CTO.berlin Articles

Stop Being The Smartest Person In The Room

As a CTO, I've often found myself as the spearhead, the guiding force behind innovative solutions like our ETL architecture. My deep involvement, while initially a source of pride, inadvertently led to a less engaged and more passive team. The realization hit me hard during one project where despite my heavy involvement, the true potential of the team remained untapped. It became clear that being the smartest in the room was more of a limitation than a virtue.

Hiring by Potential, Not Just Knowledge

Reflecting on my hiring practices, I realized the importance of potential over current knowledge. Challenging candidates in interviews to think beyond the task at hand and to counter my viewpoints has been enlightening. It's about spotting those who aren't just ready to take on today's challenges but are eager to grow into tomorrow's leaders.

Admitting When You're Wrong

Embracing my fallibility has transformed our work culture. Admitting when I'm wrong has opened up a dialogue where everyone feels safe to contribute, question, and innovate. It's fostered a more dynamic, collaborative, and innovative environment where learning from mistakes is the norm.

Establishing Circles of Excellence

Our "Circles of Excellence" have been a turning point. Initially hesitant to relinquish control, I now see the immense value in these self-driven groups. By sharing the challenges I faced with the ETL algorithm and stepping back, I witnessed an upsurge in creativity and problem-solving from the team. Their solutions often outshined the path I would have taken, highlighting the strength of collective intelligence over individual know-how.

Creation of Cross-Functional Teams

A pivotal moment was the creation of a cross-functional team to address the complexities of our referral tracking system. The gap in understanding between marketing and engineering was vast, and as the most knowledgeable person on the topic, I was the de facto bridge. However, by bringing these teams together and sharing my insights, I fostered a shared understanding and responsibility. It was challenging, especially relinquishing the role of expert, but the collaborative environment it created led to better solutions and a more holistic understanding of our customer needs. This endeavor was a lesson in humility and the power of collective expertise.
In every instance of stepping back, I found that I was not diminishing my role but rather enhancing the entire team's ability to perform and innovate. I've learned that my goal shouldn't be to always be the smartest person in the room but to cultivate a room full of smart, empowered individuals. Every day, I'm reminded that the strength of a leader is not just in their knowledge but in their ability to foster growth, encourage collaboration, and inspire a shared vision. It's a continuous journey, but one that has profoundly transformed our team and me for the better.

The Challenge of Stepping Back

Stepping back is often counterintuitive. We're accustomed to leading from the front, solving problems directly, and setting the pace. However, relinquishing control, even partially, can be daunting. Initially, it will feel like things may not go according to plan, results will not meet your high standards, and progress will slow down. Despite these apprehensions, stepping back is crucial for several compelling reasons:

Reducing the Bus Factor

The "bus factor" is a term derived from the grim hypothetical: how many team members could be hit by a bus before the project or team is incapacitated? It's a measure of risk associated with knowledge concentration. If you're the sole keeper of critical knowledge, the project's success is dangerously tied to your presence. By stepping back and spreading knowledge and responsibilities, you reduce this risk significantly. A lower bus factor means a more resilient and adaptable team, capable of handling challenges even in your absence.

Raising the Level of Product Ownership Among the Team

Product ownership should not rest on the shoulders of a single individual, especially not just the CTO. When team members feel ownership of the product, they're more engaged, innovative, and committed to quality. It transforms their perspective from merely executing tasks to thinking strategically about the product's success and customer satisfaction. This sense of ownership fosters a more proactive and empowered team.

Maintaining Talent

One of the key factors in retaining talent is giving individuals autonomy and responsibility. Psychologists, including famous ones like Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg, have researched and highlighted the importance of responsibility and meaningful work in job satisfaction and motivation. When team members feel their contribution is significant and they have the autonomy to make decisions, they're more likely to feel satisfied and stay with the company. This not only helps in retaining talent but also in attracting new talent who are seeking workplaces that value and trust their employees.
In conclusion, while stepping back might seem like a slow and sometimes uncomfortable process, its benefits are undeniable. It fosters a resilient, empowered team, reduces risks, and ensures a healthy, innovative work environment. As a CTO, embracing this approach has transformed my leadership style and team dynamics, leading to a more robust, creative, and engaged team. As we continue to navigate the complexities of technology and leadership, let's remember that sometimes the smartest move is to empower others to be the smartest in the room.