Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Becoming a Lead, Pt. 1

At Microsoft, there are two classifications of people:  Individual Contributors and Managers/Leads.  Individual contributors are those who spend most of their time doing the work that makes software spring into existence.  These are the programmers, testers, and program managers that create the products.  Managers and Leads are those who spend a large part of their time making sure everyone else has time to do real work.  Leads are usually those who have a few people reporting to them and Managers are those who have leads or other managers reporting to them.  Those of us who are managers pay attention to schedules, product roadmaps, bug trends, people development, and—most importantly—making sure that our people are not blocked.


There comes a time in many careers where a person makes the transition from an individual contributor to a lead.  There are some big differences and not all of them are obvious.  This series of posts will cover many of those aspects.  The things I talk about will be specific to the software industry but should be applicable in any occupation.  Before I start, however, let me give some thoughts on the prerequisites for becoming a good lead.


Great leaders are grown, not born.  No one comes out of school ready to be a great lead.  It takes a solid foundation before you can effectively lead.  If you try to lead without that foundation, you’ll end up being more Pointy Haired Boss than Great Leader.  To get a solid foundation, spend some time (several years at least) doing whatever it is you expect to be leading people at.  As this blog is about the software industry, spend several years programming or testing (or both) before trying to lead testers or developers.  Once you become a lead, you will have less direct exposure to the technology.  You’ll need a solid background to understand everything those reporting to you are working on.


Not everyone is cut out to be a lead.  I’ve seen too many times when a great developer is forced to become a manager.  What results is often the loss of a good programmer and the creation of a bad manager.  I’m very much with the author of First, Break All the Rules.  One of his basic premises is that people have certain talents and if you don’t have the right talent for a particular job, the best you can be is mediocre.  For instance, I’m not artistically inclined.  I could go to art school and get lots of training, but I’m never going to be a great artist.  Likewise, if you are not naturally a leader, you’ll never make a great one.  With the right talent, and the right training, a person can become a great leader.  Without both, they never will. 


How do I tell if someone is a natural leader?  I have a thought experiment I like to apply.  If I put together 3 people on a project and tell them what the goal is but don’t assign any of them roles, by the end of the project one of them will be contributing more to the overall direction than the others.  Someone will be the person designating who works on what.  This is not the bossiest person.  Without a talent for leadership, the person will be seen as pushy and their leadership will be rejected.  The good leader will lead without having to claim the mantle of leadership.  Instead, it will be given to him/her by the others on the team.  It may not be verbalized, but there will be one person the others look to for help making decisions.  That’s the natural leader.


I once had a report who claimed he wanted to be a leader.  I gave him responsibility for an area and another person to help him do the work.  A few months later, the helper was doing his own thing.  He was being given no direction.  Needless to say, when this person came to me and asked why I didn’t make him a lead, I just had to point to that incident.  When given the chance to lead, he didn’t take on the role.  Leadership is a behavior, it is not a title.  If you think you want to become a manager, do so because you enjoy leading, not because you want the title or the prestige.


  1. If only this was applied at Microsoft.

    Too many managers that aren't leaders. I think sometimes people choose management because they lack the skills to do anything else.

  2. Lead is different from a Manager. Lead still dwells in technical stuff where as manager dwells more in administrative stuff.

    Again well made out points :)

    1. Leadership is a behavior and not a title.

    2. Bad Leadership choice == loss of good programmer and creation of bad manager.

    It is basically having the right timing, fundamentally strong, without appearing too pushy.

  3. really interesting..

  4. Nice article, found it interesting.

  5. Solid foundation, talent of organizing people around you, leadership is a behavior and not a title -- one maybe has these factors, but if he has no chance, he can't be a leader.

    Sometimes, opportunity is also important.