Bossy kid to people leader: playing to your strengths

I guess you could say that very early on I was demonstrating what might be described as ‘leadership potential’. In other words, I was a bossy kid – and no one you ask will deny it. I naturally assumed a specific role when participating in group activities; I took charge. I was the one making sure that all aspects of the project were under control, that everyone was included or doing their fair share, and that the cabin was suitably tidy before cabin inspections at camp.

However, in the early years of my career, I thrived in roles with a large support component, where I was spending a large portion of my time helping people. I could’ve been helping customers or helping my colleagues, and as long as I was getting some sense of making peoples jobs or lives easier then my job satisfaction was pretty high.

I’m not just talking about direct customer service roles here. I’m also talking about being a BA in an agile development team. I knew that if I played to my strengths and did what I was great at (like backlog management, scheduling agile rituals and stakeholder communications) then I could free up the tech lead to also play to their strengths so that our team could be more effective. I loved bringing the team together as a cohesive unit, pushing our limits and pushing each other to be the best we could be, and be great together.

There is a stark contrast between the mentality I had as a child and the skills I developed as an adult. As a child, I would say I tended towards management, but as an adult, I aspire to be a good leader. Harvard Business Review sums up the difference between management and leadership quite nicely.

Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organisational success.”

There is a big difference between management and leadership. If you’re aiming to be a leader, this blog identifies the things you’ll need to know about yourself in order to transition from manager to leader.

Reflect on what you have loved about your previous roles and look for patterns

I have come to realise that my previous roles supporting people weren’t just about being nice and taking one for the team, they were about supporting the success of people around me. Likewise, decorating someone’s desk or bringing cake for their birthday wasn’t just about the celebration (though that was certainly part of it!), it was about celebrating being part of an awesome team and creating a culture where people wanted to come to work and be their best selves.

When you think about what you have loved about your previous roles, think about what those elements were really about, and then look for patterns throughout your career. Also consider whether you’ll get any of that same stuff in a leadership role. Will you get to do that thing that you really loved, or some variation of it? If not, put some thought into whether that’s a deal breaker for you.

Understand why you want to be a leader

Fast forward a few years and I was embarking on the first formal leadership role of my career. Quite honestly, I decided to take on a leadership role because I felt that I had been fortunate to work with, and learn from some incredibly inspirational leaders. Those people had helped me, supported me, held me accountable, and pushed me when I didn’t even know I needed pushing.

The time had come to do the same for others. I encourage you to actively understand why you want a leadership role. What is it about the role that appeals to you? If your answer is simply that it’s the next obvious career progression, then I would recommend pausing for a moment and thinking about whether that’s enough to get you out of bed in the morning.

So there I was, excited to be ‘paying it forward’ so to speak, but did I remember any of that when I met my team for the first time? Absolutely not! Because just like any time we meet someone new, you first have to break the ice, get to know each other and build rapport before all else. And this leads me to the next tip…

Recognise and play to your strengths

I was the last person on board with a newly formed agile development team. A new workplace for some of us, and a new project for all of us. We had a product to understand, and some looming deadlines to meet. I knew I needed to play to my strengths so that my team could play to theirs.

However, time waits for no one. I didn’t have months at my disposal to get to know each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. I consider myself to be a very open, friendly and welcoming colleague. I genuinely like getting to know people, and because I value authentic connections I find it easy to move beyond the initial niceties.

By utilising this skill, I was able to jump right into the activities required, to get a new agile team into project-planning mode while also engaging in some of the meatier activities around building high-performing teams. By building a culture based around psychological safety, I watched a group of people who were very recently strangers become a cohesive team with a sense of purpose and a common goal. To this day, that remains a huge career highlight of mine.

When you think about some of your key skills, consider which ones could be beneficial when easing yourself into a leadership role. Whether it’s interpersonal skills, public speaking or an uncanny ability to name a song in the first two seconds of the intro, I can guarantee that if you play to your strengths you can make your introduction to leadership a smoother experience.

Take note of what fills your cup

Earlier I told you about how I had always loved helping people. I specifically worded that so I could take you on the journey of self-discovery that I went through – but let’s dig a little deeper here.

Think back to the last week or two of work. Which activities or parts of your role have dominated your focus? Pay particular attention to the thing that you prioritised despite it not being the most important thing on your to-do list, or the thing that left you with more energy than you had before you did the thing, or the thing that made you feel just as amped as that first sip of coffee in the morning. Okay, not quite that good, but you get the picture.

The first thing that always comes to mind for me, is cracking a complex problem or challenge that I’d been working on for a while. Succeeding always made up for the frustration of actually doing it. Another thing I enjoy is taking masses of unorganised information and simplifying it, identifying patterns and summarising it.

As a leader it’s your duty to help your team grow and develop in their roles. It’s important that you are able to give your all to your team, because there is a chance that supporting them is the majority or the entirety of your role. With this in mind, you need to be replenishing your energy in the way that is best for you. Before taking a leadership role, ask about the opportunities to get involved in the areas that interest you – doing the things that fill your cup. When starting a leadership role, seek out these opportunities as soon as possible.

In retrospect, I discovered that while I loved support activities and roles, I also needed to balance them with challenging situations, project deliveries and complex problems. I needed to balance team work and culture building with a healthy dose of individual contribution to a project. That’s how I fill my cup, so that I can give my best efforts to helping those around me.

I find my niche by getting involved in some internal projects that were happening in the organisation – both in previous roles and at Media Suite. Doing this allows me to get to know people outside my department, try something new and contribute towards the success of the project or initiative. By setting aside some time to do this I am sometimes less available to my team, but the time that I did spend with them is much more impactful. I find the context switch to be refreshing, and I am able to swap between tasks and return with a refreshed perspective each time.

I am able to recognise the kinds of things I can do on a daily basis to lift my energy up which allows me to give my all to the team around me. In my current role, though no longer in formal leadership, I have learned to use my leadership skills from within a team and not just in a hierarchical sense. I also find satisfaction in helping people around me grow without having to be their team lead or manager.  

If there is only one thing you take from this post, let it be this; understand what fills your cup and what gives you energy. Not just when it comes to a leadership role either, but in life in general. Knowing the kinds of things that replenish your energy could help you get through all kinds of situations in life.

What fills your cup?

When 531 people do good

Of the 634 people who held an orange Lego brick in their hand yesterday, 531 of them cared enough to give it back.

Those 531 people made a conscious decision to make sure it got to the right place. They decided that making a quick detour to our Canterbury Tech Summit booth was worth it.

This year, Summit-goers showed us we were right to put our faith in people. In the end, 84% of attendees decided to do the right thing.

For those who don’t know, at the Tech Summit this year (just like last year), we opted out of swag bags, and opted in to giving.

Here’s how it works

  1. Media Suite chose three charitable causes to support, and left it up to Summit-goers to decide which they felt was the worthiest of our donation.
  2. Summit-goers received a Lego brick on their arrival and registration at the event.
  3. They were asked to swing past the Media Suite booth and decide which worthy cause deserved $10, to be donated by Media Suite on their behalf. No sign up or email address required, nothing to sell you while you’re there, and no obligation to interact beyond sticking your brick to someone else’s.
  4. Summit-goers came to our booth and chose one of the three charities to support.
  5. At the end of the day, we counted up the number of Lego bricks given to each charity, and multiplied that number by $10 per brick.

Media Suite will be making donations to the total value of $5,310 – representing the 531 bricks returned.

Ministry of Inspiration: $1210 (121 bricks)

Code Club Aotearoa: $2050 (205 bricks)

The Champion Centre: $2050 (205 bricks)

The final sculptures created by all our amazing donors.

Here’s what we were asked on the day:

Why do you do this?

Because doing something good seemed like a really good alternative to handing out branded pens. Because it’s money better spent. Because our team really loves to get behind good causes.

What’s in it for Media Suite? 

We get the good buzz from being able to donate $5,310 to causes we think are awesome, and know we used our swag bag budget to make a tiny difference to some kids who could really use it.

Loving sharing the love.

Do you really donate the $10 for every brick? 

Absolutely. Every single brick was counted, and every penny will go exactly where you intended.

What’s the feedback like on this idea?

We think the 84% says it all. Almost every person who voted, took the time to read the material we supplied on each charity, and listen to us talk about these awesome causes. They made an informed choice, and invested a few minutes of their day making sure their brick went to the charity they felt was most deserving. That’s all the feedback we will ever ask for.

Almost everyone made an informed choice.

Does the Tech Summit support this idea?

The Summit organisers are hugely supportive of our project. This year, they set us up with a table right by the entrance to ensure every attendee received their brick in their hand, and it didn’t get lost in their swag bag (a big logistics issue from last year). They set up a notification on the event app as a reminder to cast your vote, and the MC was kind enough to give a final prompt before closing address. Their support is a big factor in our success and one of the reasons why we can donate $5,310 this year, compared to $2070 last year.

How’d you come up with the idea?

In 2017, we thought about a lot of ideas for items that people would want in their conference swag bag. We did a lot of research on providing value. Then, after all that, we decided we couldn’t really provide value by adding some more stuff to the bag.

Someone (we forget who) suggested we should just take the money we would’ve spent on branded swag, and give it to charity. Then the question became, which charity? Our team had a lot of ideas. But what we really wanted, was to engage with Summit-goers. We could easily make a donation to a great cause, but wouldn’t it be great if Summit-goers could choose?

We decided to choose three charities up front, then ask everyone to vote. But, we didn’t want any of our three causes to miss out. So we decided a vote would have a monetary value, and every vote would add up to a total donation.

Next, we settled on Lego as a voting chip – because it’s recognisable, it’s fun, and it lines up perfectly with Media Suite’s primary goal – building the right thing.

From there, the idea took off! Last year, only 207 people gave us their brick and picked their favourite charity. That’s 34% of Summit-goers. This year, we’re at 84%.


Next year?

Well, that’s up to you.



Introducing CoLabs – the innovation engine

When we first discussed the idea at Media Suite, I wasn’t asked to create ‘CoLabs’, I was asked to create a ‘lab’.  

I never really questioned the word lab. Instead, I just jumped into the creation process. It was a word I was already familiar with in a professional setting. To me, it was a common term used to describe start-up incubators, vehicles for innovation, and in-house research facilities.

It never occurred to me to think of the word lab in its original, longer form – laboratory. A laboratory has a very different meaning. When I think about a lab, I think of something neat, fun, and approachable. When I think of a laboratory, it’s more of a serious place where people conduct rigorous experiments.

It may seem strange to dwell on the difference between a lab and a laboratory, but I think the story of CoLabs is deeply rooted in the semantics of the words we use, and the way we communicate.

Lab vs. laboratory

CoLabs has many interconnected goals, but two base purposes: innovation and experimentation.

Innovation: CoLabs is designed to help people work together, communicate effectively and explore challenging, systemic problems. In this way, I think of it as a lab – approachable, exciting and useful.

Experimentation: CoLabs can be described in a more direct manner as a facility for conducting workplace experiments to advance an organisation’s strategic objectives. In this way, it’s more of a laboratory.

When the two meet, the true magic of CoLabs happens.

A CoLab has three stages, each as important as the next, and all working towards systemic organisational change.

  1. Visualisation – to gain clarity.
  2. Ideation – to develop ideas.
  3. Experimentation – to test solutions.

Okay, that’s what a CoLab is, but why should it exist in the first place?

Pain points vs. problems

I think that people tend to look for the quick fix – the solution to a pain point, not a problem. Understanding the difference between a pain point and a problem is essential.

Pain point: The acute impact – the regular irritation or inconvenience experienced in an organisation or individual’s workflow. It’s the immediate issue most people are focused on fixing.

Problem: The systemic cause of a pain point. The root issue that needs to be solved in order to effect real change. Often, just solving a pain point can make the real problem worse.

CoLabs is a facility aimed at investigating the problem that causes the pain point. It focuses on the root cause, gains clarity on the series of events that causes the problem, and brings people together to understand the situation and develop ideas for solving that problem. When the problem is solved, the pain point is also solved.

There are some key reasons why an organisation would implement a CoLab.

  1. Capability: you may not have the in-house skillsets or resources available to explore and potentially solve a challenging organisational problem.
  2. Perspective: fresh eyes without organisational bias are essential to challenge assumptions, ask good questions, and notice the things being overlooked. It can be hard to bring the right perspective to a problem from within your own team.
  3. Dedication: CoLabs lives or dies based on its reputation and its ability to deliver results. There is a clear incentive to be as successful as possible.

The culture of change

Innovative culture is a difficult thing to create. All it takes is one negative or counterproductive employee to bring open communication to a standstill. Over time, culture can work against innovation, stifling great ideas and robust discussion.

The primary benefit of a CoLab is establishing an internal innovation framework. Think of a CoLab as extra horsepower for your company culture. By creating a safe, structured place to raise important issues, test ideas and design new ways of working, an organisation is empowering deliberate and experimental culture change. This is something that continues long after we leave.

That’s essentially it. CoLabs is a framework for innovative culture change implemented by a multifunctional team built from within the organisation’s own ranks. As a group, participants dig into a problem using their skill sets and perspectives to add value to the process. Once a problem is identified, CoLabs ideates and tests solutions quickly with minimal cost.

Building a reputation based on quick, valuable wins, CoLabs sets up a problem solving engine within the host organisation, built from its own people.

The goal is always to walk away, leaving a growing culture of innovation with all the tools it needs to flourish.

Read more about CoLabs here.

Landing on one’s feet: not just for cats

Change. As the aphorism eloquently states, it’s the only constant. I’m reminded of change each day during my ‘barrow bike’ commute, whether it be the change of seasons, the weather, the scenery, the people encountered, or the thoughts that rattle around in my head. It’s funny then that, despite the changing nature of the world we live in, most of us like routine. Big changes, (even welcome ones like buying a house, having a baby, or starting a new job) can cause us stress and make us insecure as we step away from the familiar into the unknown.

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And changing jobs is precisely what I did a couple of months back. I chose to step away from the familiarity of the domain I’d been working in for a decade to start a new journey with Media Suite. This meant an entirely new role, spanning multiple, complex, and unfamiliar domains, with a whole new crew and completely new clients.

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Well, I’m now well and truly one of the Media Suite crew, having joined the other caricatures on the website – thanks to our very own Master Artist Sarah Pitts. Being one of life’s big changes, I expected my stress and insecurities to chart like a bell curve – starting small, but quickly peaking as I discovered how much I have to learn, then lowering as my contextual competence increased. Surprisingly, this change has come smoothly, as the crew have welcomed me in as one of their own. Why did it happen so smoothly in this case? Well, I’ve concluded that stress and insecurity don’t always accompany change, especially when at least one fundamental thing stays constant throughout – in this case, shared values.

Let me explain.

Something I’ve recognised as a common quality among the people I choose to surround myself with is their authenticity. I like the straight-shooting, what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of person. I want you to tell me if I’m heading down the wrong path, if I’ve done something stupid, or if I’ve got food stuck in my beard (or better yet, help fish it out for me!).

Teasing this out a little more, I’ve grown to realise that authenticity is a necessary element for me to develop trust in someone. And it’s the ability to place trust in those around me that I continually seek and value. So it’s not surprising that my number one consideration when on the job hunt was finding a workplace culture where relationships (both internal and external to the company) were built on trust. I was looking for somewhere where I could try something new, take risks, and innovate. But to do this I needed to know that if I fell off my bike en route, there was recognition that mistakes happen to the best of us. More importantly, there’d be someone there to pick me up and help me back on my way without blame.

Realising that trust is paramount to me is all well and good, but how could I use this in my job hunt? Trust isn’t immediately formed, so how long should it take to form? And what signs could I look for to improve my odds of finding a place where this would happen?

Firstly, the ‘how long?’.

Simon Sinek (well known author and motivational speaker made famous for his Ted Talk ‘Start With Why’) uses the analogy of love and marriage to illustrate this point. As he points out, you’d probably freak out if your friend told you they’d fallen in love with a person they’d met last week and were going to get married. But if that same friend was in a relationship for 7 years and wasn’t sure if they loved the other person, you’d probably think something was wrong. So we know love takes more than a week but less than 7 years, but no one can say specifically how long.

I think that the same goes for trust. We know trust doesn’t just happen immediately when we meet someone, but you can be sure that if it hasn’t formed after 7 years, it’s unlikely to.

So, given none of us can predict how long it takes, what could I do to improve my chances of finding a trusting workplace?

What are the signs?

This is where values come into play. Values are the principles or standards that guide our behaviour throughout life. When we encounter those with similar values we tend to have a natural affinity towards them. It’s that ‘I really like that person’ experience – that feeling of having something in common. So for me personally, the seed of trust lies in having shared values. So rather than focusing on trust itself, I decided to use values as signals of trust, giving me a GPS to help me on my job hunt. Values such as honesty, openness of communication, integrity, support of others – to name a few.

And thanks to some route programming by my good friend Greg, my job-hunting GPS led me on my barrow bike to my ‘interviews’ with Media Suite. I say ‘interviews’ because the experience was like none I’d been through with other organisations. This wasn’t your typical scene of candidate turns up, meets interviewer of suitable rank and authority, hierarchical structure is established, and the preset questions of skills and experience ensue.

This was different.

My experience at Media Suite demonstrated the values that ran the company, embedded within their interview process. Instead of an interview, I had conversations because they value openness of communication. Conversations with peers because they value mutual respect. Conversations with the whole crew because they value a non-hierarchical leadership system.  We talked about meaningful things like purpose, the importance of family and work-life balance, having respect and integrity, teaching and learning from others, and having fun because Media Suite values forming deep relationships with employees.

I’d found something special here. The Media Suite crew were looking for someone aligned with their values, not someone who fit a mould made of predefined skill and experience. The fact that our values aligned was the GPS alerting me that I’d arrived at my destination.

Finding the trust

So here I am two months in, continuing my daily commute by barrow bike, observing the changes that come with each passing day, and embracing the changes that have come with my move to Media Suite.  Being surrounded by a clever, supportive, and trusting team has meant I’ve been able to roll with the change, get into my stride, and work to my strengths, free of the stress that comes when these things aren’t present.

This particular change has meant I now wake in the morning and look forward to riding into the office and working on meaningful projects with the crew. Change has meant I now ride home in the evening feeling fulfilled and with energy and time to spend with my family. These are the types of changes I’d like to see more of in this world.