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Everyone Is a Potential Leader

Leadership
Juniors

22 August, 2021

Sven Coppens
Sven Coppens

Sr Product Development Director at Aprimo

Sven Coppens, Sr Product Development Director at Aprimo, discusses why leadership is a favorable quality that should be encouraged and groomed in junior engineers.

Problem

Leadership is widely perceived as a quality favorable in executives and managers of all levels. Not only is it believed that they are the only ones to exercise leadership skills, but that they are the only ones that should be coached in those. Yet nothing can be further from the truth.

This distorted view of leadership results in two major problems:

  • It is hard to promote people into leadership roles if they haven’t been trained in leadership skills prior to assuming those roles;
  • Management often complains that employees are not taking ownership, are not proactive enough, etc.

If leadership is considered a quality that should be equally distributed across the organization, the above problems and many more will be more easily solved.

Actions taken

You should start by acknowledging that leadership is a positive quality to be found across the organization. Next, you should identify people who are more inclined by their nature to develop these skills. I pay particular attention to juniors who have the potential to develop those skills. Of course, a junior coming out of college cannot match an executive in terms of capability or experience, but the right support can unlock that hidden potential.

I would be on the lookout for leadership skills during hiring. If I notice they have “that something,” I would be more inclined to hire them. A junior with leadership skills would have a different interaction with their manager in comparison to the one that wouldn’t have those skills. Their managers could see the difference immediately: instead of telling them what to do, those juniors would take the initiative, be proactive, and own their projects. Their presence and way of working would have a broader impact on the team culture as well. The team as a whole would become more self-sustainable, proactive, and autonomous.

I have compiled a list of nine leadership skills that I look for in people other than managers:

  • Caring about other people. Though someone is a junior developer, they should also take responsibility for how their peers feel and how they can help them. No one should be considered an isolated island, which is an approach many managers take toward their ICs.
  • Being customer-focused. Juniors shouldn’t be taught to follow requirements blindly. On the contrary, they should be given full context and encouraged to understand why they are doing something and how that benefits customers.
  • Learning to prioritize. If a junior starts to refactor code, that would mean they can’t do anything else. But if that is the right thing to do, they should be confident to move ahead. Being able to differentiate what is important, right, and/or urgent should help them learn to prioritize. Moreover, they should be empowered by their managers by being given the freedom to make those decisions.
  • Taking ownership. No matter how small a project that a junior developer is given, they should develop a sense of ownership. They should feel responsible for the outcome of their work and accountable to fix the problems without handing them off to others.
  • Nurturing a problem-solving attitude. Juniors should be unafraid to tackle any problem. They should be coached to simplify problems, narrow them down, then focus and propose direction. While this is expected from leaders, the only difference I could see between leaders and juniors is in the complexity and scope of the problems that need to be addressed at different levels.
  • Being positive. Juniors should also take their part in creating a positive and inspiring working environment. Their positive disposition should serve as an encouragement to their struggling peers. Also, being able to think beyond constraints and have an optimistic outlook.
  • Having good communication skills. Communication is one of the top three things that people in different organizations think should be improved. Juniors -- like everyone else -- take part in communication and should be coached on how to communicate at their level.
  • Being able to build trust. Juniors should also be able to build trust with their peers and managers. Trust needs to come also bottom-up, and it is a cohesive force that keeps a team as one.
  • Being able to think big and inspire results. The ability to think big should not be reserved for leaders only. Juniors should be able to inspire their peers and drive their motivation. They should also be ambitious and shouldn’t shy away from having big plans.

Lessons learned

  • The importance of leadership skills in juniors is frequently underestimated, and coaching is seldom provided. I believe that some of the problems in engineering organizations stem from a lack of leadership at the junior level and a lack of attention given to this issue.
  • Many software organizations still put more emphasis on technical skills in comparison to soft skills. This applies to all levels. But it can have different consequences when juniors are not coached or encouraged to value and improve their leadership skills. Sometimes there is a lack of understanding of why soft skills, including leadership skills, are critical; other times, how that would impact juniors particularly.

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