I spent the past few days binge reading the book “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader” by Herminia Ibarra. I rarely read books on leadership, partly because I identify myself first as an IC (individual contributor) and a tech expert, not a leader, a role I consider as more talking than working, and partly because I always think it is a waste of time to think about leadership when I’m not even a leader. I’d rather spend more time pushing my code to production and delivering a solution. This book completely changes my naive perception of how leadership develops and motivates me to act now.
Table of Contents
Which one comes first, change of thoughts, or change or actions?
I, like many people, would immediately say that change of thoughts comes first before change of actions. I have been told about the importance of willpower, motivation, inspiration, and mindset. In order to be a leader, I have to change my mindset to think like a leader, whatever that means. And since I cannot change my thoughts to think like a leader, I guess I will never be a leader.
The author argued we have to change our actions in order for us to change our thoughts. This is because we are the product of our past experience and past behaviors. Our identity, self-awareness, narrative about who we are, our preference, value systems for what is important are all influenced and shaped by what we have done.
I identify as a tech expert because I have been a good tech expert and successfully delivered technical solutions, which are positively reinforced by praise from my peers and managers, and promotions. I think being a leader is more about talking than working because I myself have not done much “talking” to understand why it is crucial work as well. I do not view myself as a leader not because I haven’t been leading projects, but because I’ve been blinded by my technical contribution and simply dismissed my non-technical contribution as “not real work”. I think I prefer coding but I never take the time to reflect on whether I enjoy the non-technical part of my day-to-day activities such as reaching out to external stakeholders, proposing and advocating new ideas, getting buy-in from higher ups, and sharing knowledge.
Once I accumulate experience acting like a leader through trial and error, reaching out, getting feedback, and reflecting, my thoughts change accordingly.
For example, when I proposed a new project last year, my focus was purely technical and implementation-focused, because this was what I did the best. I knew every technical detail about the design, and had a clear roadmap for how to implement, test, and launch it. What I did not know in the beginning, is how much time I would spend on meeting with different people (aka stakeholders), explaining (selling) my ideas, and dealing with push backs. All of these are non-technical work that I was not trained for and certainly caught me off guard. Luckily I have a very helpful mentor and a supportive manager that guide me through this process.
Thinking back, that was the first time I led a project from idea to productionalization. Although I was proud to work as an IC and did not view myself as a leader, doing the “leadership” thing naturally changed my thought. I can now view myself from a leader’s perspective based on my new experience and actions as a leader, and develop appreciation for good leadership.
Our past success is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it makes us who we are today. My past technical expertise and engineering skills got me my senior promotion. It is a curse because if I keep doing what I’ve been doing well, I will stay where I am now. It is a simple truth, but often ignored. We all like doing what we are already good at, and dislike doing things we are not good at.
The author called this the “Competency trap”. Past success may not replicate itself in the future because the future is different and requires a different “me”. In order to reinvent myself, I need to reinvent my behaviors, take different actions, and start to do things I’m not good at, yet.
It is often frustrating and painful to break from the past routine and step out of our comfort zone. It is scary and uncertain to explore the unknown and question our own abilities.
I remember I got very anxious and nervous before my first improv class. What am I going to say? I’m blanking out! What if I look stupid? What if I don’t make sense? This is going to be so embarrassing and I shouldn’t have signed up for this. I can spend this time doing what I do best, or just stay at home and watch Netflix. Why am I doing this to myself?… My self-doubt and qualm were slowly forgotten once I was asked (or shall I say “forced” haha) to introduce myself and participate in improv training. The instructor Rick was very engaging and approachable, and my classmates were all very supportive. Everyone was here to learn, to flex their muscle, to explore something new about themselves. “80 percent of success in life is just showing up.” by Woody Allen. I still got nervous every time I performed during the class, but with positive reinforcement and encouragement, I was able to see my growth and improvement. Before our final performance in front of a bigger audience, I was more excited than nervous.
In order to break the curse of the competency trap, we need to explore new opportunities and get new experience, grow new muscles and develop new synaptic connections. We will encounter failure and self-doubts, face challenges and push backs, and run into unknown territories. It is important to build a support network of friends, peers, mentors, sponsors to help us through this process.
When I was preparing for the consulting interview back in graduate school, I often felt I was faking it, pretending to be a business expert and talking nonsense. This was the primary reason why I gave up pursuing consulting as a career, and I blamed it to personality mismatch.
Personality mismatch may be one reason, but I think I was falling into what the author called the “Authenticity trap”.
We all have our identity and personality. I view myself as introverted, collaborative, technical, logical, objective, and fair. I feel uncomfortable for being overly opinionated, overly sociable, overly subjective and emotional, overly confrontational, and overly claiming credit. The word “overly” is where my identity draws the line. If I have to behave in a way that is contrary to my identity, I feel I’m being inauthentic, I’m a faker, I’m an imposter.
However, just as the title of this book suggests, our thoughts are a result of our actions. Our so-called identity is mostly composed of what we did in the past. I think I’m an introvert because I was mostly doing research by myself in a lab for a good part of my 20s, and did not get to turbo charge my social skills. I think it is bad to be opinionated because my research training taught me to keep objective and use passive voice instead of active voice in writing. I think it is bad to promote myself and sell my ideas because I was taught as a child to be humble, and not to brag. “People will eventually see your hard work and talent.”
The author suggested that we could be more playful with our identity. Instead of viewing myself as such and such, I could be anything that suits the environment, like a shapeshifter and chameleon. As Bruce Lee said, “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. “
Am I being inauthentic or fake if I’m not myself? Am I just using others for my own benefits if I’m changing how I behave around people? ..
It depends on what the intention is. If you deceive people, compromise the team, and steal other people’s credits to benefit just yourself, I’d say that is indeed inauthentic and damaging. However, if you adapt and adjust your actions to benefit not only yourself but also the project, the team, and people around you, I’d say that is an authentic and genuine effort.
Fake it until you become it, until you internalize it, until it is your identity.
I’ve been forcing myself to allocate time every week to network outside my immediate teammates since 2020. My initial motivation was to keep connected with my old friends and stay sane during pandemic and quarantine. Over time, I started to use this slot to schedule and plan meetings with people on my team, sister teams, and other teams in the company, and people working in other companies. Most conversations are casual get-to-know-each-other, learning projects and initiatives on different teams and industries. It broadens my horizon and makes me see where my own team fits on a bigger canvas. It exposes me to many aspects of the business that I wasn’t aware of before, and I get to read many interesting docs from other teams that were usually not widespread across the company. I also use this as an opportunity to broadcast my work (well, my team’s work), how our team is tied to the rest of the company, and whether there is any potential collaboration or synergy.
I allocate time each week for mentorship too, both as a mentor and as a mentee. This is not just a learning and teaching opportunity which I enjoy, but also a forum for me to hear about other team’s business and work from different levels. My mentors are from a diverse background, and I learn different things from them. An engineering director shares her experience transitioning from IC to a manager, how she develops managerial and leadership skills, and how her team could be better integrated with my team’s service. A staff engineer shares his daily work and how he pushes ML initiatives on his team. Another staff engineer teaches me how to be assertive and better at communication. An experienced former coworker helps me navigate through workplace politics. And I’ve learned so much from my women fellows from Clubhouse whom I view as both mentors and friends. My mentees are also from a diverse background. Some are engineers on my team, some are from other teams, and some are still students. I use our mentorship to share my knowledge and experience, and to learn about their work and thoughts. It is reciprocal and helpful to both parties.
The author emphasized the importance of networking out of your immediate team. First, it helps you break out from the old routine of focused domain-specific work and helps you redefine yourself with new experience. Second, it helps you to become a bridge between your team and the rest of the world, and makes you see the bigger picture. Third, through the bridge role, you are able to connect the dots, identify new opportunities, understand stakeholders’ needs, and come up with better ideas. Of course, showing up and increasing your visibility will help build your personal brand as a leader.
Before we get the leader title, we are still expected to do the IC work. We do not have the title to enter the room and discuss strategies with other leaders yet. At the same time, and paradoxically, we are expected to act like a leader before we get the promotion.
I’ve talked with a few engineers who made the promotion. Some said they felt they had to do two jobs: their current work as IC, and the leadership work to demonstrate they act like a leader. It is exhausting and frustrating. Others said they were able to convince their manager and focus solely on the leadership work before they even got the title. It is easy to get flooded by the daily operational work, and you simply don’t have the time and energy to do extra.
This chicken-and-egg situation is so far my biggest struggle. To be a tech leader (staff engineer), you have to be a competent IC first. So before I lead anything, I have to establish myself as a tech expert by working on the team’s project. Then, I start to look outwards, spend time networking out, and come up with new initiatives. I try to connect the leadership work to my team’s priority so that I can justify the work to my manager and my team. I also seek external alliances to help push a new project and seek buy-in from my managers as a cross-team collaboration. Since I do not carry the title yet, I’m still balancing my team’s work and my leadership development, and I’m still figuring out how to make the transition and get the official hat of a leader.
But one thing I know for sure, especially after reading this book, is Act now!