Leadership in a VUCA world

“Leadership is about enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty. When there’s certainty, when you know what to do, you don’t need leadership. It’s when you don’t know what to do that the art and creativity of leadership matters.” Ganz, Marshall. “Why Stories Matter.” Sojourners Magazine. March 2009

Bruce Wang, Director of Engineering at Netflix on Full Cycle People Leadership was a well spent Saturday morning.

I loved how he emphasized the value of feedback: Have you given feedback so it’s not a surprise if you need to exit someone so that it’s fair? Give feedback regularly, sometimes “elevated feedback”. The fairness comes from:

  1. Timely, clear, concise, actionable feedback
  2. Do you really understand the situation, root cause (have you given all the tools to succeed)
  3. Quick decision. If you have provided both, time for them to leave and fast because it is affecting the rest of your team. As a manager, don’t focus on the not performing person.

The live Q&A was as good as the presentation. Bruce was kind enough to document his leadership philosophy on https://github.com/batmany13/about-meHis recommended approach to keep staff motivated, resonated with my leadership style and it maps human-centred innovation: caring, understand your team as people. Building relationship, trust and empathy (even when they don’t speak up or open up). Be a servant leader. Active listening! We engineers always want to go in solution mode. Not everyone is motivated by the same thing: some by vision, some by tech challenge.

His view on remote leadership and asynchronous decision-making were so interesting (as he used to work all co-located, hybrid or fully remote personally) and obvious, yet so clear (yes to pre-read and written decision blocks); this requires rigour and drive to sustain: Netflix was awesome with everyone in the same office (despite being so big). Personally prefers in person but with talent scarcity, the future of engineer is remote. To be a good leader is to adapt to what the situation calls for. Remote leadership we just have to get good at it as a leader. Still learning, replicating office environment (jam board for collaboration) now moving into asynchronous decision making. We have memos as pre-read and meeting to make decision so now we’re writing DECISION blocks in Docs so that there’s no FOMO if someone was not at the meeting and reads the Doc.

The qualities of a high performing team? Impact for the team and the company, not now but for the future (matrix urgent and important). Are you innovating, growing and anticipating the future? Truly high performing team execute day to day and anticipate.

How do you effectively handle different types of team members and characters? The fallacy is to pick only people like me. Handle is a wrong word – a choir vs loud person. Rock stars vs super stars have different skillsets, you need to think about the makeup of your team. The pessimists in my team bring lot of value (I’m an optimist): they challenge assumptions. Take the collective strength and make it a super team, focus on strengths not weaknesses eg. Pair a quiet person who digs into problems with a more vocal person. The danger of fitting the mold is you don’t have D&I . That goes against radical candour (mix of teams and utilise them) and psychological safety. You need both rock stars (stay and do the work) and super stars (vision, want to create the next super startup).

How have you designed/scaled 1-on-1s as your team size grows esp. when it reaches say 30 members? Moved from weekly to bi-weekly. With bigger teams, have 1-1 with direct managers weekly or bi-weekly; then skip levels (pass 1 level) every month or 2 months; then group team meeting every quarter. It’s hard to context switch from one person to the other one every 30min back to back because for effective 1-1 you need time to think.

Yes to everything Bruce said and I shall use his framework for 1-1s:

  • What energises you this week? What drains you?
  • Then,
  • What’s holding the team back? What’s preventing this project moving forward? Can be framed in a negative way. Need to leave space for feedback to build the muscle, it is uncomfortable.

What kind of leadership skills are lacking in this generation? What should young engineers strive for? It’s not about you if you want to be a good leader; you have to be ok to let them go, be a servant, humble leader. Team of teams (general Mc Chrystal) in the military: from hero leadership to humble gardener. You’re not in the spotlight anymore, you’re not the one fixing problems, you grow your team. You can be the worst leader if you’re the best coder in your team.

Career path shifting from tech role to leadership role? Tech vs people leadership: a tech lead doesn’t make a good people leader. Recognise that they’re different skills. People leaders are not expected to code at Netflix (it leaves the wrong impression), they have to be tech advisors. Training: life labs – how do you coach, actively listen, give / get feedback, effective 1-1s. Techniques like “When you do this, I feel this…” ; Radical candour book ; Right time investing in team culture. In the beginning, even as a 1 person startup, think about your team culture: write down what’s your leadership style. The culture deck is always evolving. Culture is not static. Continually invest in biding a team culture: it is about designing and hiring. For Bruce, it’s a learning culture => create time in roadmap, promote accordingly etc…

What does the ideal team structure look like? Size: is the team too big or has too big of a scope? A team’s mission and charter with 3-4 person team is doing better than bigger teams. The rest depends on business objectives and what you’re trying to do. Make sure the teams are connected and understand the customer usage

Managing up is about managing ego and their feelings, emotions. Less is more, don’t be too technical or too deep, sell the business value. Understand the motivation, where it’s coming from, what’s the intent? Take emotions out of it. If you need to constantly manage up, you have to change job. It’s a waste of time, it shows immature leadership. Sometimes, it’s shielding your team and managing the partners so that they’re not dealing with that all the time. You build relationships with partners, 1-1s, be a servant leaders with them, like you would be for your own team.

What’s your philosophy of leadership and what would you advise every aspiring leader to never forget? Start with safety first. No jerks around. Make sure you don’t diminish the conversation or kill an idea as a leader. Be aware of your power as a leader so may end up accidentally killing an idea or conversations.

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Accountability

=> then you have a Learning culture

Does the style of leadership change when in a young startup to when in a more established company? Yes. There are Special forces, Army, Police type of people. As you grow you can’t be the person writing the code anymore: you have to choose if you want to become a people manager or write code.

How do you remain a credible technical advisor as a people leader? The manager is an organisational architect. What are you giving up if you expect him to write code? That’s less time for partner communication, 1-1s.

How do I as an Individual Contributor, be self aware of myself while minimizing reliance on Managers feedback? Are you as a person self aware of your own flaws. Think about feedback you’d give to yourself. You can’t grow on your own: you need to read books, have a mentor, rely on manager and others for feedback. Reliance on the manager is not weakness, it is their job. Can you take critical feedback from someone and act on it, be someone who can improve as a skill. You’re all learning, so be humble and hungry. Seek out people, mentors, work with each others, read books, learn. People leadership is its own thing, it takes experience and it takes time. It is a different career path.

Talking about psychological safety, the term was coined by Amy Edmondson – the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. And in her 2014 and 2018 TED Talks she explains why teaming is necessary for audacious innovation ie. when there’s uncertainty and interdependence (wow we’re back to our VUCA world).

“Teaming is teamwork on the fly. It’s coordinating and collaborating with people across boundaries of all kinds — expertise, distance, time zone, you name it — to get work done.”

The entire re:Work Google Project Aristotle “What makes a team effective at Google?” is a fantastic resource on team dynamics with assessments and tools. The Spotify team dynamics with their tribes, chapter and guilds is well-known and I’ve finally found the one place where it comes together.  

Some additional inspiration regarding onboarding: How these top companies give new employees the rock-star welcome. I like the Salesforce 7-day before start day campaign!

And now, some resources from HBR: The Agile C Suite reports that by the end of their transition to agile (3-year process for those firms), leaders had spent x4 time on strategy (from 10% to 40%), reduced time spent on operations management (from 60% to 25%) and time spent managing talent had risen slightly (from 30% to 35%).

BCG Is Leadership your Agile blindspot? shows that leaders of agile and digital transformations adhere to six behaviors:

  • Aligning and Empowering. Set the vision, explain the why, and then let go.
  • Continuously Learning. Seek and act on feedback.
  • Acting as One Team. Prioritize the goals of the organization over the objectives of individuals or business units.
  • Always Helping. Help teams with what they need to succeed (no request is too small).
  • A Bias to Action. Start by doing rather than planning or discussing.
  • Outcome Oriented. Talk to customers to understand what matters to them.

This resonated so much with me and it reads as my leadership signature. With our team at Hyper Island, I’ve said again and again that I don’t need to know the details, have no interest in micro-managing and that I am comfortable with the unknown, not having all the answers as I trust the process and people & their expertise. “Being comfortable being uncomfortable” makes work interesting and a key value at Hyper Island is that we work in aligned autonomous teams. This sums it up for me, leave the how to the development team members, they know better and will be more engaged with their autonomy:

“The key is communicating intent, explaining both the what and the why. The more alignment that leaders are able to establish, the more autonomy they can afford to give their teams.”

And I discovered the J curve change management recently (on AWS Conversations with Leaders podcast), a popular and powerful model used to understand the stages of personal transition and organizational change. A useful video and some helpful tips for coaching teams at each phase.

Think with Google offers 3 ways to be more agile in business and share that organisations that use customer behavioural insights outperform their peers by 85% in sales growth and by 25% in gross margin (Gallup, Global, Behavioral Economics). And I love this interactive presentation and data visualisation based on 30 high-profile board members interviewed revealing What board members say about the CMO – off the record

  • 100,000 words of responses,
  • run a topic modelling analysis on all responses to determine most mentioned subjects, and
  • distilled into 1 paragraph

Information is indeed beautiful.


And October 2020 update with Today’s CMO: Transforming the role to be ready for what’s next with the 5 CMO archetypes:


You can probably be two things at once, but you can’t be all of them. Aligning with your CEO and board to understand what your company needs now is the first step and will help enable long-term success.”

Now is the time. In the current environment, some CMOs feel they have permission to discard past processes or ways of thinking, and to instead explore new ideas and growth paths, like digital transformation. Given this, most CMOs should focus above all on innovation and growth — on building data and insights-driven marketing organizations that can read customer signals at scale and make them actionable in real time. In a dynamic market, that’s where CMOs can help organizations grow and stay resilient.

I discovered Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 days (summary here) and his HBR contributions (How managers become leaders and and 7 ways to setup a new hire for success).

His intervention and advices on The Learning Leader podcast were great: Think & talk about “How you approach taking the role”, “What you imagine you would be doing going into this role”. Articulate “What you’ve learned through the interview process about what really needs to be done here, what are the core challenges. Why do you think you’re someone who can address that core challenge for the organisation”.

I wouldn’t say 30/60/90 [day plan], I would talk more flexibly about how I would come into this role, what would I expect to be doing, how I would engage with the organisation in a deep way, how I would integrate myself and connect myself (and be thoughtful as possible). This is where things go wrong. Alleviate worry for hiring managers. Have the right impact in the right way. Understand what the job demands. Early in new role: Articulate what I stand for / core beliefs as a leader (in a VUCA environment), as a learner, as a human, as a person.

His framework and action list

Another view on Succeeding in a new job during the first three months from Chicago Booth CareerCast with Marc Effron, global leadership expert, author, founder of the New Talent Management Network, and vice president of talent management for Avon Products, Inc:

In a successful transition into a new role, success is defined as you understand the business, but also the culture, the political or the informal nature of the organisation and that you’ve built the relationships which are really going to be the foundation for your success going forward. At the end of the day: you understand what the company is all about, who the key leaders are and you’ve already built these relationships that will propel you to success. Day 1, validate onboarding process with 3 tracks:

  1. How do I learn as much as possible about the business,
  2. How do I learn as much as possible about the culture
  3. How do I build as many relationships as possible

And the year being 2020, a thought on Covid with TheBoardlist survey late April 2020 on the impact of COVID19 in Boardrooms: 40% boards didn’t have risk mitigation plans in place prior to the crisis; boards understand mid/long-term impact of the crisis on the business but underestimate their role in emotional support for the CEO; boards new ways of working may not carry over.

In Aug 2020, Google organised the first Thinking with Leaders: Leading in a Remote World: how to build/foster connections and lead with empathy. Hema Gokal from Lean-In moderated conversations and leaders from Google (Heather Emslie), Salesforce (Cecily Ng), and Accenture (Arika Allen) shared their learnings and personal tips (overcommunicate, redefining success based on what is in control during tough times, setup outcomes and impact-based objectives giving flexibility, helping and motivating at low cost, setting boundaries with non-negotiables, trust without micro-managing, adapting traditions and creating new routines) Google-ThinkingWithLeaders.png

 In Aug 2020, HBR summarised our emotions post-lockdown in Leading in the Post-Covid recovery: missing stimulating rush of emergency, significance & community during lockdown. Quick decision-making. Efficiency of meetings. Honest, concise, frequent communications. Freedom to organize your day & work from home. Informal authentic team interactions. Personnally, so much ring true: Who rises to the occasion, who loses faith, who supports, who snaps, who dares, who falls silent. How do these behaviors evolve as crisis unfold? “We had to be brutally honest about our own capacity & energy”. The crisis revealed hidden talents & unseen qualities.