Pat Kua is a technology leader with over 20 years of experience and the author of the Level Up leadership newsletter. Pat is also a prolific author, authoring three books in addition to running the Tech Lead Academy, an organization dedicated to training technical leaders all over the world. Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn about Pat’s experience as a leader and the mistakes he made early on in his management career.
1 Who has been your most memorable boss and why?
I’m going to talk about two people. So, my very first manager when I left university, I was actually working at Flight Central Australia, and my manager was a non-technical person, and she was a really great manager. The reason I remember this very well is because she was very caring, and she was clear about not being able to help me solve technical problems, but I always appreciated the support that she did provide me, and she was always trying to help me better myself of work towards certain goals. She was a really great manager because she recognized where she couldn’t help me but focused on supporting me and nurturing me where she could from an organizational standpoint. She taught me that you can be a really successful manager or leader without having a similar background.
The second person that I wanted to talk about was my first manager at Article and he was the complete opposite because he was super technical and I think almost resentful that he never got a chance to write code and do the things that he enjoyed unless he worked overtime and scripted and wrote stuff on his own time so he started to give me his side projects which were things that he always wanted to try. He gave me the opportunity to take his ideas and bring them to life and over time he began to become more comfortable, and I gained a lot of autonomy and freedom.
2 Do you have to make sacrifices as a leader?
Honestly, it is a little bit of a sacrifice. It’s also more of a question of how much of your time do you get to spend or doing the things that you really enjoy. You’re going to be spending less time doing what you love when you’re in a leadership role because your priorities and responsibilities shift to cater to those around you. Your value add as a leader is to better the environment around you and helping others with their growth trajectory so you’re naturally going to be spending less time doing what you started out working on.
3 What were some mistakes that you made early on in your management career?
A lot. I remember leading a team really early on and it was my first time as a technical leader and I was responsible for a pretty large team that included a couple of QA’s, around eight developers, a business analyst and a project manager and I was responsible for everyone so I felt like there was a lot of weight on my shoulders. I felt like if I didn’t do the right thing or if I made a mistake it was all on me and I felt like I had to work through every problem on my own because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone on my team. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything as best as I could and leading as best as I could. But of course, it was my first time or one of the earlier times so I didn’t know how to do certain things and I didn’t want to ask any questions or reach out to anyone on the team because I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t doing a good job and it essentially led to this situation where I had put so much pressure on myself because I wasn’t ready to ask for help.
4 How do you know if someone’s a successful leader?
There are a couple of things I tend to think about with this. I have what I call the holiday test. So, can you go away for a holiday? For a week or two? And does everything keep running without you? So for me, that’s a really great test, because I’m based in Europe, and it’s very common that people take two to three weeks of holiday at a time. I think if you’re in the North American continent, people still check emails on holidays, you know, they’re not really on holiday. And so, for me, the holiday test is recognizing if you can disengage or not. You want to be able to empower the people around you to take care of things and make the right decisions when you’re away. Empowering your team to make crucial decisions or act accordingly during an emergency when you’re not present means you’ve done a good job of delegating tasks and it also eliminates the risk of potential bottlenecks when it comes to decision making because they won’t feel like they have to run everything by you.
5 How do you decide what to prioritize and work on?
I’ve been running some training with some early-stage leaders and one interesting piece of feedback I got recently was that I needed to teach people how to prioritize their time because it’s a major challenge but there’s no one size fits all solution, and the answer is very contextual. I think the question everyone has to ask themselves is that if they have a limited amount of time, what can they work on in that time that will have the most impact. A good way to do that is to brainstorm all the possible problems that you have and then think about which problem is the most constraining and then once you feel like you’re in a good place, you can start to brainstorm a list of experiments. After that you can begin to determine what you can work on that will have a high impact.
6 What is the Fixer rule?
A lot of people spend a lot of time in meetings, but a lot of meetings are poorly conducted. The Fixer Rule is if a meeting isn’t providing any value, you can leave because the more people that are included in a meeting only extends the length of the meeting. If you feel that it’s no longer offering any value to you, I recommend culturally encouraging your teams to come and go as they please which can actually be really hard for people to do.
7 Do you have any tips, tricks, or words of wisdom for managers or leaders that are looking to get better at their craft?
Leadership is a journey, not an end. It can be very helpful to join a community that provides you with access to resources to continually hone and improve your particular skills. If you listen to these podcasts that give you more tips about being a great manager, joining communities, and reading a lot more books, you will be a much better and stronger leader and manager as a result.