Leadership is one of those things that is often described as “I can’t describe it, but I will know it when I see it.” It is the mercurial item that everyone knows that they need, but is often lacking on many different levels in larger organizations. If lack of alignment on a single success metric is the greatest “sin” of a testing program, then the second sin is a lack of or weak leadership.

The first thing to realize is that leadership is not something that is tied to position. It can come from any person and any level in an organization. While it is true that you need sponsorship and assistance from higher levels in an organization, the truth is that leadership and management are not correlated, and in a really successful program, you should expect leadership to come from each and every level. Leadership is the ability to change perceptions, to hold people accountable, and to keep a program focused on what matters. It is the ability to keep people from abusing the program or of trying to prove themselves right; instead changing the conversation towards one that benefits everyone. Leadership more than anything in a testing program is the ability to make everyone better by keeping everyone focused on what matters, and to avoid letting them focus on things that don’t matter.

There is also the need for leaders to make sure that people stop focusing on can and focus instead on should, and of making sure that no one is doing an action just because it will make a single person, no matter how high up in the organization, happy. So many programs get run off the ground because they focus only on what is asked of them, and while they may know to do things better, they fail to deliver that message in a way that enables change. All the knowledge in the world means nothing if you fail to do the right thing. In the world of testing, it is far less getting people to do a certain action but the ability to stop them from doing any of the large number of actions which drive a program into the ground. It may not be in your job description, but if you care about doing the right thing, then it is everyone’s job to help the company grow and to get better.

If your program is doing one of the following: tracking clicks, have multiple metrics, only testing one thing at a time, only testing “test ideas” as they come filtered down to your program, targeting only, analyzing results like they are analytics, diving into every question endlessly, not proving people wrong, trying to answer “why?” for every result, constantly diving into technical questions, not consistently testing, or not constantly improving how you do all of those actions and more, then you are suffering from a lack of leadership. It falls on everyone to take a step back and to challenge the status quo. It doesn’t take a title to make it clear that false action will produce a result of questionable or false reality.

Leadership needs to be able to frame a conversation, to stop people from just responding to requests and to instead proactively set the definition of success. It’s about taking the lead from the beginning and not waiting for things to settle or for someone else to do the right thing. It is up to everyone, but especially the leader of a program to hold people accountable for their actions and focus on the increase of value on the outcome solely. You will almost always need a program sponsor who is aligned with these goals and who is willing to be the stick to force action, but the truth is anyone from the lowest analyst or developer to the CEO can take the lead on these actions. That sponsor means nothing if he is not working with a team who is more interested in doing things right then making everyone happy. Yes people are a dime a dozen, real leaders nearly impossible to find.

Stop worrying about what your title is, and instead focus on what can you do, today, to fight the battles that need to be fought and to help make sure that none of these things are taking place in your organization. What is far more important is a willingness to do so and the ability to do it consistently, over time, especially as it gets hard, frustrating, or complicated. Leadership is dealing with the tough battles, not the easy ones. You cannot worry about getting credit, instead you have to focus on making everyone better. It is not about you, it is about everyone working together. It is not always about being “right”, but instead about working with and driving each component of any program so that it is focused on the discipline of success and of always driving people to be better and to do better.

Testing programs, like any other group, often find themselves from time to time with people who can and will do the things necessary to succeed. They “luck” into individuals that create giant steps forward and improve things. What happens then when these people leave? Or get put on other projects? Or lose their focus on what matters and instead focus on their individual success? These programs then stagnate or revert to a plateau of generally accepted competence. Leaders make sure that others are ready and capable of taking charge and that the more people that can drive the program forward, the less it is on anyone persons shoulders. The challenge is to build out not just one person who does these things, but then to make sure that others learn and are expected to do the same. You need to hold people accountable to be just as much a leader, and for being capable of doing these things in the absence of that one person.

So many people are afraid of creating their own replacement or of duplicating skill, even though these skills are universal and it only makes you that much more valuable. Take the time to evaluate where you are and what you can do to be better. Work with people at all levels to get a read on what needs to happen, learn, grow, and have a focus. So many people at companies are capable of talking about leadership, but very few are capable of the actions necessary to succeed. Take the time to think about how much of what you do is just what is asked, or how much do you do to actually improve things. Are just trying to make your boss happy, or are you truly changing things for the better? What about the people around you?

Leadership starts from within. There is no greater difference between a follower and a leader then the willingness to change and the willingness to act. It is easy to blame people at the top, and the reality is there may be many people at many levels who have no interest in improving things or changing, but you can always find someone who sees the need to improve. Don’t wait for tomorrow to make the right call or to challenge the status quo.

Programs fail when they become reactive and stagnant, and when they are used by others to facilitate an agenda. John Maxwell famously quipped “If we’re growing, we’re always going to be out of our comfort zone.” All of those problems can be dealt with and surpassed over time with leadership. What you do to be better, and what you do to make others aware of the need for them to be better, is what will define how far you and your program really go and what you can really achieve. Help make people higher then you aware of what they need to think about, challenge the people next to you to be better, and help those lower then you to constantly learn and grow until they are above you. A rising tide raises all ships.

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