Leader's Mindset

Introduction to “The Leader’s Mindset”

This post is based on a presentation I gave internally to our MobiLab team on the leadership mindset. My team asked me to write a blog post on my presentation and share it with the community.

The Idea Behind “The Leader’s Mindset”

MobiLab’s focus is Cloud Integration (Cloud Adoption & Data Integration). We experienced some good growth in this area over the last few years, driven by customer demand to migrate their complete infrastructure to the cloud and harmonize their data into one single source of truth for Data- & MLOps. The difficult aspect of growth is that you want to maintain and deliver the same quality while growing. Otherwise, at some point, the quality expected by customers is no longer met, and growth not only comes to a halt but also leads to inferior results.

For a longer period, my co-Managing Director (Kristina Lazarz) and I noticed that we are putting long hours into our work at MobiLab, and a feeling set in that the more successful we became the more work we generated for ourselves. In the book Beyond Entrepreneurship by James Collins & William Lazier, there is a great quote which puts this very nicely:

“If your work is successful, it generates more work; as a result, the concept of ‘finishing work’ is a contradiction in terms so blatant and dangerous that it can lead to nervous breakdowns – because it puts the pressure on the wrong places in your mind and habits”.

I was working more because I was afraid that our quality might decrease while experiencing growth. Team members noticed that I was coming to the office earlier and leaving later every day. At some point it triggered to stop working for a moment and analyze the situation around me. The result was an internal presentation I gave to my team called “The Leader’s Mindset” and presenting to them what I was struggling with.

Insights Into the Mind of a Leader

At MobiLab we have highly complex customer projects running in parallel. The complexity of the projects usually has two legs:

  1. they are technically sophisticated, and
  2. they have a direct P&L effect on the customer.

The nature of these projects is a bit different from work happening in our software engineering industry, e.g. an e-commerce website is launched with unknown results and the room for error is quite large. At MobiLab, we are proud of the promise we provide to our customers, that we can apply technology to deliver measurable added value with a direct P&L effect. Delivering on this promise can be challenging because no matter how much technology we apply, we are dealing with people, and people can make irrational decisions that can put the project at risk and hence the profitability of the project.

I noticed that during our projects, some aspects of the same problem were discussed more than once by members of the same team. Our teams are small enough to be highly effective but sometimes lack the communication aspect. I felt that my team was missing the big picture, leading to an ineffectiveness. The following image came to my mind:

Leader's Mindset - Systems thinking example with an elephant and several people who see just a part of it

Systems thinking, represented by the elephant metaphor (defined by Peter Senge)
Source: STATIK (Systems Thinking Approach to Introduce Kanban)

Although the team was working on the same problem, the team lacked the big picture, resulting in inefficient communication and loss of productivity. To make it more tangible for you, we can take the example of our Cloud Adoption business at MobiLab.

Cloud Adoption at MobiLab is very process driven, and we have clearly defined steps for transforming the customer’s infrastructure:

Steps of the Cloud Adoption process, step 1

4-Step Process of Cloud Adoption

Enter the Deep Thinking Mode

The 4-step process shown in the above diagram has its advantages because it allows us to work on each work package in isolation, which I think suits our human nature well. We like to deconstruct the work from its dependencies, make things simpler, and then work on the smallest item. The beauty of breaking things down into isolated work packages is also that it allows us to dig deep into the problem and do a more in-depth analysis. For our Cloud Adoption process, this means the following:

Leader's Mindset explained on the steps of the Cloud Adoption process with isolated silo thinking, step 2

4-Step Process of Cloud Adoption While Diving Deep

However, this deep thinking and working in isolation also has its drawbacks, as we might tend to forget to get out of the deep woods and make sure that each part of the chain is still in sync and working / collaborating properly with each other.

Leader's Mindset explained on a the steps of the Cloud Adoption process without end-to-end thinking

4-Step Process of Cloud Adoption While Forgetting the End-2-End Thinking

Breaking Down Silos

This problem brings back the image of the elephant. As we grew and grow at MobiLab, I could see the metaphor of the elephant also happening with my team. It became more and more difficult for them to understand and keep track of the big picture.

I’m sure everyone thinks there is a simple solution to this problem. Yes, there is. However, I think humans are programmed in such a way that we don’t like to focus on easy solutions.  There are some hard things about the easy things. The solution to the problem of thinking end-to-end and making sure everyone is on the same page has two aspects:

  1. We need good processes which do not slow down the innovation speed of the company. A process can be a simple weekly meeting, but also a well-documented knowledge space so that knowledge is shared and scaled between project team members:
Leader's Mindset on an example of a workload within Cloud Adoption including processes, step 4

The Need for Processes for Each Vertical Within Cloud Adoption

2. Good communication practices are essential. The difficulty is to connect the entire team to a communication stream. Additionally, Covid has a negative impact to communication practices, as the desire to work remotely is stronger than being in the office. Which brings the aspect of having good tools  in place (and I’m not just referring to Slack, Teams, Meets, Zooms, etc.), but also tools that ensure that something explained is well understood by other team members.

Leader's Mindset on an example of a workload within Cloud Adoption including processes and communication, step 5

The Need for Communication Across Cloud Adoption

My short analysis showed me that both communication and processes at MobiLab need a major investment, i.e. we need leaders who actively support these two things so that we can ensure we are growing while keeping the promised quality to our customers.

The Different Understanding

After the above internal analysis I asked my team members about their thoughts.

Most of my team saw the same issues and they were pretty good at seeing how things needed to be fixed. Every time I talked to a team member, there was ,however, one word that kept repeating, “scaling, scaling, scaling.” I think that word even haunted in my dreams because, with super successful hyperscalers in the market, everyone wants to emulate them…

I kept hearing that we need to do the things that help us scale in our business, but I felt that the hard work on the ground (establishing appropriate communication channels, providing adequate documentation, so really the hard work) was missed out. This reminded me of Paul Graham’s famous blog post “Do Things that Don’t Scale”. I hear the term “scaling” so often that it frustrates me sometimes because I think it’s not the scaling part that is difficult. The hard work lies in defining the procedures and understanding the ins and outs of the game (our business) we are in. This reminded me of a video by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt about Blitzscaling, in which he mentioned that something that is good will scale but the hard part is to get to a point that the something is good. You need to do the things that do not scale (at first!).

I like to bring the analogy from the movie “The Founder” which very nicely demonstrates what it means to do the hard work and do things that do not scale. The movie depicts the founding story of the McDonald’s fast-food restaurant chain. There is a specific scene in the movie in which the meticulous work ethic of the founders is shown by over and over analyzing the most efficient way of the kitchen setup.

The Founder – Basket Field Kitchen Arrangement Scene

The beauty about this scene is that the founders are drawing a kitchen on a sport court and defining the best setup in the kitchen and how things should be best orchestrated to achieve the best choreography of the team within the kitchen.

I like this scene because it shows that you can do a very thorough analysis without investing a lot of money in the hardware (i.e the kitchen equipment). It requires a special work ethic and attention to detail to go deep and do the hard work. This hard work is not scalable, at first! However, once it works, scaling will not be the problem because a well-functioning system will attract customers and investors and generate the money as a side effect.

This is the most important part which people sometimes like to skip (and like to go straight to the scaling part). My view of a leader is someone who understands when to go deep on the ground fix issues / define processes and then can come out again on the high level to orchestrate things.

After the founders successfully designed the kitchen in the best possible way, they put it into production.

The Founder – Kitchen Tour

Maybe one of the reasons why the founders were successful was because they had the ability to go on the ground and do a deep analysis of the problem statement but at the same time, they were able to come out of the deep and think end-to-end and optimize the processes.

The Struggle of Scaling Companies

Let us come to the last part of the blog, which I think scaling companies struggle with. Typically, when companies expand, the need for employees becomes very high, and it might happen that they sometimes loose sight of hiring the right people. Depending on the scaling phase of the company, different employee qualifications are needed. However, no matter the qualification I think you will never be wrong in hiring people who are able to dive deep into a topic and at same time can think end-to-end.

But behind this, there is a natural problem: Usually the more senior a team members becomes, the more s/he can think holistically.


Relationship Between Seniority and Thinking End-to-End

However, I have also noticed that the higher the team member’s position, the less willing s/he is to do the hard work on the ground. After all the senior person thinks, that s/he has already done the hard work in the past wherefore s/he has reached a maturity level and it is not necessary to go deep on the ground and let others do the hard work.


Relationship Between Seniority and Willingness to Go on the Ground

I have seen plenty of examples starting with how a simple eMail is written or how a calendar invite is sent out. I remember working with senior people, who sent out calendar invites without a proper subject line of the meeting, no proper description of the meeting agenda and even worse, what the goal and expected outcome of the meeting should be. Those meetings lead to maximum inefficiencies. I am sure every one has experienced those type of meetings. Therefore, I like a lot the Amazon principle of how meetings are run (go to the Six-Page Narratives part). The Amazon way, sounds very non-scaleable because it is super hard to prepare those meetings. But once this kind of mindset is in place, it scales wonderfully and the success of Amazon speaks for itself.

Putting these two aspects together will lead to the question of which type of person the company needs in the current scaling phase.


Thinking End-to-End and Having the Willingness to Go on the Ground

You might be in a situation, where you need team members who are not super senior and cannot also go deep on the ground of the problem statement. This might work at times.

picture 09 1

Thinking End-to-End and Having the Willingness to Go on the Ground

But as I mentioned earlier, I tend to believe that in an industry like ours (where we’re in a constant beta mode, constantly learning and adapting to new circumstances), you’re more successful if you have people who can dig deep into the problem and see things end-to-end. While we were scaling and it might hold true for other scaling companies as well, the biggest struggle is to find people have precisely this ability.


Thinking End-to-End and Having the Willingness to Go on the Ground

The problem is that it is very difficult to find these people on the market. The good part though is that you can train your people to think from an end-to-end perspective. The not-so-good part is that it is hard work to reach it with your team. Multiply your team members and the time you need to invest and the problem of training grows rapidly.


Thinking End-to-End and Having the Willingness to Go on the Ground

Let’s make the model a little more complex. Another great aspect of our industry is that you can work from anywhere and you don’t have to be in the office every day. At the end of the day, we produce code and collaborate with machines, which makes it easy to work from anywhere (at least that’s how we think it works). This trend has been accelerating with Covid: Home office is more the norm than the exception.

However, I think what is usually underestimated is the fact, that no matter how well and effective we work from home, no matter whether we have a product or not, it is still a people business, where the best results can be achieved when people talk to each other, sit down at the flipchart and discuss things. This people interfacing aspect is very important.

There is another observation that I have noticed: Usually, the younger someone is, the higher their willingness to learn new things, which is a great advantage for our industry, which is in a constant beta mode.


Relationship Between Willingness to Learn and the Juniority Level

But I’ve also realized that the younger someone is, the less s/he understands the importance of communication (which can manifest itself in various forms, such as coming to the office more often, interacting with multiple people, and constantly sharing ideas).


Relationship Between Importance of Communication and the Juniority Level

Putting these two aspects together again raises the question of what kind of person the company needs at the current scaling phase.


Willingness to Learn and Understanding the Importance of Communication

People who are not willing to learn and who do not understand the importance of communication do not add value to the company. You’d better stay away from such profiles.


Willingness to Learn and Understanding the Importance of Communication

The challenge will be finding juniors who are willing to learn, who understand the importance of communication, and who know what it means to invest in their human capital at the beginning of their careers.


Willingness to Learn and Understanding the Importance of Communication

What Scaling Companies Look For

Let’s consider both models together to understand what scaling companies are looking for:


The Struggle of Scaling Companies

Looking at our company, I think it can be a good representation of similar companies on the same growth path, reflecting not only what kind of people we want to hire, but also what other companies are looking for. I think the mindset of a leader has four specific characteristics:

  1. Willingness to learn
  2. Willingness to go on the ground
  3. Understanding the importance of communication
  4. Having the ability to see things end-to-end

The 4 Attributes of the Leader’s Mindset

How to Develop a Leader’s Mindset

All of the above might not be super new and some may think that this is absolutely trivial what I have written. I couldn’t agree more, but as I wrote at the beginning of the post, it’s usually the simplest things that are the most difficult. Precisely because we think they are so simple, we spend less time on these aspects and try to think of the complex things first (e.g. scaling).

I personally believe that it’s the simple things that are super difficult and require a leader. Some may say about themselves that they are not leaders. I see it differently. I think anyone can be and is a leader. It just depends on the environment she is working in and whether s/he is intrinsically motivated to move things. It does take hard work, but what doesn’t! Once it is developed, it needs to be continuously trained and nurtured. I for myself try to to look at times for some hard problems top solve with my team even if it out of my domain. It helps me to further develop the company and look at new things (it does not have to be technology) to connect them with my current work. The suggestion I gave to my team can be found below and maybe it helps others as well to develop the leader’s mindset.

How to develop a Leader’s Mindset, four suggestions

Developing the Leader’s Mindset

At MobiLab (and obviously I am very biased) we invest a lot in our people to cultivate the leader’s mindset. However, nothing is perfect, and neither are we. The reason which led to my internal presentation was the scaling and growth issues we were facing. I gave the internal presentation so that my team can join me on my path to solve the problem, to see my side of the things which skills and mindset I would like to develop with them at MobiLab. I don’t think a presentation and blog post is enough, this is constant work and my colleague Kristina constantly reminds me of not forgetting about repeating those on a regular basis so that it can be ingrained in our culture.

It is a journey we are going through and I think it is worth it to sit back and analyze the situation before just continuing with the business as usual. Maybe this is also something you want to experience and get the intellectual freedom to try things out, fail and try all over again so that you can grow. If this is what you are looking for, then you know where to apply :-).