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Leadership Cheat Sheet

The most important piece of advice I give testers about leadership is this — if you ever hear a manager about to start talking about leadership, leave everything you own and run out of the building. Try to put as much distance as you can between yourself and the manager. If you are in Singapore, take the first cab to Malaysia. In Seattle, drive across to Vancouver. In Bengaluru, run to Chennai and swim across to Sri Lanka. Only when you reach another country should you contact your family and let them know your whereabouts.

Nothing is more painful than to hear a manager talk about leadership. In many cases, I have seen managers become teary-eyed, since they are overcome with emotion about this profound subject. In other cases, they are full of one-liners from the latest management book they purchased at the airport bookstore.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading books on leadership. However, I always wished there was a cheat-sheet since the subject is so abstract. I came across such a cheat-sheet, when I applied for an MBA, a few years back.

When you apply for an MBA, you need to write essays in response to questions asked in the application. The purpose is to determine your potential to succeed in a management career. Will you be the next Steve Jobs? In many cases candidates apply for MBAs after working for a few years. Writing these essays, after being exposed to the real world, requires a lot of soul searching and hard work. When I applied for an MBA, I wished someone had shown me these questions when I graduated from high school.

I’ve listed some of the questions from the top MBA schools. I would recommend you try to answer these questions or think about how you might answer these questions in five years time. In my opinion, there is no better way to understand leadership.

Leadership = Doing, Acting

Leadership is about doing more than what was assigned to you. The first theme is about what you did differently. How did you stand out from others? Did you influence the larger organisation that you work for? The more radical the action you took, the better.

  • Describe a time when you went beyond what was defined, expected, established, or popular.
  • Describe a time when you questioned an established practice or thought within an organisation. How did your actions create positive change?
  • The riskiest personal or professional decision I ever made was……..

Influencing Others

Leadership is about influencing others. It’s about getting others to see your point of view. It’s also about changing their point of view. The second theme is about how you influenced others.

  • Describe a time you had to inspire a reluctant individual or group.
  • Describe a time when you convinced an individual or group to accept one of your ideas.
  • Describe a time when you led by inspiring or motivating others toward a shared goal.As in the first theme, there are some situations that are more challenging. Did you get your boss to change his point of view? Did you get the whole organisation to rally behind you?In the current landscape of software development and testing, there are plenty of issues/challenges to work on.
  • Does everyone in your organisation understand testing? Do you? How about agile?
  • Should you use metrics?
  • How does your organisation evaluate testers?
  • Do testers get along well with developers?
  • How much automation should you implement?
  • Does the organisation struggle with managing costs? How does that impact you?

How does the organisation conduct performance reviews? Are reviews fair? All of these questions and many more are great opportunities to challenge the status quo as well as to try to influence others.

In the current landscape of software development and testing, there are plenty of issues/challenges to work on.

  • Does everyone in your organisation understand testing? Do you? How about agile?
  • Should you use metrics?
  • How does your organisation evaluate testers?
  • Do testers get along well with developers?
  • How much automation should you implement?
  • Does the organisation struggle with managing costs? How does that impact you?
  • How does the organisation conduct performance reviews? Are reviews fair?

All of these questions and many more are great opportunities to challenge the status quo as well as to try to influence others

Learning from your Experiences

Both the previous themes, doing more than expected and influencing others, are not easy. Most people will have faced more disappointment and failure and maybe only a few successes. However, success in itself is not the most significant factor that demonstrates your leadership. What is important is what you learned from your experiences. Note that to make this response meaningful you need to be genuine about what you learned from your experience. It isn’t easy to come up with the ‘right answer’.

  • Describe a life experience that has shaped you.
  • Describe a time when you were a student of your own failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development?
  • Describe a personal challenge or obstacle and why you view it as such. How have you dealt with it? What have you learned from it?
  • Describe a time in your career when you were frustrated or disappointed. What did you learn from that experience?
  • What is the most difficult feedback you have received from another person or the most significant weakness you have perceived in yourself? What steps have you taken to address it?
  • Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience?

Another way to think about how your experiences influenced you, is to apply the first two themes to yourself:

  1. While you took action to change external situations, did you take similar initiative to change yourself (for the better)?
  2. While you influenced others, how did others influence you?

Who are you?

The final set of questions is about who you are. What shaped your character? What are your values? What makes you different? More importantly, how does all of this result in your unique perspective? What will this unique perspective contribute to a group? How will this benefit others? The following questions were asked in admissions:

  • What brings you the greatest joy? How does this make you distinctive?
  • What events or people have had the greatest influence in shaping your character and why?
  • How will your unique personal history, values, and/or life experiences contribute to the culture at [company name]?
  • How will your background, values, and non-work activities enhance the experience of other [company name] students and add value to [company name]’s diverse culture?
  • How has your family, culture and/or environment influenced you as a leader?

Other than work

In addition to the four general themes, most business schools will want to know:

  • Projects that you did at work, which were in addition to those assigned to you.
  • How did you give back to the community?
  • Your hobbies and outside interests.

If your time is mostly spent on work, it may be a good idea to examine if you want to spend time on something else. At work, you also have the option to get involved in something other than your project. Outside work do you want to get involved in a project that will help your community? Do you want to revisit your old hobbies or interests? Although this is a cheat sheet, you really can’t cram for something like leadership. The only way to learn leadership or get opportunities to demonstrate leadership is to broaden your exposure to a bigger world. Working on things that are not related to your assigned work, community projects, general hobbies and interests might give you such opportunities.

A Manager’s (definitely misty eyed by now) Call to Action

Leadership is not about intellect. Unfortunately, in the world of business/software/testing, people in leadership roles are often the most experienced or highly skilled or knowledgeable. As a result, it seems that leadership requires knowledge and authority. I don’t believe that is true. Leadership starts with your worldview, your beliefs and how you want to make a difference. It starts and ends with you. Leadership is challenging yourself to see how you can better your work and the environment to make a difference to others and yourself. It’s also about exposing yourself to a variety of opportunities. Leadership is about character.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on November 18, 2017. This article was first published in the Testing Planet, Page 21, Issue 10, March 2013. Here is a link to a copy of the original.

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Software testing, project management, managing testers

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