At a certain point in my career, I discovered that I was a leader. Nobody appointed me to this role, no one shaken my hands, saying “Congratulations!”. It has simply happened.
A leader is someone that provide suggestions, directions, and other people follow them. Later I have studied some management theories, triangular leadership, square leadership, etc., but I believe that there are two kind of leaders:
appointed leaders, when your role is formally described;
natural leaders, when other people acknowledge your leadership.
I am the second kind of leaders. How can you recognize a natural leader? Suppose that there is a round table, with people from different organizations sitting around. They have a common task, they haven't worked together before, the task is quite new for them all, they are all peers. After some time, you sit at that table, and you ask to everybody: “Well, what is your solution?”
In that moment, the people around the table will turn their eyes to the “natural” leader of the group, waiting for him to explain their proposal.
Leading people means different things. You should be able to look forward, find a direction in the uncertainty. You should take decisions: this is not a simple task, it means taking responsibilities. People don't like to be charged for responsibilities, they feel comfortable if someone else takes this burden. You should support your people: you are a leader if they feel that they won't be left alone in front of a problem, and that you will support them after a failure. Wait, let me explain, you should not be a “father”. People should be able to face problems, new things, responsibilities by themselves, they need to be confident on their skills and resources. But they ask you to be on their side, when needed.
I don't believe in appointed leaders: if you rely on your appointment to obtain people attention, you are implicitly accepting that you are not able to lead them in any other way. Appointments are useful, everyone should know what is your place in the organization, and what are your duties; I am simply convinced that, mainly across contiguous organizational levels, a quantity of natural leadership is required, if you want your organization to improve.
Otherwise you will be a manager.
Managers aren't bad guys, I have been “manager of..” a lot of things, when I was working in Arthur Andersen, I was a “senior manager”, wow! But manager's goal is continuity, stability, predictable things. When something unpredictable happens, they have to react. If you are not a leader, you won't be able to react effectively, reaction means that you are working out of the rules, you are challenged. I like tennis; do you remember John McEnroe? He had a way to move his wrist, that broke all the rules, it was really hard to react to his shots.
I am more a leader than a manager. OK, I am able to draw project plans, budgets, urge suppliers, produce reports, but I have to force a little my nature, in order to obtain this. I feel happy when I can talk with people, understand problems.
I have been working for a long time as a consultant for manufacturing business, designing planning, and inventory systems. One of my first request was to visit the plant. Walking across machines, heat, noise, is exciting, and – more important – gives the analyst the “feeling” of the heart of the business. I have seen a lot of production plants: chemical, drugs, medical devices, aircraft manufacturing, textile, iron and aluminum, newspapers. I believe that listening to what the managers tell to you, and filling pieces of paper isn't enough.
In our job, methodologies, modeling techniques, are fundamental. If you are able to arrange things in an ordered way, lay out an expressive diagram, it means that you have understood the problem. Many professionals told me that the have “everything in mind”, and – with their experience – it is a waste of time writing everything down. Maybe, that is one reason because many projects fail.
I love blank paper sheets. Around, on your desktop, you may have many things: the existing Information System, that is not working well, but... well it works somehow. There is a pile of new technologies, sales reps tell you: Hey! Leave behind your back all that old stuff! This is THE new technology that will solve all of your problems! The company managers have visions, they explain to you that is very easy to obtain such and such...
At this point I take a walk, I ride my MTB, I swim, I play with my daughters, and I forget everything. After some time, the idea starts taking its shape. It's not a “formal” process, no methodologies, it's just the magic of our minds. At this point you can start drawing something on your blank sheet. And people (my boss, my customers, my team) have always appreciated this: being able to build a solution blending together the existing components, something new, a flexible integration, and make the whole thing “engineered”.
Innovation is a challenge. I love technology, and I always try to guess what will be the “next big thing”; at the end, I find myself with a lot of garbage, but a few good ideas.
Ideas are the biggest value of the open source world. I will not justify my enthusiasm for open software, there is a lot of literature about this. I am simply aware that the participation in “the community” is worth your time and effort, and is perhaps the main way to improve your skills and enhance your professional experience.
You maybe have already understood, that I believe that a manager should be technically savvy. Many people disagree with me: “tech stuff is for nerds, not for you!”. Managers who told me this, are simply too tired, too superficial, and have lost their humility, the humility required to study a new technology, from the ground, being a “newbie”. If you can't understand what your people is doing, and why, you have lost the control, you are useless, sometime you are dangerous, because you will try to hide this situation from the view of your managers.
Understanding, this is a nice argument. Many time I have given explanations, and many time I have received them. Explaining is an art, and is also a proof for your real knowledge. When an engineer explains to me a technical issue, I often feel upset, because I understand that he is trying to confuse me with technical terms, sure that I am not able to understand anything, and that I will be too shy to admit my ignorance. But if he isn't able to provide me with a clear explanation of a technical issue, this means that he didn't understand the problem well, and isn't able to manage it properly. Furthermore, when he realizes that I understand the technical background of the issue – not his “foggy” explanation – things start working in the right direction.
One day, I was in a meeting with a “specialist”, discussing how to introduce a dynamic traffic balancer in our Internet connection. I wasn't able to understand the design, the specialist was impatient, because I wasn't able to understand his clear explanation.
Why don't draw it up? - I asked.
He looked at me hastily, but... I was the customer.
During the drawing he became increasingly nervous, he started scratching his head. Well, in his “clear” explanation, there was a little detail missing, so his smart solution wasn't able to work. If your aren't able to explain, you haven't got the solution really!
I apply this principle when I explain things to others; this is why I am an effective salesperson, also if I never have worked in sales. If you have a good knowledge of the “architecture”, you can provide an easy explanation of how it works. When people that listened to me try to explain the same simple things to other, they realize that the explanation was simple, but the architecture was complex, because they aren't able to reproduce my simplicity.
The funny thing of not being a salesman, is that my customers weren't able to obtain big discounts. I provided a view of myself as a technician, someone who simply tells how the tings are: when they ask me “Can we reduce those 100 days to 80?”, I look at them surprised, and reply “But this project requires 100 days.”. They don't feel comfortable saying that I am wrong, and they undersign the contract.
If the reader reached this point, he is very patient. This is a story, about my professional profile, that maybe will help young professional in becoming wiser. I hope that this story explains something about me that you can't find in standard-one-page-long cv's. Too many times I say “I”: not being a literate, and not an English writer, are the causes.
The story isn't finished, this is only one version, updated on may 10th, 2006.
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