Recently, Pluralsight launched a new podcast called Perspectives in Leadership. In each episode, we’ll sit down with some of the industry’s most future-focused minds to learn about their experiences in tech and how they approach leadership in an ever-evolving world. The goal of this podcast is to help our listeners gain valuable insights into improving team workflow, build a culture that facilitates individual and collective wellbeing and provide ideas for staying innovative even when the pressure mounts to push out new products and features.
In our first episode, we interviewed Sumit Gupta, who has spent his decades-long software development career at companies ranging from startups to massive and established organizations. During our conversation, Sumit joked about how, early on, he thought the unpredictability of human beings was a bug. He preferred working with computers and code because he knew what to expect with those. He has since come to appreciate and love the ever-evolving aspects of leadership and now coaches tech leaders to help their teams reach their potential as both a collective and individual contributors.
What follows is a few of the topics we discussed and his thoughts on the essentialness of building a culture of communication, especially in our new normal of remote and hybrid work environments.
*Answers have been edited for length and clarity*
How would you describe your leadership style?
I would describe this as an evolving style rather than put myself into a box. What I have discovered in the last twelve years of leading teams is that not just the leadership style, but also the world in which we operate is changing. So when I first started working, that was a very different world.
When you try to read and learn about leadership, it can give the wrong impression that there is a style for somebody, that there's a style you need to be or not be. I have been curious, I think curiosity has driven my dive into leadership and understanding people and then being able to adapt myself.
So rather than saying, “I am an introvert so this is my leadership style,” I try to come from a perspective of: What are the company goals? What is the market? What is the situation? And then what do I need to be, or who do I need to be for my team? And I think COVID has shown us that if we can't be flexible with what is happening around us, if I just say, this is my leadership style, then I will soon find myself out of a job because we all have to change or adapt with what the world is showing us to be true.
What are some of the ways tech leaders can expand the capacity of their team members?
The first step, I would say, is to understand them as people, to get to know the person. Not just their role, not just what they are good at, what they're bad at, but to really understand what drives them. What motivates them? What are their preferences? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How do they like to work? Acknowledge people for who they really are. When we only know someone as a software engineer or a product manager, we are defining people.
When we say you are a nerd, or even when I use the language myself, “I am a nerd,” I am closing down a lot of possibilities. So I used to say, I am a geeky person. I am a nerd. But what that also implied was that I am not good at communicating with people. And that's a very dangerous thing to say, because you're not even conscious that you are closing down possibilities of growth in your career. And that can happen with how you view your team if you put people into buckets like that.
To get the most out of your employees, you need to really understand them for who they are and not to put them into boxes. We contain multitudes and we have potential. Leaders need to work to see that potential, to believe in your people and to see them as somebody who can continuously and endlessly improve no matter where they are.
How can leaders work to improve team trust, engagement and performance?
First, focus on the people more than the project. If you focus only on the project, then you might deliver a wonderful product but if focusing there destroys the mood of your team, or makes somebody feel inferior, that's going to create an impact on everything else you do in the future.
Prioritize relationships over projects. That does not mean ignoring the task. That means that you are giving equal importance to these two aspects of work. And then you will see that if you focus on the people side, the trust side, the safety side, the tasks and the deliverables basically take care of themselves.
Another powerful tactic is to give people autonomy, and not just in relation to their work. We always hear leaders should try to delegate work but so few leaders are willing to delegate decision making. Get together as a team or with a team member and let them decide how to do a specific project or job.
It may sound scary, but you hire people for their skills. You can’t bring in talent based on their proven capabilities and then try to micromanage them. Enabling them to make decisions of their own ensures you that you won’t be surrounded by yes-women and yes-men. You can trust they will provide you honest feedback.
Lastly, be sure to be as transparent as possible with your team. Provide reasoning and full context for your decisions. If there are certain products or features management has said you need to focus on, provide your team that transparency. Everyone might not always agree but at least they will understand why they’re being given certain tasks. Combining this with the empowerment of delegating decision making will help teams better understand the process and the why for the process.
What are ways organizations can build lasting, real culture for their teams?
Communication truly is the center of culture. The first thing to remember is that the fundamentals of communication remain the same whether we’re remote or in person. However, we must also remember that virtual communication is still very new. It’s not something we have practiced for decades so giving each other space for one another to adapt is important. Allow people to be off-camera if they wish. Allow them to go on mute.
That is all secondary to being a deep listener. If we actually listen to our team members then we can get to the point where, as mentioned above, we’re enabling them to help make decisions and feel empowered which is part of where culture comes from.
Culture also comes from building and earning trust and creating engagement points. Those could be one-on-one meetings with leaders, but it could also be engaging in cross-team projects so employees can better understand what other team members do and who they are. Culture comes from working together and respecting each other. All of these aspects work together.
Do you have any tips for people who are looking to improve themselves and how they feel connected to their teams?
Any kind of investing in yourself starts with self-reflection, with understanding who you are and how you behave. Unfortunately, people do not take time to self-reflect enough. They are not aware of their patterns or their values. What puts you off? What excites you? What makes you frustrated? That's the first step: working on knowing yourself.
You cannot change anything in yourself unless you're aware of where you currently are. It's like if I'm using Google maps to reach a particular destination, I have to know where I am, otherwise there is no path, right? So when people say that I want to build empathy, for example, the first step is always to understand where you are currently so you can understand how to empathize with others and with yourself.
Knowing yourself will help you better understand your team—and feel more connected to them.
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