Designing powerful alliances: how to spark a leadership domino effect
We often see the Highlander concept in engineering leadership: “there can be only one.” In most teams, there’s one VPE, one CTO, and one manager per team — structurally, there’s one “spot” for each role.
But even though this structure makes sense for most teams, it’s not uncommon to see “leadership silos” form as a result. Oftentimes, engineering managers spend most of their energy supporting their direct reports and leave little (if any) time for learning from other engineering managers. Without support and validation from their peers, it’s natural to wind up feeling alone in the challenges they face.
“People end up feeling very alone when they take on these leadership roles by themselves,” Edmond Lau, co-founder of Co Leadership and author of The Effective Engineer, says. “Even though they’re part of a team, the types of issues they face as leaders can be isolating.”
Having experienced similar feelings of isolation in leadership positions, Lau and Jean Hsu joined forces to start their company, Co Leadership — with a mission to bridge the gap and coach engineers to become more effective leaders. And a core focus in many of their programs is to facilitate impactful communication and build alliances between leaders (facilitating a sense of “co-leadership,” if you will) — and then teach those leaders how to do the same in their own organizations. These Co Leadership experiences have attracted leaders from companies like Google, Airbnb, Dropbox, Reddit, and many more.
“What we’ve been doing is identifying what the gaps are for engineering leaders,” Hsu says. “What are the gaps in training or resources that we can provide to really improve the state of the tech industry, to have more meaningful work and supportive teams?”
In this joint interview, Hsu and Lau discuss what co-leadership really is, how they practice it in their own company, and what becomes possible between leaders with aligned, shared goals. Furthermore, they can help you understand how to design alliances with other managers in your own organization, and how powerful conversations play into facilitating leadership within and between engineering and product teams.
What is co-leadership, and why embrace it?
Hsu and Lau both led impressive individual careers — leading software teams at Quip, Quora, Medium and more — and then becoming leadership coaches. They were prime examples of entrepreneurial success stories. And yet, they decided to join forces and start Co Leadership together. Why?
“Working together, we’ve realized that we can accomplish things more quickly, at a higher-quality, and it’s ultimately more fulfilling,” Lau says.
The concept of “co-leadership” is more involved than having two sets of hands on the steering wheel and two names on the door. At its core, the practice is about supporting and promoting leadership between two or more people. Each individual takes ownership over the group’s goals, much like how improv actors all work together to co-create a single scene on stage.
They like to point to the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, to model how co-leadership enables leaders to accomplish more together than they can separately. The principle states that 20% of your effort generates 80% of your gains. The remaining 80% of your effort can be exhausting and tedious.
With co-leadership, you have two people each putting in that initial 20% effort, leading to 80% gains that don’t fully overlap. That often helps co-leaders get to 100% of the accomplishment without the grueling 100% investment in time and effort.
“It lets you take on much bigger things,” Hsu says. “When I was doing coaching alone, I kept putting off ideas I had about facilitating workshops and creating group experiences. The concept of sitting down for many hours to come up with the content, alone, was daunting. But creating these programs with Edmond is enjoyable and **really efficient. For instance, we’ve designed a three-hour workshop in one hour.”
“The peak moments are higher, and the troughs of sorrow neutralize more quickly, because we’re not alone in them. And we always surprise ourselves by how much more we accomplish in less time.”
To truly embrace co-leadership, leaders have to check a lot of ego at the door. You’re letting go of one person receiving all the praise for success (and all the blame for failure). The goals of the team, the company, and your collaborative leadership become more important than personal credit. When the whole team succeeds, you all rise. Lau and Hsu, for instance, each publish blog posts on their site with one name on the byline—but every time, they’ve collaborated on the piece together.
That’s the minimal price they pay for all the benefits they reap: not only generating more in less time, but also accomplishing greater feats than either had seen in their careers up to this point.
“At the end of the day, we don’t experience the familiar end-of-day drained feeling,” Lau says. “The peak moments are higher, and the troughs of sorrow neutralize more quickly, because we’re not alone in them. And we always surprise ourselves by how much more we accomplish in less time.”
How having a shared purpose reduces friction
This arrangement sounds nearly too good to be true, but Hsu’s and Lau’s alliance didn’t happen out of sheer luck and happenstance. They set up their relationship consciously in ways that others can replicate and modify.
“There are different ways co-leadership can manifest,” Hsu says. “We teach in our leadership program that you need to be deliberate about creating connections with the people you’re working with and learning about what motivates them, and then really design how you want to work together.”
The people working together in this situation can be any combination of engineering managers, product managers, and design managers. It can be between individual contributors across teams, or across functions. Really, it’s any small group of people working on a similar plane with related (if different) facets of the company.
A lot of times, the typical communication between these leaders is not exactly strong. You’ll see each department figuring out their own stuff and talking to the others only sporadically. In that model, you don’t really have that shared goal of the company’s success being the most important thing. And you’re missing out, Hsu says, on the potential for people to support, challenge, and learn from each other — and ultimately elevate leadership as a whole.
“In a typical organization, there’s a lot of friction, miscommunication, and lost context around what people actually mean. And there are loyalties to the design team, the product team, or engineering, that reduce those leaders’ incentives to collaborate with one another.”
“In a typical organization, there’s a lot of friction, miscommunication, and lost context around what people actually mean,” she explains. “And there are loyalties to the design team, product team, or engineering, that reduce those leaders’ incentives to collaborate with one another.”
Often, when these types of individual-centric teams fail, it’s because the leads are only focusing on the ideas of their particular areas as opposed to each of them co-owning the actual goal of making sure the project they’re working on succeeds.
“From the company perspective, the only thing that really matters is that the company succeeds,” Lau says. “Who does what **doesn’t really matter — but how it gets done, does. Co-leaders have made an investment of trust into their relationship so that they understand what’s important to each other and they’re able to focus on their shared goals.”
Creating co-leadership from where you are
Building this collaborative rapport with shared goals is simple to conceptualize when you’re starting a company with another person: you both want the new company to succeed. But how do you make this happen in practice, in your current position in an established company?
One place to start looking is the parallel ladders already climbing through your organization. There’s the management ladder, the technical ladder, even the product management ladder. These are great areas to find your co-leaders without restructuring things organizationally, Lau and Hsu say. Identify the people on alternate tracks who you can design a relationship with so that you are all more effective in getting things done.
Sometimes, these will be people you’ve worked with for many years already. “There’s a level of comfort or maybe even friendship there,” Hsu says. “But a lot of people rule out the idea that you can create that level of trust with people you’ve only worked with for a few months.”
That level of trust is possible with anyone, no matter how long you’ve known them, they say—so long as you develop that relationship purposefully. Co-leading, after all, is more about connection than it is about titles.
“Often times in tech, those types of explicit design conversations around relationships don’t actually happen, or maybe they happen in an ad-hoc fashion. It can be done very intentionally.”
What Hsu and Lau both brought from their coaching backgrounds is the focus on actually talking, openly and explicitly, with other people. Tease out what’s important to them, because we often assume that what’s important to us is what’s important to everyone else.
“We ask people powerful open-ended questions that get them talking about the things that are important to them,” Lau says. “Step one is getting that out in the open. When that stuff is implicit, it’s really hard to build a strong foundation around it.”
Once you get what’s important out in the open and on the table, what success looks like to each of you, and what the shared goals are at this point in time, then you can have explicit conversations around them. Hsu and Lau teach this as the idea of designing your alliances.
“You can have conversations around how you want to design your relationship together to both respect those things and take care of those things,” Lau says. “Oftentimes in tech, those types of explicit design conversations around relationships don’t actually happen, or maybe they happen in an ad-hoc fashion. It can be done very intentionally.”
These conversations can be uncomfortable at first because we are not used to having them. They can make us feel vulnerable, and we’re accustomed to keeping our own business to ourselves. But you can break through those old familiar feelings when you’re looking to build a close working relationship with someone else.
“Sometimes, people are uncomfortable saying, ‘Hey, let’s invest in our relationship,’” Hsu says. “There are times when it’s more expected or comfortable, like when you join a team or you get a new manager. But there’s almost always benefit in asking people questions like, ‘What’s more important to you in working together? What do you want to get out of it? What does success for this project look like?’ All these questions that you would think are easy to answer, but a lot of times people will say what they think you want them to say. It takes time to become comfortable and open to honestly answering questions like these.”
Optimize for long-term work relationships
The key to keeping these co-leader relationships working through time is to keep having conversations around these ideas, and to continuously check any unspoken, implicit beliefs before they lead you astray. Essentially, a continuous co-leadership scenario thrives when you give air to every aspect of that relationship.
“You have to have conversations around these things,” Lau says. “One of the tools that we teach people is to gut-check the assumptions that they make. We teach people to have conversations where they share their assumptions about each other. They share the impact that the assumption has on their relationship. Having that conversation then becomes material for redesigning their relationship if necessary.”
So designing your alliances is not a one-time endeavor. You are signing up for a constant cycle of redesigning the relationship. And the co-leaders who succeed are the people willing to make those investments in each other and themselves.
“The powerful part about clearing these assumptions is it becomes another way to offer and receive feedback,” Hsu says. “The stories that we make up about other people are more about us projecting onto other people. I have a story that if I ask you too many questions you’ll find it annoying. That’s easy to receive and process. Then you can say, “Ask me as many questions as you want. I’m not going to be annoyed. I’d just like to help you.’”
This constant building up of the relationship comes back to the idea that co-leaders, as co-creators, are like an improv comedy team. One of the foundations of improv most helpful to this relationship is known as yes, and.
“If she says ‘Yes, and,’ we can go back and forth to create a rich scene where we’re supporting each other’s observations and also building on top of them.”
“If I say, ‘Oh, look at that dog in the street,’ my partner has to both affirm what I said and also build on top of it for the scene to actually function,” Lau explains. “If she says, ‘Yes, and it’s rolling around in something,’ we can go back and forth to create a rich scene where we’re supporting each other’s observations and also build on top of them.”
One way Hsu sees this dynamic in managing engineering teams is when engineers go off by themselves to start tackling a problem on their own, without getting feedback for quite some time. When they finally do get feedback, it could wind up being something like, “This is actually the completely wrong approach,” and those engineers could have just wasted several hours of their time.
In a co-creator relationship, that engineer could bounce ideas off their colleague before diving into the code. They could submit code early (by breaking their work into smaller pieces), and get feedback more often throughout the process — building trust between the team and boosting knowledge-sharing, while also minimizing the potential that the engineer gets off track.
Another place this dynamic shows up is when we share fresh ideas with people. “We all have experiences where we share a new idea with someone, we’re hoping for some cheerleading or support, but instead the idea gets popped immediately,” Lau says. “I think this happens in engineering a lot because we’re so used to pointing out what’s wrong with a design. That ends up being pretty detrimental to ideas succeeding. When Elon Musk is trying to fly human beings to Mars and the response is ‘This could go wrong, this could go wrong, this could go wrong,’ we’re not going to get very far.”
It’s when you support each other’s ideas and allow yourselves to dream much bigger that you can actually inspire and move each other, Hsu and Lau say. It’s a skill and a tactic that you can pass on to the engineers on your team as you encourage them to invest in co-leadership themselves. Every opportunity for a conversation around shared ideas, goals, and motivations is an important place where co-leaders can use yes, and to motivate and inspire the people they’re leading—and, of course, each other.
If you want to start designing your alliances and finding co-leaders in your work, download Co Leadership’s free, 3-step Guide to Designing Powerful Alliances. You’ll get a taste of what Hsu and Lau have been teaching in their leadership programs and online courses.
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