5 lessons in leadership from a “reluctant leader”, David Neal

Software developer, Microsoft MVP, and self-described “Ambassador of Awesome”, David Neal, came to town to present at NDC Sydney. One of the sessions he gave was, “Leadership for the Reluctant Leader”. I’ve known a few people who would appreciate that advice, so after his presentation, we sat down and had a chat about leadership.

5 lessons in leadership from a

It was a longish interview (50 minutes) so if you want a quick summary, here are my top 5 takeaways:

Be an advocate leader

  1. BE AN ADVOCATE-LEADER AND PROTECT THE TEAM (he mentions this twice in the video: 15:30 and 36:20) 

    There are a number of leadership styles you may have heard of, such as “servant leaders”, who try to actively help and be part of the team, and “authoritarian leaders”, who lead from the front and expect to be followed. So which one does David like? 

    “I think there’s a time and a place for both [servant leaders and authoritarian leaders],” says David. “Their goal is to make the team successful and will do what they can to remove obstacles and keep the team running on all cylinders – constantly asking what we as a team, can do to improve.” 

    “It’s not about me or my position of authority,” he says. “It’s about what it takes for us to be successful. It’s about being an advocate for everyone else on the team.” 

    The leadership style he describes is more aligned with the “servant leader” than the authoritarian leader. David describes his ideal leadership style as “doing whatever the programmers are not so that the programmers can focus on the coding“, by keeping the team members well informed and the tasks lined up so that the team can run efficiently. It could be shielding the team from the noise and politics and painful stakeholders that can cause conflict and slow progress. If there’s no benefit to the team knowing about that stuff, then the advocate-leader should focus on resolving the conflict so the team can stay on task, uninterrupted.

    Be an active listener

    1.  BE AN ACTIVE LISTENER (David mentions this multiple times – at about 8 minutes in and again at about 15:35)

    “When you have people who are very capable and strong… [they should be] given the empowerment to help steer the direction of the team as a whole. The last thing you want is for the team to feel that their manager is not listening. Even if their preference isn’t taken, they want to feel heard,” says David.

    David went on to provide some tips on how to let someone know that you’re really listening to them. “Articulate it back to them. Here’s what I think you’re saying – and reply back to them in your own words what it is you heard them say. And if they agree with you, then you know that person is listening and really hearing what you have to say.”

    Active listening is a tool David brings up several times during our conversation. Whether I ask him about how to fix a disengaged employee or how to change someone’s mind, his answer is active listening.

    try lean coffee

    1. TRY “LEAN COFFEE” (this begins at about 18 minutes in)

    Lean coffee, David explains, is a technique to conduct agendaless meetings, like strategy meetings, retrospectives, or planning meetings when you don’t have a set agenda to discuss. Meetings can be painful. You often get stuck on the first items and run out of time for the rest, and meetings can be driven by the person who is the loudest and dominates the discussion.

    Lean coffee resolves these pains. In a nutshell, everyone writes down their ideas of what they’d like to talk about during the meeting on sticky notes and then take a vote on the suggested options. Everyone has the ability to vote twice. They can vote twice on one topic or use their votes on two different topics. The topics that have the most votes get talked about first.

    Each topic is time-boxed to 5 minutes. You start the discussion on that particular topic, and when the timer goes off, everyone gives thumbs up or thumbs down as to whether to stay on the topic or move on. The final 5 minutes of the meeting are used to establish the action items and catalogue the things that didn’t get discussed to be voted on again in the next meeting.

    The benefit of “lean coffee”, says David, is that it democratises the meeting, and prevents any one individual from railroading the whole meeting. It puts the team in control and keeps them engaged. “People might go in thinking one thing was the priority and come out realising something else was and be surprised at the outcome.”

    You set the culture

    1. YOU SET THE CULTURE (David talks about this from 24:50 to about 29 minutes in the video)

    Everybody wants a good culture at their company. What you choose to compliment people on or what behaviour you choose to correct is your cultural handbook. The standards you walk past are the standards you accept.

    David says, “I think culture has a lot to do with leadership in the company. It’s what they recognise, the things they celebrate, the things that they emphasise.”

    “It’s all how the leadership treats the different activities… it has to start from the top. You can talk about culture all you want, but if the leaders aren’t walking it, aren’t praising the good behaviour and taking action against the bad behaviour, then [your cultural handbook is] meaningless.”

    David went on to give an example of how his workplace has their employees spend their second day at the company volunteering, and ended with this thoughtful conclusion, “That was definitely out of my comfort zone, but at the same time, it really sent the message home that as a company, we’re not just paying lip service. This is part of who we are, and if you want to be an employee here, this is what we expect you to do.”

    David’s company provides security solutions, and while I find the link between security software and helping people experiencing social disadvantage a bit tenuous, it seems to have struck a chord with David.

    In the case of SSW, we are continually trying to improve the maturity of software teams, so the expectations championed by the leadership – myself and the state managers – is about always being willing to learn and to help your coworkers to do the same. The SSW company culture is centred around the idea of continuous improvement, and while we make it explicit in our induction, Scrum and DevOps processes, it’s also inherent in our daily lives at work.

    Get rid of open plan offices

    1. GET RID OF OPEN PLAN OFFICES (David discusses this from 22:22 – 24:35)

    I have oscillated back and forth on whether SSW should have open plan or discrete offices. When I started doing a renovation, I based the plans on meetings with the employees who all pointed out what new office they would like following the renovation. Then I happened to rent the office that came up next door that was completely open plan and a large percentage of the guys naturally moved over to the other place, which made me feel that what they said they wanted and what they actually wanted were 2 different things. But then, of course, I’ve had complaints from developers who found that they couldn’t get anything done because of our naturally noisy workplace. These complaints were from more introverted developers and it makes them feel really stressed, so I was keen to know what David thought of open plan offices.

    “Open offices can look really cool… but the reality is, people that really want to get their work done are wearing headphones. They‘ve got to minimise the distractions somehow, so you don’t have the collaboration you kind of hope for when you have an open space.”

    “You find people are finding every excuse to be in a conference room or a quiet area. When I went into the office, we had this place called The Library that had the social construct that you treat it like a library. You’re quiet, you don’t distract anyone, you’re there to get work done. And that’s where I would go, I would go to the library to get work done.”

    Ultimately, what David believes in is doors and having private spaces:

    “The thing that has worked best in my career so far has been to have a centralised plan where you have offices that surround a common workspace where people have their offices, and if they need to have face to face conversations, they can come to the centre of the space around a big table, have those conversations. We’ve called those ‘war rooms‘ in the past – the centre of it is the war room and then you can retreat back to your personal space.”


You can see the full interview here:

What are your thoughts on David’s leadership tips? What are your favourite traits in a leader?