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TL;DR – Bill Walsh, an ex-NFL coach, had a leadership approach that transformed the success of the San Francisco 49ers. His ‘Standard of Performance’ covers a wide range of leadership traits that apply across industries. Each point offers learning relevant to leading tech teams today.

There’s no hiding from the fact that results are important. If release targets or customer subscription and retention numbers are not met jobs could be at risk. However, as counterintuitive as it sounds, solely focusing on results will probably have the opposite effect!

“Concentrate on what will produce results rather than on the results, the process rather than the prize.”

Bill Walsh was an NFL coach whose advanced leadership transformed the San Francisco 49ers from the worst sports franchise to a legendary dynasty. The Score Takes Care Of Itself details Bill’s take on leadership which can apply to any industry not only on the football pitch.

Based on Bill’s values and beliefs, he created a ‘Standard of Performance’ that guided everything he did. I’ve looked into each point below covering my thoughts and application to tech teams. The full version is quoted at the end.

Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement

Continuous improvement is covered in a number of these areas and should be a priority for all leaders. Fast-paced environments move relentlessly forward so it takes focused leaders to keep pace and guide the direction.

Leaders need to develop tools that enable them to spend their time and make decisions that will have the most benefit.

“Exhibit an inner toughness emanating from four of the most effective survival tools a leader can possess: expertise, composure, patience, and common sense.”

Then applying these with an intelligent focus allows teams to continually evolve to a better place.

Demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does

Teams are made up of people with different backgrounds and beliefs. The reality is that you will not get on well with everyone but having respect for each person is an essential leadership trait. It allows you to see the positives in someone’s work without being blinded by negative biases.

There is also having awareness of people’s roles outside of our direct teams and learning how they interact with each other. Building a rapport with this wider circle allows you to show appreciation for what they do. Establishing relationships to build partnerships and work together on improvements benefits your teams and the organisation.

Demonstrating respect is done through everything a leader does from decisions they make to team talks or one-on-ones. How you talk about other people behind their backs is telling in the respect to have for them. Healthy teams are ones that show respect for each person no matter what other issues there might be.

Be deeply committed to learning and teaching, which means increasing my own expertise

Learning needs to be deeply rooted in a leader’s mindset, not only self-learning but a desire to help their teams grow too.

“A good leader is always learning. The great leaders start learning young and continue until their last breath.”

We have endless opportunities to learn in our digital world so it’s more about the self-awareness to know its importance and then develop habits to maintain that growth.

It’s easy for developers to stagnate in their careers, they learn a new language/technology to be able to do their work but seldom take their learning to the next level. Code reviews end up being the way to learn. It’s the leaders responsibility to ask questions and steer each person in their path for continued growth.

“Leaders sometimes wonder why they or their organization fail to achieve success, never seem to reach their potential. Its often because they don’t understand or can’t instill the concept of what a team is all about at its best: connection and extension. This is a fundamental ingredient of ongoing organizational achievement. (Of course, incompetence as a leader is also a common cause of organizational failure.)”

Be fair

Fairness can be subjective, people have their own expectations that if not met can mean they feel they’re not being treated fairly. Fairness can be confused with equality but they are not the same. Equality is giving the same thing to everyone no matter the circumstances. Fairness is giving each person what he or she needs and deserves.

There are many ways to be fair, here are a few:

  • hold each person to the same standards – avoid favouritism, don’t treat your stars differently
  • make decisions based on evidence – don’t allow emotions to affect judgements
  • be open about bias – don’t let bias affect you decisions and share your bias before an opinion
  • show empathy – understanding another person’s feelings helps in showing openness before making a judgement

A fair-minded leader will earn the trust of their team through their personal integrity and making good judgements for the benefit of the team as a whole. The strength of a leader shows in their ability to make balanced decisions without being influenced by emotions. Be firm but fair.

Demonstrate character

UCLA’s coach John Wooden says: “I wanted players who had character, not players who were characters.”

As much as you want people with character in your teams, demonstrating this as a leader is essential for setting the standard. The mental and moral qualities of every leader are visible with each decision made. This is how the people around you will perceive you, by your actions, as your reputation is built. Stay on guard though, as much as this is built up it can also be dented or even knocked down though careless choices.

A leader’s character should reflect in their teams too. This cumulative makeup of a team’s character is powerful. It can be the difference between success or failure. Any new hires or team changes should have the character of the team in mind to maintain its good qualities.

“You go nowhere without character. Character is essential to individuals, and their cumulative character is the backbone of your winning team.”

Honor the direct connection between details and improvement, and relentlessly seek the latter

Continuous improvement is a well-documented process, the leader has to ensure this is happening. This needs to be focused, looking at each interaction in the team to target the right areas to change. Involvement from the team is key too so you’re improving and learning together.

A team that is improving is a sign of a healthy team and organization, as Patrick Lencioni says in The Advantage:

“An organization that is healthy will inevitably get smarter over time. That’s because people in a healthy organization, beginning with the leaders, learn from one another, identify critical issues, and recover quickly from mistakes.”

A leader’s responsibility is to observe, identify, and improve. Create an environment of contagious improvement where each person in the team looks at the processes and tasks near to them and seeks ways to improve.

Show self-control, especially where it counts most – under pressure

We work in busy, fast-paced environments where decisions need to be made to move forward. Standing out as a leader means being able to work under pressure without your behaviour negatively impacting those around you.

Self-awareness is key. Know when to step out and take a break to avoid releasing your frustration on someone else.

“Furthermore, once the game started, the players responded to me not on the basis of my sideline shouting (seldom done), but because I could function under stress. I was clear headed and made sound decisions. They saw it and knew it and responded like professionals.”

Each person in the team needs to know they can count on you without having to figure out if it’s a bad time to ask a question.

Demonstrate and prize loyalty

Loyalty in sports teams and tech companies are similar. You see football players kissing the club badge one week and then leaving for another club the next. In tech, people seem to move jobs more often now than in the past, in many cases to jump a salary band.

Having people at the same company for a number of years shouldn’t mean they remain stagnant in their careers. The leader’s role is to encourage and guide their growth. Show you value the knowledge they’ve developed about the systems by creating opportunities in the direction they want to go and the extra responsibilities they are ready for. A leader should show they have each person’s best interests at heart, help them in their careers even if it means losing them from your team.

People will want to be part of a team where they know loyalty will be recognized and rewarded.

Use positive language and have a positive attitude

Leaders are the role model for their team, their attitude and behaviour should reflect in their teams.

“The leader’s job is to facilitate a battlefield-like sense of camaraderie among his or her personnel, an environment for people to bond together, to care about one another and the work they do, to feel the connection and extension so necessary for great results. Ultimately, it’s the strongest bond of all, even stronger than money.”

A team’s success is largely down to their attitude, believing and trusting in each other is key to this. A leader needs to care enough to make building this the highest priority. A trusting team will be a positive team. This is then reinforced by the leader with their communication whether in one-on-ones or to the whole team. Saying “I believe in you” is the most encouraging and inspirational statement a leader can make.

“As a leader you must have the strength to let talented members of your organization know you believe in them – nurture their belief in themselves, teach them what they need to know, and then watch what happens.”

Take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort

Imagine, as a leader, you take short cuts in your work and your output shows little care – how would your team feel? They would have every right to take the same attitude! The leader must set the standard and take pride in all they do whether it’s their least favourite task or not.

Even when the results of your work are not as anticipated, it’s the caring attitude and thoughtful response that sends a strong message to your teams.

Be willing to go the extra distance for the organization

Many managers will go about their job day to day without taking a step back to think about new initiatives. A leaders mindset will be to constantly think of ideas to improve processes or culture and then work on the feasibility of implementing them.

I see this as having a purpose to care about the people you work with and believe in putting in extra work to improve their experience in some way.

One example is a monthly mini-conference I established. I saw that each team was doing great work but struggling to share this across teams. The monthly ‘meet-up’ allowed people to share their work and discuss ideas with other engineers as well as giving people the opportunity to work on their presentation skills. This would not have happened without putting in the extra effort for something that will benefit the teams.

Deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation (don’t get crazy with victory nor dysfunctional with loss)

We know things can go horribly wrong sometimes! Being level headed across different circumstances is an essential skill for a leader.

A short-tempered leader will put fear in their teams and may cause people to hold back sharing any potential issues creating an unhealthy environment. We can also be relieved when a release goes out and celebrate without going over the top.

A leader’s reactions affect the team both for the better and worse. Showing control and poise in different situations allows for a clear head to recognise good work and learn what can be improved.

Promote internal communication that is both open and substantive (especially under stress)

A leader should be clear on their communication expectations and set the standard in keeping those. Rumours and the grapevine can lead to an unhealthy environment, so being timely, transparent, and open with communication is very important.

But, it’s not all down to the leader either, this doesn’t scale! Each person in the team is responsible for communicating clearly and sharing their knowledge across the team(s). This includes senior team members mentoring new or junior members.

A healthy team is one that helps each other, this starts with how we communicate, something that the leader should promote and set the standard for.

Seek poise in myself and those I lead

A leader cannot expect others to behave contrary to how they do. It’s already mentioned, but leadership is so much about being a role model. This covers all behaviours: how we communicate, our reactions under stress, how we treat people we don’t get on with, plus many more.

A leader who can remain composed in all situations is someone others look up to and respect.

“Having a clear idea of what your options are – situational planning – helps you be the leader when leadership is required.”

Put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own

Selflessness is often overlooked as a key leadership skill. Being more concerned with the needs of the team over yourself can send a powerful message to the teams.

This can cover many areas. Firstly the leader has to be comfortable around the team and not be distant.

“If you are uncomfortable walking around your teams workplace, awkward and out of place, you are a disconnected leader-not really part of the team. Sitting in your office with the door closed and issuing edicts from on high is not communication, and is certainly not collaborative leadership.”

Another important part is getting to know each person. Everyone has their strengths, sometimes we need to take the time to look for them. It’s only by having a relationship with each person are you able to know what can help and show them appreciation for the role they play in the team.

Hiring is also crucial to the team’s wellbeing. Building a team with purpose and belief in each other means hiring should be taken seriously, not rushed for the sake of getting more people on the ground.

“… I sought individuals who had the ability to work with others. A fundamental element in this is not only the ability of a person to understand his own role and how it fits into the organization’s goal, but a knowledge or understanding of other people’s roles. Part of my job was to facilitate this mutual understanding and appreciation.”

Many things a leader does will affect their teams for better or worse, genuinely caring about the teams means they are at the forefront of any decisions or changes.

Maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high

In the busy day of a leader, there are many distractions where the ability to context switch is essential. Maintaining focus can be challenging as meetings appear and priorities change. But focus is essential to make the right decisions at the right time.

A leader has to know the priorities, be prepared with contingency plans, be ready for any and every surprise while remaining focused on the tasks at hand. It sounds too much, but it is about using time wisely on the ‘right stuff’ and understanding what is in your control.

Make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark

Sacrifice can be an unpleasant word but in the context of tech teams, I see it as giving up something of value for the sake of others. More often than not what is being given up is time. Within a team, there needs to be an attitude of not letting your teammates down which starts from the leader. Each person should display a desire to help each other where we favour team success over individual success.

There are 17 points here that cover a wide range of leadership traits that can help grow and maintain healthy teams. Ultimately, it comes down to the leader and the person they are or want to be because each decision they make will impact the team. When the team aspects are the priority then the results will take care of themselves.

Not every area of leadership is directly covered in the guide but I wanted to include this analogy about feedback from the book:

“If you’re growing a garden, you need to pull out the weeds, but flowers will die if all you do is pick weeds. They need sunshine and water. People are the same. They need criticism, but they also require positive and substantive language and information and true support to really blossom.”

Like the above quote, there is a lot more in the book than covered here so I recommend this to any aspiring or even experienced leader.

Here is Bill’s ‘Standard of Performance’ in full:

“My Standard of Performance-the values and beliefs within guided it – everything I did in my work at San Francisco and are defined as follows: Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement; demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does; be deeply committed to learning and teaching, which means increasing my own expertise; be fair; demonstrate character; honor the direct connection between details and improvement, and relentlessly seek the latter; show self-control, especially where it counts most – under pressure; demonstrate and prize loyalty; use positive language and have a positive attitude; take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort; be willing to go the extra distance for the organization; deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation (don’t get crazy with victory nor dysfunctional with loss); promote internal communication that is both open and substantive (especially under stress); seek poise in myself and those I lead; put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own; maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high; and make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark.”

NOTE: all quotes are from the book unless stated.

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