Leadership in Testing – What Really Matters

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Leadership in Testing – What Really Matters

I’ve hired lots of testers. I’ve hired some great ones, and some well, not so great ones. Some that exceeded all my expectations for them, and some that I thought were bound for “greatness” and fell short of the mark. Consistently, the one quality that I see distinguishing the ones who reach their full potential from the ones who don’t: leadership. I prefer to think of leaders using the definitional term “guide” when describing them. They play different roles under different contexts, but always guiding the organisation, whether it be a team or an individual towards the goal.

Now, it is a very common mistake to conflate leadership with management. A leader can be a manager as well, but as we all know, being a manager does not mean you are a leader. We’ve all struggled under managers who didn’t have a leadership bone in their body, so to avoid inflicting that terror on my teams, the following are characteristics I am looking for in either hiring or promoting leaders:

1) Honesty – I speak a lot about honesty because it’s so important to leading with integrity. It resonates into every aspect of how others see you, and how you see yourself. People want to know that their leaders are telling them the truth to trust them to act as a co-steward of their career. And that trust is built with a healthy dose of self-refection. Admitting you made mistakes, sharing information, apologizing when you’re wrong – good leaders have no fear of the truth. Honesty is the building block on which you’ll build great teams, and it has to start with its leaders.

2) Communication – All great communicators are not leaders, but all leaders are great communicators. Setting the context for the mission is essential to keep people motivated and aligned with the business, and that means you have to be able to relate goals to tasks. People who tell stories that find common threads in our shared experiences are typically the ones who get the most from their teams. In order to propagate an idea, it must be relatable to something we value ourselves.

3) Humility – History is full of examples of leaders with tremendous egos. In order to even want to be in a leadership position, you must have a healthy sense of self-worth. But I think the best leaders can drive organisational change, not as programmatic coercion, but as Dwight D. Eisenhower called “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” That kind of leadership demands humility. A great tell on whether someone has a humble spirit is if they use “I” and “we” interchangeably when they speak about earlier teams, or give a pat answer when you ask them about their last mistake. I want my teams to take ALL the credit because they are the ones doing all the work!

4) Passion – People look to their leaders to keep their foot upon the accelerator, setting the pace for the organisation or team. Passion is what inspires people, and inspired people can do amazing things. I am extremely fortunate that I love my job. But what exactly is my job? My job is helping organisations and people improve themselves through great software testing. I tell my teams that we are not only responsible for improving testing on our projects, but also in the industry. Nothing less! If you’re not passionate about what you are doing, trust me, no one is going to follow you – regardless of your title.

In my experience the best leaders are honest with themselves and others, can speak in stories that tie things together, approach life with humility and their passion inspires those around them. I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded in finding leaders, but when I have been successful, they’ve met those marks. Best of luck and happy hunting!

12 thoughts on “Leadership in Testing – What Really Matters

  1. What of these 4 qualities is the one that most of the “non so great” lack the most?
    From these 4 I think communication is the only one that can be improved by training but did you found testers who improved their passion or humility?, How do they did it?

    • Thank you for the comment, and in my experience, you can actually improve the other three, but it takes what I would call “coaching” as opposed to training. It is really important for people to see their leaders “walking the walk” as people model themselves on patterns of success. When you have a problem with someone around humility, work with them privately on things like empathy, understanding their own bias, etc. so they can start to see things from different perspectives. Talk to them about your own problems with the same things and then they can relate it to their own experience. It’s not easy, granted but it can be done.

  2. Looking back to leaders I’ve respected, those 4 attributes pretty much nail ihow they were.
    Conversely, I’ve worked with people lacking one – or all – of those and I wouldn’t follow them to end of the street.

  3. I believe, due to personal bad experiences of being a bad manager, that all of the above can be learned with the right mindset and an eagerness to improve. Passion for the area you are trying to lead comes hand in hand with the role, if it doesn’t then your in the wrong job.

    I try on a daily basis to improve my leadership skills and I find the best tool for this is to have retrospectives on your day. I analyse what I thought I did well that day, but more importantly on the things I didn’t perceive I had done so well. Then I plan out how I can avoid these mistakes in the future.

    Yes, I do continue to slip into my old ways sometimes but by reflecting on my day I catch them and can then attempt to improve on my failings as a leader of testers.

    • I love the idea of a daily period of reflection, I try to schedule in free periods where I make myself unavailable so I can clear my mind and think about whats going on in my life and work…a LOT of people tell me they don’t have time for that, but I have found even 30 mins of reflection is extremely valuable…thanks for the comment!

  4. Pingback: Five Blogs – 14 March 2013 | 5blogs

  5. Communication is the best part along with passion that drives a man from a simple tester /human to a leader because once we have passion to learn then we can communicate our problem in such a way that may intends others to help and once someone help you in resolving the problem once means you just experienced the workfow and you are able to reciprocate the same when ever it is needed and This thing makes a human a leader so I would say that experience of work also makes people leader because experience is the only thing that keep people apart from other when time come to throw the responsibility.

    • Agreed, having the ability is only half of the battle…having the wisdom of how to use your ability only comes through experience. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Keith, this is a great compilation, and you can actually include a whole bunch of other qualities within each of them.

    What struck me though, is that I think the four categories play somewhat differently in different cultures. While communication and passion are more culture independent I see humility and honesty as areas that very much can differ between cultures. My reference cultures are northern Europe where I live as well as China and USA where I have spent several months in each culture. Especially in China, Honesty and Humility need to be carried out with different angles in terms of group dynamics and how humans interact. There are also quite big differences in these areas when it comes to northern Europe and USA.

    On the other hand, communication and passion in my perspective seem to be more culture independent. Even more so, when I meet passionate testers from anywhere in the world, our common passion seem to bridge many of the otherwise cultural differences.

    What are your thoughts on your leadership qualities when it comes to culture?

    Thank you!

    • Thank you for the excellent comment, Sigurdur, and it has inspired me to write a post about my response! I think your core values don’t change, but I completely agree that you have alter your approach to accomodate different cultures. More to come…

  7. This so very true when leaders look for leaders, the ideal case. But when managers look for leaders only few if none, apply which is ashame…and yes, you than leave the company and start again from scratch.

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