Essential building blocks for strong leadership that enables people to grow and achieve results
The story of how I ended up working for Zalando in Berlin starts with a LinkedIn message from Joseph Wilkinson, one of our tech recruiters. In tech, we get a lot of messages on LinkedIn, but this one was different and made me very interested to know more about Zalando. I already knew something of the company because I was also working in a fashion e-commerce platform, but I was not aware of how big and challenging Zalando was. From that first contact to starting at Zalando was an easy decision. For me, it was the next big step to grow as a lead and to help the company grow even more.
A little over seven months ago, I had the opportunity to help open and grow our third international tech location in Lisbon, Portugal. The first six months were demanding, rewarding and impressive. Zalando is a remarkable and very well-known company in Europe, but in Portugal our brand is not well established yet. Since we still don't have our Fashion Store in Portugal, it's funny that some people and companies think we are still a small startup. Once they hear the numbers, they’re impressed. The first seven months have been a mixture of being able to deliver products, build the right environment for proper product development, as well as hiring the most talented and high-potential engineers, product managers and designers. We clearly had a good start, since we are a small team but managed to already have an impact in the company.
As a lead in a new tech hub, you have a clear influence on shaping the hub and its future. You need to lead by example and be a beacon of responsibility and accountability that every lead should assume regardless of their company or circumstances. Being one of the first leads at the tech hub is a great opportunity, as it allows me to create and shape a culture of high performance teams. The last years have also taught me that as a lead, I always have to think about the best interest of the company, business and the product. This can only be done with the right people and with the right mindset, focused on achieving greatness together. To achieve that it requires a solid foundation from a lead. And so I asked myself:
WHAT MAKES A GOOD LEAD?
What I have learned from leading teams for almost five years is that there are four pillars, which are essential for strong leadership to enable people to grow and achieve results: Empathy, Inspiration, Trust and Honesty.
For me, this is the number one skill every lead should have. Empathy helps in communication, solving problems, ensuring the understanding between all people is the same. If you can't understand people you won't be able to communicate with them effectively.
As leads, we don't tell people what to do. We inspire them, give them access to all the information and together we define the goals and how the journey will be. Every meeting, every talk you have with your team; it's an opportunity to motivate people and to encourage that extra strength for the extra mile.
You need to trust people and they will trust you. Being trustworthy for everyone, for all the ideas to become real, to ensure the right level of autonomy happens in the teams, is the foundation of a high performance team.
And you can't achieve the above three qualities without being honest. Honesty to yourself and to your team. In every moment, for the good and for the complicated moments. When you need to have a hard talk but also when you have to recognize the teams and individual efforts. Honesty to yourself because leads are not owners of all knowledge, as well as asking for help and support is also a part of being a great lead.
High performing teams are like family. You trust them no matter what and you know they are there for you. Building this culture takes time: it requires hard work and then maintaining it is even harder. I envision a leadership that brings clarity in uncertain moments. Each of these pillars is extremely hard to achieve and with every decision, talk or restructure you do, but keep them in mind and remember the company’s values and culture to make the right decision. Aiming towards a leadership able to inspire and share knowledge, so we all know the why and run towards the same goal, is the ultimate end.
There are many different leadership styles and strategies, and I believe the ability to adapt to the environment you are working in is crucial: Get to know the people you work with, understand their motivations and how you can empower and sponsor them to be better. A good lead needs to be emotionally adaptable to the environment they are working in, and be the guiding light, be committed to the team and to the company. Leading by example defines how much people will trust you or not. A good leader knows the rules but a great leader knows when to break them.
Leading high performing tech teams at Zalando
Zalando is a big company, so the challenges of leadership are also big. Every decision you make and software your team develops has an influence on millions of people. It is an extremely diverse environment and a place where the broad knowledge of engineering and product is continuously challenged. Your strategies need to be much more global across departments and business units, so you need to communicate effectively. Zalando has been in my life for almost two years and I've had the chance to get to know so many amazing teams and people; people I don't just call colleagues but friends, and that is something that takes time and a trustworthy environment.
I have been in the Lisbon Hub for seven months now and we are building strong and high performance teams responsible for the development and delivery of core Zalando products. The products we are currently developing will have a huge impact on the company’s strategy and help to achieve the demanding goals we have for the future. The part I’m most passionate about are the people in this team; working with them, facing challenges together, growing stronger every day, every week. We are a small team that is capable of great things and that gets me out of bed every morning.
Leading people to help them achieve their goals
In the end, the job of a lead is actually very easy. You just need to talk to people, understand their motivations, their strengths and then define proper strategies on how those skills can be beneficial for the different goals and objectives of teams and the business. As a lead you need to be prepared to fail and to act on failure, not just give up. Also making sure communication is transparent for all team members, so that everyone knows the “why” and what will be the result and impact expected. A lead has the responsibility and accountability to help the company meet its goals. It's a day to day job that needs to be consistent.
The small victories of being able to influence, to mentor and see how the people you lead achieve their goals is very rewarding. The most recent meaningful experience I had was talking to people I mentored and led in the past, and learning they are now also leading people and have grown so much. Knowing that you were an example and had a direct impact on this: on their growth, on their lives, makes it all worth it. There is no bigger satisfaction and sense of achievement than when you help people to achieve their goals and dreams. It's the best feeling you can have as a person. Just imagine all the times you felt you achieved something great and impressive, it was never alone, and you don't want to celebrate on your own either. Helping your family, your friends, a colleague, a peer or team member, even a stranger, to conquer their dreams allows you to leave a mark. If you think about what you do at your job and think how much what you do impacts or helps others, it will help you make better and smarter decisions; not only as a lead, but as a person.
Join Sergio in enabling others to leave their mark in our Lisbon Tech Hub as well as other locations across Europe in Berlin, Dublin, and Helsinki.