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This important lesson about effective leadership took me ten years to learn:
Investing in the infrastructure of your relationships is just as important as investing in the infrastructure of your code and products.
I finally understand why it took so long. And by sharing why, I'm hoping you can learn it much faster than I did.
Last month, I spent a couple weeks investing in the website infrastructure for our new company, Co Leadership.
I spent time laying down groundwork that I knew we'd need for growing our business: codifying our development environment and web infrastructure with Docker so that they're repeatable, creating development workflows to automatically regenerate and reload our website, writing push-button scripts to stage and deploy our website, scripting common interactions with Amazon Web Services, and more.
Those investments paid off the last two weeks as we've iterated quickly in building our website — with the tooling in place, Jean and I had a blast co-editing our site and focusing on the changes we wanted to ship.
Like many engineers, I deeply value investing in infrastructure and tooling. Ever since I started my career, engineers I respected have constantly hammered in best practices in code reviews and feedback. “Abstract these two functions to reduce code duplication.” “If you're doing something manually more than twice, automate it for the third time.” “Small optimizations in your workflow, like keyboard shortcuts, compound their benefits over time.”
The impact of investing in this infrastructure has been readily observable: many hard things become easy.
By contrast, it's taken me much longer to generalize the value of investing in code infrastructure to the value of investing in the infrastructure of my relationships.
The reason — and it took me ten years to realize this — is that I didn't know what the best practices were or where to learn them from!
The turning point happened a year and a half ago, when I started the first class of many with the Coaches Training Institute to become a leadership coach. I watched as a masterful coach evoked transformation in a client in just twelve minutes. And I was blown away.
That's when I realized that just like there are best practices around code, there are best practices to create transformation, build trust, and discover the heart of what's important to the people I coach. And those very same tools and frameworks could be adapted to help us become stronger engineering and product leaders.
Had I known these best practices, I would've invested in the infrastructure of my relationships much sooner.
Learn Best Practices Early to Accelerate Your Growth
On some level, we all know about the importance of relationships. I've had people tell me “invest in your relationships” for the past ten years.
I would nod my head, but like many people, I had trouble finding time to invest in my relationships. Looking back, my inaction was really a result of not knowing what to do. When you don't know the best practices, it's hard to feel that time in an area is well-spent, especially for someone as passionate about effectiveness as I am!
“Spend time with people” is common guidance but not good enough. It would be like receiving guidance that was just “spend time on coding” — directionally good advice but not actionable enough. How much time? What should I ask? Should we go for a walk or book a conference room?
On top of all that, compared to code, people are less deterministic. This further obscures the payoff of investments spent having coffee chats or on one-off one-on-ones. Understanding computers and code can be hard, but spend enough time debugging, and you can get to the root cause. Without tools and frameworks (like debuggers or unit tests or design patterns), it's no wonder people feel ill-equipped to deal with the infrastructure of human relationships.
Just like there are design patterns for code, there are also design patterns for building high-trust and effective relationships in teams.
And these best practices can provide step functions of improvement in the quality of the relationships, just like they do for codebases.
One of those best practices is designing your work relationships as alliances.
Invest in Best Practices for the Infrastructure of Your Relationships
Download Co Leadership's Guide to Designing Powerful Alliances. Invest in the foundation of your leadership.
Design Your Work Relationships as Alliances
Designing an alliance is one of the most powerful tools for investing in the infrastructure of our relationships.
Jean and I first learned about the idea of designing alliances in our coach training with the Coaches Training Institute. As coaches, we explicitly design the relationship with each client so that we can be effective allies. And one requirement for an effective alliance is to be very explicit about expectations and responsibilities, on both sides, so that we can make the relationship successful.
That same idea also applies to our work relationships.
The people we work with are our allies — we're working together toward a common goal. The way to make our alliances effective is by explicitly having a conversation to discover and share what's important to each side so that we can design our work relationships around what's important.
When we explicitly design our alliances, we build trust, and we make hard things become easy. Things like finding alignment, giving feedback, and getting buy-in from stakeholders can all feel more like small investments rather than dramatic changes.
At Co Leadership, one of our goals is to help everyone in tech become more effective leaders. We teach in-depth how to design alliances at our workshops, but even if you can't attend, we still want to make these tools for investing in the infrastructure of your relationships broadly available. It's one of the highest-leverage areas you can invest in to become a more effective engineer and leader.
And so today, we're releasing our first free tool: The Guide to Designing a Powerful Alliance. It breaks down the three steps for designing alliances with your team and transform how you work. Using this tool, workshop attendees who've worked together for years have discovered important insights about what motivates each other — in just a few minutes of conversation!
Give the tool a try, and let us know the impact it has.
Design a Powerful Alliance in 3 Simple Steps
Download Co Leadership's Guide to Designing Powerful Alliances. Start investing in the infrastructure of your relationships, and make the hard things easy.