a culture of innovation despite their tremendous growth. We must make sure we don't lose the innovative culture we have built here.


It is still hard to say what kind of people are suitable candidates for this trio. For that I consider to be extremely lucky because I didn't have to go through the interview process. The most thinking that I have done was to look at my current three leads to decide if this serves their interest, and if they are ready for something like this.

Vitaliy brings his understanding, voice of reason, and good communication to the trio. Eager to learn and eager to help, Vitaliy has been the natural leader of his team. Vitaliy has a good way of communicating externally as well as internally, especially in contentious situation. I have learned much just by observing his interactions with others. Vitaliy provides good understanding and voice of reason which generates trust in the trio.

Andy brings his capability of strategic thinking under fire to the trio. Andy has been operating in a challenging environment for a year. He survived and delivered a major internal system upgrade single handedly, which is no small feat. While others like me always have the tendency to jump into any request and help people out, Andy has established a good practice of looking at the requests based on the urgency and impact, possibility of user error, so that he can address those who really need his help, and push the rest to learn to be self sufficient. There is always a contention with this model, and he has walked the fine line for over a year, and survived. This gives him the time and energy not only to survive, but also to think strategically about what we really need. This is how he was able to recognize the need to research and implement the solution ahead of anyone else in the department. Examples are the service level of certain servers, the disaster recovery readiness, the cost and benefit analysis for the medium term projects in the next two years.

Bernard brings in his style of Charisma to the trio. That statement is not as tangible as the two above, and that is because he has been in the shadow of the former leader until recently. There are a lot of signs showing that he has the capacity to lead and he has made it clear that it is his career interest. He has been watching the operations of Vitaliy, understand its value and want to learn the art of adopting it to his team. He has been learning about our build system and wants to migrate the system to fit more into that model. I have sat in quite a few user meetings and they all went very well. Bernard is confidence in voicing his opinions, while still take others input into consideration.

All three leads are smart people with good grasp of concepts and understanding the importance of business operations in additional to the pure product development. They learned the elements of operations on the job and acquired practical skills to succeed as a leader. At the same time, learning in a resource restrained environment has made it difficult to slow down enough time to look at the business as a whole and think about strategic plans, especially where there is no guidance or training about how to do that. All three leads are known for their capability of listening to people and making good judgment calls in terms of functionality and urgency.

Each lead also has his own areas for improvement. I am not comfortable listing them here, yet, as it is highly personal. I do plan to invite them to be the writer of this blog to see if we can fill the missing information here.


The only preparation is to make sure the leads are ready. Being a lead is a rewarding and challenging journey, and it is certainly not in the interest of every software engineer. During the one-on-one meetings, I talked with the team leads about their strengths as well as areas for improvement. Instead of simple praise or passing of critical judgment, I focused more on the future of the team. What do they want to do achieve for the team and for themselves, and what is preventing them from doing it? Through that conversation, I brought up the trio framework and they all signed up immediately. That was definitely a good moment because I was off to a good start.

Session I - Kick Off

The first session is the kick off session. I want to bring the coaching dynamics in the one-on-one to the trio. To do that, each lead needs to learn more about each other and be aware of the desire and strength of each other. There will be time for them to learn about the area where each other needs help with but that will come later.

We went around the circle asking the question: What is your goal? What would you like to achieve for the team and for yourself? The answers were interesting such that they are on different level: relationship with customers that we are serving, the value we are bringing to the company, and the technical innovations that we can foster within the team. This is another sign that the trio is a versatile group.

The second round of question was: Identify one thing that you can bring to the group that others don't necessarily know about. I don't have the notes on the answers but I remember we got good laughs. My goal of building rapport among the trio was definitely achieved.

After that round of exercise, it is the experiment framing stage.

"This is an experiment that will benefit Guidewire as well as us individually. By experiment I meant that it can fail, even though the chance of success is high. This is an idea that I have thought through, and have got feedbacks from others. As of now, you three are part of a trio for learning about team and organizational management. You will practice and learn how to coordinate on behalf of your team. You will learn how to reach non-political agreement."

Then I open the floor to let the trio talk. The topic was mostly focused on how much this is needed at this stage of personal growth and company growth. I think we also touched on my role in this and my answer was that I will assume the coach role and I expect them to reach decisions through peer discussions. The lead could and should look for me for advice and I would still focus on talking through the issues and help the leads reach decisions.

The next two questions are based on the feedback I got from my coaches. How would the trio reach agreement on decision? At what point would we know that this is not working?

For the first question, the agreement was to talk about it through open conversation. Later, we moved this to an online chat room, so that the conversation can keep going even as we are busy with other tasks, and even when we are remote.

For the second question, the answer was that when things are being dropped, that would be the sign. I agreed to keep sending feedback whenever I want the confirmation that things are not being dropped.

The meeting then adjourned, marking the start of trio.

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