myself again

I wonder if sensing the coming spring makes folks ready for new challenges.

I have several friends navigating intense career changes right now. Discussing their situations has put my own newfound stability into sharp contrast, especially reflecting on where I was a year ago when I wrote my last post here. I’d lost my confidence in many things and wasn’t sure I’d ever feel it again. I was running on pure liquid conviction.

My last company helped and challenged me in many ways. After spending so much time in my first startup, it was a critical change of perspective. Just getting to see a different way of doing anything was a big deal. The founders were good communicators and committed to social justice; they set my expectations higher. I got to do a lot of hiring and refine a sense of mastery over those skills. And, I learned important lessons from coworkers — not just engineering-related things like how test automation fits into a product team, but social things like what it’s like being Black in leadership, how a woman can perceive an interviewee’s answers very differently than me, or what it’s like for a transgender person to apply for a job. It was intense, and I leaned into every conversation anyone was willing to have with me.

But it also reminded me that leadership skills are the water I swim in. I discovered too late in the journey that our values were not aligned, not because of malice, but a lack of maturity on their part. If you’re naturally charismatic, it’s easy to think your ability to attract folks to your cause is leadership. The problem that unfolds is when you hire operational leaders without being able to assess their actual leadership skills. You assess their resume instead, like X number of years doing a thing = Y skill level. If it turns out they made it thru those years with bullying or charisma, you’ve going to have a real problem. And they did.

More than once, someone pointed at a mud puddle and told me it was a swimming pool. If I hadn’t been swimming in those waters so long, I might’ve even believed them.

One of the worst insults I was ever given was from a former manager. He said I wouldn’t know how hard it was for him to lead a group because I was naturally charismatic. That is complete bullshit. I’m ADHD/autistic; my default state is to interrupt, tune out, or flail at figuring out basic conversational cues. My leadership skills (and public speaking skills) are from grinding on them from the age of 13 and screwing up in every way possible in more contexts than you can imagine. I am battle-hardened because I accepted my fears, bit back my tears, and tried again. And again. And again.

But in delivering this erasure of my efforts, he demonstrated an important reality: Most folks can’t tell the difference. Is it effortless because you’re a bullshitter, or effortless because you did the work? There’s a lot more folks trying to do the former because it’s an order of magnitude faster and easier. If you haven’t done the work yourself, how are you supposed to tell? The irony is my last employer accidentally got someone in the room who could tell, and they chose not to believe what I told them.

I know the difference between leadership skills and simple charisma or bullying.

I provide feedback regardless of its convenience.

I smell miscommunication like a bloodhound on the hunt.

I find important problems not being solved and solve them.

These qualities make me a massive pain if you’re trying manage me without the skills to back it up. But they also make me an invaluable partner (which is how I approach anyone I’m hoping to lead). It really just depends on your perspective & skill level, and I’ve learned I need to figure that out before I agree to work for someone. Today, with this new understanding and the experiences that got me here, I finally feel like myself again.