Every now and again, it's important for us to step back and think about why we work, and what motivates us to do so. Once we get the basics out of the way like paying our rent, or feeding ourselves, there tends to be deeper motivating factors.
One such factor is who we work for. I don't just mean the name of the company where you work, I mean the group of people that you are motivated to provide value to. Once you understand that in yourself or others, you then understand why leaders behave in a certain way.
To understand a person, start with what motivates them.
Firstly lets look at team happiness as a factor of motivation. If your answer is "I work for my team", then chances are you are leaning towards servant leadership.
Servant leaders put the happiness of their teams above all else, including their own happiness. I'm on record before as stating that I believe this is a mistake, as it will lead to burnout for the leader, and it does not scale due to the servant leader becoming a bottleneck for accountability and decisions.
However, it is quite common to see this style of leadership in the software development industry, so much so that many young engineers expect their leaders to behave in this way, due to being so accustomed to it.
Putting your team first is admirable, but that loyalty needs to be felt both ways: if the team are not loyal to you, but you are loyal to them, then that is not a healthy relationship, instead it's borderline abusive. Let's be frank, being a servant for anyone is not desirable.
Many young leaders will fall into this trap however, myself included, when I found myself trying to keep everyone in my team happy in terms of their project allocations, packages, career progressions, technology access etc. etc. Ultimately I learned the hard way that no matter how hard I tried, some people with just be unhappy and quit, and I would be burned out for nothing.
Speaking of people who place demands on leaders, now let's talk about customers. If your answer is "I work hard to keep my customers happy", then you have a commercial focus, as well as a sense of pride in your external reputation.
Working for customers is great! The more happy customers you have, the more successful you will be. Sometimes as engineers, we can lose sight of our end users, and with that the problems we are trying to solve for them.
I am a big advocate of customer focus, not just in terms of delighting them with cool features, but also ensuring they are not annoyed by high bug counts, poor performance, slow responses to support queries, or anything else that will result in them having a bad user experience.
It is my opinion that working for your customers is more important than working for your team, but many may disagree with me on that. My reason for that is simple: customers generate revenue, and without revenue you will eventually go bust, no matter how happy your team is.
One of my team leads once said to me: "The team are unhappy, some may quit. You need to choose between their happiness and the customers!". Sorry but I choose both.
The solution is simple: train your team to work for your customers too. Customer focus is a key cultural indicator for success.
There is a third type of leader who will answer "I work for my product vision!". Such leaders tend to be product visionaries, who see their teams as someone to execute their vision, and see their customers as someone who needs to be told what is best for them.
Although such leaders may sound like a pain on paper, actually there have been many very successful examples in tech: think Steve Jobs at Apple, Mark Zuckerberg at Meta, or Elon Musk at Tesla and SpaceX.
Drive and charisma tends to make such leaders successful, not people skills. Many people tolerate working for them, rather than love them, because they feel the price is worth paying to be part of their success.
If you are such a leader, be aware of your shortcomings when it comes to people management, and delegate that to others as much as you can. Instead focus your efforts where you are happiest: product design, road maps, and evangelising.
Ultimately, all leaders should delegate what they are weak at, and focus their efforts where they maximise impact.
For company founders or shareholders, the answer will often be "I work for my company to grow and succeed". They put their efforts into growing market share, brand awareness, and shareholder value for themselves and fellow investors.
The dynamic between working for a company, and working for YOUR company, is very different. The former is working for a salary, the latter for equity. Knowing this, many technology companies will offer shares to employees to increase their loyalty and motivation, which in general is a very good idea.
For a founder, the motivation is even deeper: the company is an extension of them, and represents how they want to express some vision to the world. The company is "their baby", and a good founder will work night and day to ensure it succeeds.
They are not working for a pay check, they are working for a huge pay day at the end when either the company goes public via an IPO, or is acquired. Those pay days tend to be life-changing, so motivation is never a concern.
Dare I say it, but the more honest amongst us will answer "I work for myself". I have worked with many contractors in software engineering who point-blank refused to take a permanent employee contract, instead preferring to work on temporary contracts on high daily rates.
Such operators are rife in software: they are mercenaries selling their keyboard time to the highest bidder. They tend to be very senior technology experts, who know exactly how much they are worth on the open market, and will squeeze hard during contract negotiations to ensure they get it.
They are capitalists, and honestly as a fellow capitalist, I admire them. I have no problem hiring them. But as a leader you have to be aware of the kind of mindset they have: they are not loyal, and will leave at short notice if they are frustrated in any way, or simply got a better offer from someone else.
So what about me, how would I answer? That brings me to an important point, which is the same person will answer differently at different stages of their careers.
As a young team lead, I would have certainly answered "I work for my team". I went through a rough few years of high stress in servant leadership mode, until I realized that the team members I was running my health into the ground for did not care so much about me. After all, I was there to serve them.
In the middle of my career, I would have answered "I work for my customers". Unusually for an engineering leader, I developed a strong commercial focus in my career, from working on a number of start-ups where I had to work very closely with go-to market teams from sales and marketing.
I had a blast doing that, and loved worked directly with customers, especially on large enterprise projects with international clients. But you know what? I was running myself into the ground for them also, and they did not care about me either.
So today, finally I will answer with "I work for my family". Your perspective changes when you become a parent, and suddenly find yourself providing a livelihood for a family. Now when I say about my teams that I am "not their father", I really mean it as I am an actual father to others. I will mentor and coach team mates, but only if they ask for it and are open to learn.
But I break bread every night with my family, and they love me no matter how many bugs I've got in production, or what the share value is.
To conclude, each leader will feel motivated to work for some more than others, and will provide a different blend of answers, that will change over time depending on their maturity.
Leadership is understanding what motivates people, starting with what motivates you. You must understand why you do the things you do, and for whom, before you can adjust onto a more favourable path.
Lets recap what we have covered today:
I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at TechLeader.pro, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.
Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!
File details: 17.0 MB MP3, 11 mins 46 secs duration.
Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via www.epidemicsound.com
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