philipp's blog

Embracing Slow Periods as a Lead

Here is an issue that people do not like to talk about: transitioning from an individual contributor to a lead can be boring at times. And even worse: sometimes you question your choices because it feels like your work has no impact - all you do is sit in meetings all day.

Work is coming to individual contributors at a steady pace: tickets, reviews, requests, you name it. For leads, there are for sure tough times, but there are also slow times with way less requests coming in. Since people don’t want to be perceived as lazy in a hustle culture, they usually don’t talk about it too much, but that doesn’t change the fact that slow phases definitely exist, and they can be pretty hard on your self-worth if you feel that all you do is slacking off most of the time.

It’s hard not to feel like an impostor when everyone around you seems super busy, while all you have to offer as an update is the same as last time. I remember one time in my career where all other teams in my department were super busy with incidents and tight deadlines, while my team had almost no projects to contribute to. My leadership updates were pretty short at that time, and I felt bad about it.

At the same time, individual contributors have a pretty direct cause and effect relationship between what they do and what their impact is: close a ticket, push a feature live, generate value to users. For leads, it’s not that easy. Sit in a meeting today, and then what? Did things go better because of your contribution in that meeting? Or would it have gone the same way even if you didn’t join? You tweak the process a bit and half a year later things seem to look better. Was it you? Your tweaks? Something else?

That difference is a crucial step in growing from a contributor to a lead: recognizing and dealing with it. Whenever this comes up during a mentorship session with me, I usually offer two pieces of advice.

Building your own garden

The first one is to change the mindset of the impact of your work from something visible to being in the background. After a successful concert, people talk about the performers and their music. No one praises all the stage hands, the technicians, the coordinators - and that is by design. The whole point of their work is to make the concert go flawlessly without a hitch. I think I am doing a good job if my teams work smoothly, and it feels as if it all happens by itself without me doing anything. This is somewhat at odds with companies where it matters to be seen performing work as much, or even more, as actually performing meaningful work, and I am lucky to be in a company where this is not the case.

The second advice is to set up a garden of small things to work on. You plant them as seeds, and whenever you have time, whenever things are going slow in day to day work, you turn to your garden, water the seeds, remove weeds and so on. Review the process. Reason about testing in your team. Catch up with the latest tech trends. Read that one book everyone keeps recommending. Stuff like that. Once things pick up speed again, leave the garden and work on the projects again.

I once was unhappy with the way my company prepared potential candidates for their interviews. It wasn’t super bad - but it wasn’t good either. So I put it in my garden, and whenever I had time, I worked on improving things, sometimes alone, sometimes together with other departments. And when things got tough again, I paused these efforts. I think these improvements could all have been done within a week or two if I had done nothing else, but it took me a year to finish it. And that’s fine.

I no longer feel bad when things are slow and my updates are short. I know I am making progress, but at a different scale, a different pace. And before I know it, the pendulum will swing back - it always does.