From Bottom-Up to Top-Down Missionary

Author’s Note: Many people share their accomplishments publicly, only showcasing the successful end result. In reality, the road to personal growth is never as smooth as it appears. In my “Behind the Curtain” series, I shine a light on the reality of the hard work, successes, and failures encountered in my career.

Before joining the startup world last year, I spent most of my career in consulting, most recently at Slalom - a strategy and technology consulting firm headquartered in Seattle. As a “gun for hire”, so to speak, I was brought on to help our clients execute the software engineering aspects of strategic business initiatives, like helping Starbucks overhaul their loyalty rewards program.

But the value I delivered wasn’t just about writing code. It was about helping our clients affect change in their organization, by driving the right behavior. This included everything from driving technical excellence efforts (coaching junior developers on software architecture or reducing process waste via CI/CD implementations) to advising clients on how to overcome project roadblocks.

As part of that broader mission of driving change, I got used to “shaking the tree” from time to time and taking aggressive action to make things happen. Of course, as an outsider brought on at the behest of management, I had the benefit of avoiding (for the most part) the hurt feelings and bruised egos that might result when a critique is lobbed from a peer, as opposed to a neutral third-party.

In effect, I was a bottom-up missionary (to borrow from the great Marty Cagan): writing code alongside my fellow developers while also actively pursuing ways to go above and beyond for my clients. Despite not having direct authority over the dev team (i.e. no appointed title like “Team Lead”), it meant demonstrating leadership anyway. It was an incredibly effective (and fun) balancing act - engineers looked to me for guidance when solving challenging problems while management appreciated my honest feedback and suggestions.

Flipping My Leadership Approach

Fast-forward to today. Since starting my current role last year as a Product Evangelist inside a small startup, I’ve decided to alter my approach and find new ways of driving change in an organization. Here are some things that I’ve learned.

In the consulting world, you focus on one objective at a time and do whatever you have to do to get the job done for your clients. It’s like facing a negotiating partner knowing it’s a one-shot deal. In a small startup, it’s more like a repeated negotiation. Winning the deal at all costs will hurt you when you face that same negotiating partner again and again. Instead, you have to focus on building trust and rapport over time. That requires driving results by bringing everybody up to the right level, instead of bulldozing whatever’s in front of you. For example, where I would normally have delivered critical feedback bluntly and in front of the whole team, I’ve learned to instead invite my colleagues out to coffee, understand their perspective, and share feedback I have privately. This gives the person a chance to make changes in their approach without being called out by one of their peers in a public forum. It seems rather basic to me now, but it took some learning.

Secondly, unlike consulting, where I was effecting change at the ground-level, today I am part of the leadership team and am interacting daily with the co-founders, VPs, and product managers. It’s been amazing, and something I’ve been yearning for a long time. With that kind of access and influence, I no longer need to shake the tree from the bottom. I can help drive the strategy from the top through more subtle means than I’m used to.

Through this transformation, my leadership approach has flipped from bottom-up to top-down missionary. As a result, my communication strategy and how I engage with my peers has changed.

Moving Forward

Per my manager’s suggestion, I’ve begun reading Judith E. Glaser’s “Conversational Intelligence.” Only a third of the way through, it’s already illuminating:

“When we rely on our previous knowledge and experiences to help us work out issues in the present, we often fall into the trap of doing more of the same thing, but getting worse results.”

I have an incredible opportunity to make a tangible impact on my company’s growing business. The challenge is walking the fine line between leveraging my consulting leadership experience to push others to be their best selves, while at the same time recognizing and respecting the hard work and success they’ve had in the past. Through a top-down missionary approach, I’ll avoid further feedback traps and ultimately be successful in becoming a leader at this company and others in the future.

comments powered by Disqus