Not every project you join at the start. I recently was passed the baton to become the new design lead of the WordPress editor focus. The current lead, Joen Asmussen is taking some time off to welcome a new baby boy into his family. He wrote an amazing post about passing the baton, this is a companion post about receiving that baton.
Stepping into someone else’s shoes can be daunting. On hearing you are going to it’s easy to get into comparison mode. Will you be as good as the previous lead? Will the team respect you as much? Just like with any leading, it’s crucial to remember you are picked for a reason and hold that to your heart in those first tentative steps.
At the start it’s a little like a really in-depth empathy challenge. You are trying to understand the role, the person that lead before you. You will pan out from the lead into the team, then into the project itself. In this post I’m going to look at the stages I went through and how they benefitted me as I took on the lead role.
Meet and greet stage
On taking the lead role, I was lucky enough to have a few weeks where both of us were around – sometimes this isn’t a luxury you have. This was invaluable time that helped me get acquainted with the project as a lead.
The team also got time to adjust to me, it’s a lot to ask for a team to mid flow accept a new lead. The meet and greet stage needs time and if you can have it sets you up a firm foundation to build on. It’s where you get to know the cast contributing to the project. It’s also where they get to know you. With most cases the leadership style between two leads is going to be different. It takes time to set the tone of the lead to the new pitch.
Possibly one of the biggest things you can do when taking over a project is ask questions. I compiled a list of questions which the previous lead answered for me. This serves a few purposes:
- A way of finding all the corners and cobwebs of the project.
- A written record you can turn to when the lead isn’t around.
- A way of finding gaps in the current project documentation.
As the questions are answered there may be further ones that come up, this is great as means you can repeat the process. Part of this will lead into improving documentation. For the editor, Joen took time to improve the design documentation; this was really a huge benefit to the project.
Taking over design lead the questions phase serves to set the style tone. It’s important to understand the roots of a project, the inspiration. This means the vision can continue and remain intact.
I don’t believe the right approach to any leading is to walk into the project talking. Take time to listen, hear the heartbeat of the project and the voices of that those working on it. Most of us don’t walk into a room of people shouting at the top of our voice, so don’t do it with any project. Lead doesn’t mean loudest voice.
For this project, the listening involved attending meetings and observing how the team interacted. I was lucky enough to join in the existing leads conversations and the team chats, this taught me a lot about the project. A place of listening is one I find it’s good to return to throughout leading any project. It allows you to see the panned out view and judge it’s health.
Begin by filling the gaps
The first few weeks of leading were about finding the gaps and filling them. This was easier to do in this situation, although I like to try and do it in any role. I took time to see where my skills could fill gaps, where there were parts of the project people hadn’t got time to work on. The benefit in this is you can slowly get to know a project and do some housekeeping along the way.
Test the flow
I spent a good few days going through all the flows of the editor. I used it, I wrote a post, inserted media, I clicked every button and opened every interface. Along the way I got to make a lot of bug reports, this taught me how to make them and it also showed me the shadows of the project.
Through team members showing me and searching, I also found older tickets that had reported the bugs. I got to learn about the history of the project. I got to see where we need to focus and where things are hitches in flows.
Herd the bugs
After finding a lot of bugs, I moved into GitHub in this case, where the bugs were being tracked. I familiarised myself with the milestones and labels used to categorise. I set up a daily triage practice to get me bit by bit familiar with what was going on.
Preparing for when the volume goes up
About 2 weeks ago it felt like the project volume went up to 11. I was suddenly having my notifications light up like a Christmas tree. Whilst it’s good to be wanted, experiencing this can be disconcerting. Your peaceful acclimatisation is broken as you suddenly find yourself in the midst of a project. This is when you have to remind yourself that you’re there for a reason, to literally and metaphorically breathe. Nothing needs doing so urgent you can’t breathe.
Remember you can pass the baton
Taking on any lead role should be done with the acceptance that it you, like the previous lead can step out. I don’t intend on doing that as feel I have a journey to go on with it. However, if I do need to, I know I can. This project now has survived a lead handover, it can do again. It’s actually the sign of a healthy project if it can do this and the ease this happened with really is a positive indication.
See where you can add your sparkle
All humans have an ego. We all like to make a mark in a project. I’m no exception and I am slowly finding where my skills can help the editor. I’ve joined at a time where I can really bring the community skillset I have into play.
Each of us has a unique variation of skills, even when all from the same role. Finding that way to add your take, show your skills and make even something small in your form – that matters a lot. Every lead shapes a project, leaves an imprint on it.
It’s not easy being a non-first lead
I don’t want to gloss over the fact that taking on a lead role from someone is not easy. Humans and projects attach to leads, it’s natural and right. As a person stepping in you are opening yourself to all your imposter thoughts.
The biggest gift you can do is take time with yourself, time with the team, time with the lead you are taking over from and time with the project. Allow yourself to recognise it’s not as easy as being there from the start leading.
Being a lead from the start of a project is what often most experience. Having just been passed the lead baton, I can say it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone looking to challenge and grow their leadership skills. It’s not easy but it really is worthwhile. I have been lucky to get the support of my existing co-lead Matias Ventura, outgoing lead Joen and the incredible team working on the editor. I’m really excited for what will come.