T-Mobile’s Axel Robinson on running dev teams with love

T-Mobile's Axel Robinson by artist Matt Peet

Illustrated by Matt Peet

Axel Robinson has a different take on teams than many of us. Before he became an engineer, he was a sales account executive. And before he was in sales, he played professional soccer in the U.S. and Germany. When someone with a background like that tells us their philosophy that the key to running a successful development team is love, we listened. While this notion may seem unorthodox to some and a potential HR minefield to others, Axel appears to be on to something. 

“Love is the source of who we are. It’s the source of everything that we do,” Axel says. “If we love our customers, we should love our peers and employees as well. Love what you do and love the people who are on that journey with you.” 

Axel, now the Manager of Business Solution & Implementation at T-Mobile, has worked in telecommunications for more than a decade and he boasts a business degree in addition to his engineering degree. His team focuses on the implementation and onboarding experience for all of T-Mobile’s internal and external clients. 

He has learned to question everything. “That’s what engineers do all the time,” he says. “One of my first CEOs always told me that if there were no problems, there would be no engineers. So I see a problem, and I smile, because it's an opportunity to do something new or creative.”

The idea of running an engineering team on love fits that “new and creative” bill. In this Pluralsight interview, Axel defines what he means by love and how it can shift tech leadership away from a transactional mindset. He digs into how operational excellence is this kind of love in action and helps teams be more resilient, nimble and adaptable. He then outlines actionable steps you can take to implement this drastic culture shift into your own engineering teams.

Loving teams make better teams

What Axel aims to do by bringing love into the workplace has nothing to do with the squishy type of love you feel for a significant other. His approach is simple: Teams who work from a place of love have a more trusting and productive team dynamic. They will more readily rally together around a common goal, lift eachother up when someone stumbles and tend to be generally more creative in solving complex development issues.

The reason behind Axel’s pursuit of a loving team stems from typical company goals to love the customers and the products being sold. “But what about the people we work with?” he asks. “Those are the folks you spend more time with than you do with your own family.”

So why not understand and love them?

Axel defines this kind of love as “selfless benevolence for someone.” It’s the ability to care about your teammates beyond driving results. And it’s not easy. But it’s also an essential part of becoming a quality leader—even on a data-driven tech team. To Axel, the idea is essential to his approach to tech leadership.

“It doesn't make sense to show love to your customers, but not your colleagues,” Axel says. “It doesn't add up.”

Serve your team

Axel points to our fundamental posture as leaders: for a loving team dynamic to work, we need to see ourselves in service to our teams. 

“I’m here to serve you,” Axel says. “It’s not the other way around. Let’s get that right off the bat. I’m in a position to serve.”

When he checks in with how his teammates are doing, he checks himself first: does he really want to know how they feel, or is he just paving the way to a different conversation? When he asks his teammates if they need help, is it truly because he wants to help, or is it so he can look like he’s being helpful? 

In this way, Axel expands the definition of “selfless benevolence” to include being genuine and compassionate with one another. Put another way, it’s aligning your intent and the impact of your message. It’s also about serving to help others develop themselves, rather than simply serving the end results of the team’s work. 

“The objective is to help people grow,” Axel says. “You are in a position to positively impact someone’s future. You are giving them the tools they need, not just for where they are today, but to help them get where they need to be in their life.”

See operational excellence as love in action

We also have to acknowledge the other side of our role as leaders—we are responsible for producing outcomes for our organizations in addition to caring for our people. Axel stresses that these two goals actually feed each other.

“We need a more comprehensive approach, focused on people and effecting change,” he says. “Often we focus on the process, but not so much on the people working the process. Operational excellence needs to happen within the team in the best interests of your team and of the organization.”

These are some of the ways Axel focuses on operational excellence that bolsters the team, rather than subjugating them to it.

Take full ownership of the process

With love at the core of our actions and our structures, developers are not beholden to process. Rather, they are free to take ownership of their workflow. Axel encourages that sense of personal responsibility within his teams. Whether they’re experiencing a success or a challenge: own it.

“When something happens, the first question that I have everyone ask themselves is, how did I let that happen?” Axel says. “It forces you to take full ownership of the situation. And once you have ownership of the situation, you are in full control of it.”

With this attitude, your teammates can never become passive recipients of processes or events. They are active participants in creating operational excellence, with all the respect and responsibility that entails.

Improve in increments

Axel has a straightforward definition of operational excellence: a team’s or an individual’s ability to focus on continuous improvement. “We’re not aiming for perfection,” he says, “but every single day, you are identifying the steps within the process that you can improve.”\

This focus on incremental improvement further grants team members the power of the process. They are not beholden to a dogma that cannot be changed; if they see a way to improve, Axel encourages them to try it. That trust keeps developers further engaged in improving their own environment. Plus, these improvements ripple out from the team to benefit the entire business.

“It’s about one’s ability to separate where you are today from where you want to go,” Axel says. “What are the incremental steps, the constant improvement you can make to get to your goal?”

That goes not just for business processes, but for helping individual contributors grow as individual people, too.

Anticipate change

Axel recognizes that humans don’t like change. So he aims to get out in front of it as much as possible. Anyone who talks with him for long learns about what he likes to call predictable issues and challenges. 

He had a good laugh during this Pluralsight interview when his laptop battery nearly bottomed out while talking about predictable challenges. The probability of his computer dying was a perfect example of a predictable issue—one that, this time, he failed to anticipate.

“The first thing you do with a project is you identify the risk,” Axel says. “But even within the risk, you should ask yourself what the predictable risks are. A lot of things can be predicted. Once you identify them, you can future-proof them. Doing so allows you to anticipate change.”

This is essentially a way of preemptively taking ownership and improving incrementally. You can empower developers to address issues before they even arise—improving their productivity, sure, but also improving the quality of their work lives.

Offer context, purpose and unity

Many of us have held a meaningless job at some point—one where we had no personal connection to the mission of the company, or its success. The development field is so full of driven, creative, curious and self-motivated people that the odds are most of us didn’t and don’t stay in those jobs for long. 

Resonating with the organization’s vision is essential for fulfillment at work. Sure, it’s on developers to find jobs they care about. But it’s also on you to help make the team’s vision one they can all invest in, in return. 

“It cannot be just your vision of where the company needs to go, where the team needs to go,” Axel says. “Everyone within a team has to see themselves in the vision.”

Communicate the why behind the why

Context for the organizational vision matters. Something vague, like Be the best company in our field, doesn’t answer the “So what?” that we all need to understand why and how our work matters.

Axel uses an example from the early days of NASA. Everyone there knew what the vision was: Put people on the moon. “If you were cleaning the bathroom or sweeping the floor, you knew why you were doing what you were doing,” he says. “You were helping take a man to the moon. You knew the why behind the why.”

No one enjoys purposeless work. Creating challenges and incentives might nudge a team along for a while, but they will ultimately lose their sense of purpose. Your team members need to understand why their work matters—even if it is only indirectly supporting a larger purpose.

Connect the team to the vision

In order for the team to really buy into that guiding light, Axel says, they need to see why it matters to them. Your job is a lot easier if you’re putting the first humans on the moon—the absolute insanity of accomplishing that feat would be enough reward for most anyone. But if you’re doing anything less historic than that, you’ll need to identify your team members’ needs and connect those to the vision.

“Everybody wants and needs something,” Axel says simply. 

As an illustration, he uses a paycheck. You have someone on the team who wants to make more money. But to make that extra cash, the team needs to do well. Success will lead to higher visibility for everyone, which in turn will lead to more opportunities; but, if the team falls flat, it will be more difficult for its members to gain the confidence of anyone else in the organization. So, sure—to get that raise, the team needs to shine. That person now has a reason to believe in the team’s and the organization’s vision: doing so will lead to that bigger payday.

Other team members may have less quantifiable forces driving them. They could have a desire to improve the world, or seek recognition, or take pride in breaking new ground. Each person’s desire can actually help you determine the work that best suits them, and will definitely help you understand what makes them tick.

Rise (or fall) as a team

Each individual on the team will have their own connection to the vision. It’s also your job to get everyone working together toward that unified vision, even if everyone is running on different fuel.

Axel points to an African proverb that has started to catch on at T-Mobile: If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Teams will accomplish more for the vision than any individual. And a team, almost by definition, is a group of people who care about and for each other. It all comes back to love.

“That’s the mentality,” he says. “When you talk about our culture, our culture is built around that.”

Make the big shift to a culture of caring

This concept of a loving team may sound novel, but not practical to some. It sounds good on paper, and you may even be on board with the idea of caring about your team members. But people are still skeptical creatures by nature. And to Axel, creating this culture shift starts with your mindset.

“Everyone always puts up walls,” Axel says. “People are always strategically thinking in that transactional mindset.”

So taking human nature into account, how on earth does Axel recommend actually making this massive cultural shift in a real-world organization with flesh-and-blood people?

Start small to shift big

The truth is, unless you have a unicorn team, not everyone is going to buy into this culture shift right away. So Axel recommends implementing a shift toward a more caring team gradually through consistency and transparency.

“Some people are resistant to change,” he reiterates, “especially when it’s a change and they are not used to.”

For this shift to take root, you need to practice it consistently and be genuine in your efforts. Regularly take time to make sure everyone on the team feels appreciated and heard. Listen to them, learn from them and help them navigate their career. Consistency in this approach will make it clear that your truly an ally. The other piece that will help this shift to be long-term, is to be transparent with the team and gradual in implementation. To create any type of culture shift, it requires most of the people involved to agree on the type of atmosphere you’re looking to create. To get this sort of buy-in, it’s important to be transparent on the why behind the reason for change, to remain open to feedback and to start small. By starting with those on the team who are eager for change, you’ll be able to pressure test ideas in order find the right formula for the team.

“When people feel appreciated and cared for, regardless of their level, they are more likely to go above and beyond,” Axel says. “The key here is for people to feel appreciated and cared for.”

Run work-free 1:1s to speak their language

The most actionable strategy Axel has for establishing this culture shift is the work-free 1:1 meeting. He still conducts regular 1:1s to cover anything about work, but he recommends adding another 1:1 to simply get to know each other beyond the current sprint and their project deadlines. This is also a good strategy in which you can start small. By offering everyone on the team an optional additional 1:1, it’s not singling anyone out, while also avoiding pressuring them to add another meeting to their calendar. 

“You start to learn people’s stories, and what makes them who they are and how they approach the world,” Axel says. “Everyone has a story to tell.”

He points to the fact that the way people think has to do with the way they were brought up and the language they spoke at home. “Your primary language actually has a lot to do with how your brain is wired,” he says. “Someone who was brought up speaking Mandarin counts numbers differently than someone who speaks a Latin language.”

Whether it’s English or Spanish or Mandarin, you likely share a language in common with the entire team. But that doesn’t mean you all think the same way. Axel understands that people solving problems go in their mind to what is most familiar and comfortable. By understanding them better, Axel feels it’s helped him understand how they approach their job and their working style. This has helped him assign projects to people who are particularly well suited to their strengths, keeping them feeling engaged and confident with their contributions to the team.

Listen to the words behind the words

As you get wider and deeper buy-in, you’ll likely get people opening up in new and different ways. But even in a fully-realized culture of caring, people won’t always be able to acknowledge everything they experience. In fact, they may not even have the words for it, in any language.

“Folks sometimes might not be doing well, might not be in the job they're suited to, but they will never tell you because nobody wants to be a quitter,” Axel says. “And most of the time, people don't even know it.”

The more you understand about your colleagues, the more insight you may have into their drives and desires, their struggles and fears. That’s not a foolproof way to know what’s really going on. But continuing to have personal, genuine conversations with the team will offer you the best insight into how they’re doing, and how you can help them thrive.

Final thoughts: As a leader, you impact people’s lives

Axel Robinson believes the concept of creating a loving team environment in the workplace is how to create a high-performing team. For Axel, a loving team is one in which the members truly care for eachother’s wellbeing. From his experience, Axel has seen how this brand of love creates a more trusting and dynamic team. He outlines why love matters in leading an engineering team, and where to start in implementing a culture where love is a factor.

  • Loving teams perform better. Rather, love as a form of selfless benevolence puts leaders in a mindset of serving their teammates to better their careers, help them as people, and connect them to success as a team.
  • This kind of love manifests as operational excellence. Team members who are cared for, respected and trusted can take full ownership of the workflow processes in place to improve constantly and anticipate change, with the freedom to act upon their expertise.
  • Context, purpose and unity are forms of love—engineers need to understand why their work matters, why the organization’s vision matters to them and why their unified role as a team matters to advancing that vision.
  • Making the shift to a culture of love is actionable. Axel recommends starting with those who believe in your cause and those who are the most comfortable with culture change. Create work-free 1:1 meetings can help you learn about your teammates beyond what they’re working on and what their roadblocks are. These meetings should be free of deadline talk, so you can take time to really understand your engineers, build trust with each individual and help them work toward their career and life goals. 

“I'm always learning,” Axel says, “and I feel like I have so much more to learn. It is a privilege and a blessing to be in a position of leadership. That's something not to take lightly because what you say, what you do, how you treat people will influence the direction of their lives. Hence the reason why it's important to show love through gratitude and really care for one another.”