How to Establish Yourself as a Leader

Irina Stănescu



I was 5 years into my engineering career when I joined a team as the second member and realized I’m passionate about leadership and wanted to help my manager build the team. I didn’t think I had enough experience to be a tech lead, but I cared about how things were done, and wanted to help set the people that would join the team up for success. I was drawn to the tech lead role but didn’t really think I stood a chance.

If you want to find out how I ended up becoming the tech lead and furthermore a tech lead manager, keep reading.

Actions taken

A pivotal moment in how I approached work happened after I attended an in-house leadership course back when I was at Google and I was still a simple IC, not even at a senior level yet. That course made me challenge the importance of having a leadership title and how it affects my work behavior. I realized I had one limiting belief which was: I thought I had to wait to get the title first, then start acting like a leader. I also thought seniority and number of years of experience are important when getting a leadership role, and this limiting belief also ended up being incorrect, as we’ll see in the following.

For the first time, I heard about the concept of self-leadership that encompasses a much broader space than the workspace and is tightly-knit to how we inspire others. It’s more of a way of living. I also learned that tech leads or managers aren’t necessarily good leaders (unfortunately), and good leaders don’t necessarily have to be tech leads or managers.

I now use another definition for what a leader is: someone who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way. What this made me do is basically start acting as a leader. I stopped focusing on getting the title and just started acting like I already had the title. Whenever there was an opportunity where I felt I knew the way, I would do it and show it to others. I didn’t need a title; what I needed was to give myself permission to be a leader. And that was very empowering and changed everything.

For example, there was a lot of inefficiency due to folks waiting on code reviews. It was never clear who was a required reviewer for various code reviews, and people were left confused. I proposed introducing an SLA for code reviews; no one had to do it immediately, but we would expect reviews to be completed by the end of the day. I also asked all thrift changes to be reviewed by at least one iOS and one Android engineer, in addition to one backed. I set up team-wide expectations on code reviews that established accountability without interrupting people in their daily work. Also, there was a lack of clarity on the steps to test new features, and I made sure to document my own testing method into a step-by-step guide that would allow people to be more autonomous and efficient. As a big believer in teaching people how to fish rather than giving them a fish away, I also introduced knowledge transfer and teaching practices that were particularly helpful to more junior people on the team.

And this is how I became the tech lead for the next big project. I became the next obvious choice for my manager when the need for a tech lead appeared because I had already demonstrated my leadership skills and capabilities. Moreover, when my manager needed to scale the team further, I was asked to start managing a handful of my previous peers, becoming their tech lead manager.

The seniority of the folks that I was leading varied, some of them being more senior than me. And although at first, I had to work extra hard to prove my competence despite being more junior, in the end, I was able to demonstrate that being experienced as an IC does not translate directly into how good a leader you are/will be.

Lessons learned

  • Transitioning from being an engineer to becoming a leader is never easy, but women may find more obstacles along the way. Women tend to be more critical toward themselves and allow self-doubt to impact their actions. They are also less likely to nominate themselves for promotion. You don’t have to wait for anyone to nominate you or officially be a tech lead to start leading. Be the person who empowers yourself.
  • View any interaction with your team as a teachable moment. Focus not only on a problem at hand but also on what a person could learn through the process of solving a problem. I want to leave things -- whether projects, companies, or even people -- better than what they were when I came there.
  • Age doesn’t matter when it comes to leadership. Don’t be afraid to lead people more senior to you. People will often find themselves in this trap -- they will not dare to challenge someone more senior. Being more senior doesn’t make someone’s right by default.
  • If you feel called to and are passionate about a leadership role, you will have to learn to quiet down your inner critic and fear.

Be notified about next articles from Irina Stănescu

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentIndividual Contributor RolesTech LeadLeadership RolesLeadership & StrategyTeam & Project Management

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