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InfoQ Homepage Articles Leading during Times of High Uncertainty and Change

Leading during Times of High Uncertainty and Change

Key Takeaways

  • Invest in yourself: manage your energy, time, and operational horizon. In times of high change, it’s easy to neglect that, so continuously invest in levelling up your leadership skills to increase your effectiveness.
  • Level up leaders around you: Organisations need leadership at all levels, and it’s your job to grow leaders on your team. By leading through a focus on context, values, and outcomes, you’ll help leaders grow and learn to handle ambiguity.
  • Maintain a strong connection to the bigger picture: Ensure you understand strategy and direction well, and that your teams do too; this connection to the big picture will help your teams move into the same direction and rally around a shared purpose, especially in times of high uncertainty.  
  • Build flexible systems: Times of high change require high degrees of adaptability and flexibility. Optimise for quick learning; ensure that directional signs of success or failure are visible as early as possible so your teams can pivot quickly and build on lessons learned as they go.      
  • Relentlessly communicate: Your expectations and expected outcomes should always be clear. Tailor your communication to your team’s needs, and maintain a steady flow of communication, as well as open feedback avenues.    


To help teams succeed during uncertain times, leaders need to navigate different horizons; it requires us to do the foundational work of managing ourselves and building strong relationships with our teams, but also navigating the present to invest in resilience on teams, and maintaining a strong connection with the big picture. Organisations need leadership at all levels. In order to be successful, leaders should develop skills for self-management, delegation, dealing with ambiguity, managing in all directions, systems thinking, and leading through context.

Lena Reinhard, vice president of product engineering at CircleCI, spoke about what engineering teams need from leaders at QCon Plus 2020.

Managing yourself is foundational for success as a leader, Reinhard mentioned. Today’s leaders need to focus on communication, expectations, and trust to help teams succeed during uncertain times. But leaders also need to manage themselves, she argued:

While there are formal paths into management, the journey to being a good manager and especially a good leader is ultimately highly personal. We’re looked at for answers, especially in times of uncertainty, and we’re often the first person others turn to. Most of all, we’re constantly put into situations we haven’t been in before. Or are expected or required to do things we haven’t done before.

As leaders, we can and should train, read, learn, practice, role play to prepare us for the unknown, and those are really important, Reinhard said.

But ultimately, so much of our ability to be good leaders depends on how we treat what’s in front of us, our personality, creativity and other skills, thought patterns, and responses. This is why in order to be able to show up for others we have to start by being able to show up for ourselves, she argued.

Reinhard explained that leadership and management are two distinct traits. Management is about coping with complexity, and bringing order and predictability. By contrast, leadership is about handling ambiguity and change.

According to Reinhard, organisations need leaders at all levels. Engineering management skills are applicable no matter if you’re in a formal leadership role or not.

Reinhard suggested to develop these engineering management skills throughout the organisation:

  • Self-management: Understanding and managing our own instincts, thought patterns, energy, time, and our operational horizon.
  • Delegation: Delegation helps you not only level yourself up, but is also one of the best mechanisms to grow others around you. Effectively delegating requires setting a clear direction and success criteria, and ensuring accountability, and is a great mechanism to help aspiring leaders grow.  
  • Dealing with ambiguity: This skill is useful in all types of situations, from working with complex technical- and people systems, to handling large projects, to working through unclear situations, to wanting to move up in the organisational ladder, or just being a leader in our current time. Being able to hold ambiguity and work through it proactively to drive change requires the ability to switch modes of thinking quickly, while utilising different leadership styles to turn an ambiguous situation into one where teams can make progress.  
  • Managing in all directions: A manager’s ability to manage not only their reports, but also peers, stakeholders, and their own manager can help them make a difference for their team, as well as for themselves and their organisation. Never underestimate the power of managing up in particular.  
  • Systems thinking: This is a crucial skill, both at the technical and human level. It requires maintaining a strong context of the organisation around us, and a solid connection with the bigger picture and long-term view, as well as staying connected with our teams and the people in them.
  • Leading through context: One of our most crucial tasks as leaders is to bring up others around us, and the more they’re able to operate autonomously and deal with higher degrees of ambiguity, the stronger our team and organisation will become.  

InfoQ interviewed Lena Reinhard about leading during times of high uncertainty and change.

InfoQ: What are the biggest leadership challenges that tech organizations are facing nowadays?

Lena Reinhard: Something that the last year reinforced to me is how crucial it is for leaders to manage our operational horizon. The human brain is programmed to narrow its focus in the face of a threat. That’s an evolutionary survival mechanism designed for self-protection. This also means that our field of vision becomes restricted to the immediate foreground, and becomes even more of a risk when we’re dealing with high degrees of ambiguity and change.

If you’ve worked your way up the hierarchy in your organisation, this can become even more of a pattern to fall into. If you’re very good at the operational level, managing a difficult situation directly can feel thrilling – your adrenaline spikes, decisions are made, and quick actions are taken. It feels like you’re adding tangible value, and this triggers our reward systems.

I call this the "operational comfort zone trap." Our instincts and often our prior experience are pulling us towards resorting to what we know, what we’re used to, and what we’re good at. This is why in times of high uncertainty and change, it’s so important for any leader to pull ourselves out, taking the long view, creating and/or maintaining sight of the vision and bigger picture.

InfoQ: How can engineering managers help engineers and teams succeed?

Reinhard: In a world that is more remote-first than ever, I encourage software professionals to think about how they are communicating with others on their teams.

Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Build foundational relationships. Collaboration is not just about the output of work, but also one of the best vehicles that distributed teams have for relationship-building. My engineering teams often use the pair programming technique, which helps them strengthen relationships with their teammates and makes teams more resilient. Pair programming also helps us avoid knowledge silos and distribute information – and it’s a really great tool for onboarding new teammates.
  • Stay humble, and make space for others. Just as we try to connect in many small ways, there are small ways we can become better collaborators throughout the work day. For example, we can avoid dominating conversations, even when they are written communications. Open up space for others and invite them into conversations by asking, "What’s your opinion on this? I’d like to hear your thoughts."
    Make a deliberate effort to get everyone in your team involved in the conversation, and listen well to what they have to say. When we build trust with our teammates through strong communication, it provides the basis for our collaboration as a team.
  • Grow together. An even better way to connect and communicate as a team is by helping each other grow through constructive feedback. In distributed teams, this can be really difficult to do well. When we mostly see each other on screens, it becomes difficult to have harder conversations. I have a template I co-opted from the book Feedback and Other Dirty Words by M. Tamra Chandler and Laura Dowling Grealish that I often use as a starting point. I’ll ask my team to discuss our feedback preferences in this format, then discuss the responses as a group. We use what we learned to give each other much more meaningful and specific feedback.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to foster continuous learning in organizations?

Reinhard: Create a culture of visibility and accountability by using shared goals, as well as goal trackers and weekly one-on-ones. I focus on results over effort with my team by setting clear goals on outcomes and making sure people achieve those, and have the support they need to do so. It is crucial to lead with trust, and go into relationships offering a portion of trust; more trust can be earned, but don’t start on a trust deficit.

I also find it very useful to design any initiative for knowing quickly whether we succeed or fail; this way we see trends early and can pivot as needed. This approach allows for much faster learning, and defining and testing hypotheses keeps experiments small and builds resilience on teams.  

In fostering a learning culture, the way we talk about failure can be another breaking point; the way we talk about failure on our teams in particular has a large impact on whether everyone on our team feels safe to learn. High-performing teams focus on collaboration by identifying problems and solutions together, instead of blaming and pointing fingers. When you make mistakes, be open about them and address what you’re doing to fix them, but also what you’re putting in place to do better in the future. This is why it’s so important to keep incident reviews blameless and hold regular retrospectives to improve how we collaborate – those mechanisms are designed to utilise failure as a learning opportunity, and I believe they’re the best levers we have to build great organisations.

InfoQ: How does being remote play a part in this? Some companies have many years of experience with managing remote teams. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What is your advice?

Reinhard: My teams are distributed across the globe, and if building resilient teams is hard, then building resilient distributed teams is even harder. We bring different backgrounds, experiences, communication styles and collaboration preferences, and many more differences to the (virtual) table. Much less happens organically through osmosis, or at the literal watercooler, but at the same time many of the challenges all teams face, like communication and collaboration, are exacerbated when we’re distributed across locations and time zones. Many known, effective ways of building and leading teams just can’t be easily applied, so as leaders, we often need to get much more creative.

Here are five ways I combat those challenges:

  1. Build trust. The first step in creating structure is building relationships. At CircleCI, for example, we’ve built structures such as regular pair programming rotations and engineering talks to help our distributed teams do that.
  2. Structure around how you collaborate. As our engineering department has expanded, we’ve moved to a more streamlined engineering delivery process. But each team decides how to implement day-to-day processes such as daily standup meetings, planning sessions, or collaboration. Every team has specific needs, and they know how to best address them.
  3. Remove blockers. We all know how frustrating it is to be stuck. Building pathways – for example, setting up regular pair programming rotations, investing in self-serve information access, supporting each other across teams, and establishing knowledge-sharing – can help keep things moving forward. Review your processes for what makes people’s workflows easier vs. what gets in the way, and streamline your processes to allow for optimal throughput.
  4. Communicate frequently. Communicate with your team very frequently. Assume that if you feel like you’ve said something too often, not everyone has heard it. There’s a rule of thumb that you should convey any message about 7-8 times and through different media until everyone has heard it, I can recommend sticking to that. This helps not only maintain connection with your team, but also ensures there’s always space to ensure alignment and for people to ask questions and share feedback.  
  5. Continuously improve. Use retrospectives to discuss and improve how your teams work together. Blameless postmortems are also a great tool to help understand problems and drive solutions. Code reviews, mentoring, and knowledge-sharing can help team members learn from each other. How you talk about learning – especially the way you discuss mistakes – matters. These decisions will fundamentally shape the culture of your teams and determine whether people feel safe or threatened in their core needs.
  6. Drive toward alignment. Communicate strategy, direction, and relevant tactical details to your teams – and remember that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate these details. Always repeat what’s important.

InfoQ: One of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback in a way that doesn't come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language, but not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

Reinhard: The foundation of being an effective leader relies on building trust-based relationships. These relationships are even more crucial; while it is more difficult to pick up body language or facial expressions in a remote environment, it’s still possible. Strong relationships help you calibrate; understand your teammates’ behaviours and general demeanour, and get to know them.  

Here are a few ways to start:

Ask questions. This is one of the most powerful tools of an effective manager. The basis for managing well is listening, observing, taking note of what motivates your teammates, and digging into the responses to your questions.

I usually gather questions before I meet with my team members one-on-one so I am prepared and can guide the conversation toward understanding them better. Asking questions helps you adjust your leadership style to the individuals on your team. It also ensures that they feel understood and heard, which are important pillars of inclusion and belonging.

Connect to the bigger picture to ensure alignment. Creating an impact is an excellent motivator, so make sure the members on your team understand how their work helps users or supports other teams. While goal-setting frameworks like OKRs can help with this, it is also crucial to align initiatives with higher-level goals and connect them clearly with user value.

How to give feedback.
I believe that there aren’t big differences between good feedback practices in colocated vs. distributed teams, and here are a few items:

  • Give feedback regularly: Feedback shouldn’t be a one-off, but a habit. Make it a practice.
  • Check feedback preferences: Some people prefer feedback in writing, others like to hear it in conversation. Check what works for the people you work with.
  • Keep it small: Frequently give praise or, where needed, small points of criticism where needed to build a "muscle" around feedback.  
  • Avoid surprises: "Big" feedback shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you feel like you have to deliver a big piece of feedback to someone that may surprise them, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on whether you missed an opportunity to share smaller points of feedback previously.
  • Invite feedback: Don’t forget to ask your team for feedback so you can also adjust as needed. Encourage feedback and ask for specific feedback. I also frequently share areas that I’m working on with my staff, so they can help me evolve in those.

InfoQ: What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Reinhard: Focus on communication, expectations, and trust, to help teams avoid burnout during uncertain times. I think a lot has to do about being clear and transparent, while maintaining a bigger picture and a sense of purpose and impact, and continuously reminding employees of that. A big part of our ability to support our employees well also comes from our understanding of how they’re doing and what they need; it’s important to make sure that leaders have the visibility and rapport with their organisations to ensure that’s the case.  

A key trait of resilient teams is that they focus their energy on what they can change. It can be useful to work with teams about what they can directly control, versus what’s only under their influence or outside of their reach, and help them focus their action on the areas where they have greater ability to improve the situation.

I think in general, it’s on us as leaders to build organisational structures that provide the scalability and flexibility that organisations need, especially in times of high uncertainty and change.

InfoQ: How can leaders avoid personal burnout to keep spirits high?

Reinhard: Three things that I suggest are:

Schedule your day around your energy. I always encourage leaders to be mindful about how they structure their day: instead of only focusing on time spent, look at what activities are energizing or draining to us. Being fulfilled at work is not only about managing our time, but also about managing our energy.
There's an exercise I do every once in a while where I map out my schedule for the day with the intention to identify my energy levels and what increases or lowers my level of energy. As I go through the day, I'll put a "+" next to the tasks that energized me and a "-" next to the tasks that drained me. That way, I'm able to recognize what emotions come up throughout my workday and plan around them.

It's also helpful to set boundaries for yourself. Maybe it's blocking an hour on your calendar for lunch each day or reserving "no meeting time" for critical thinking or more intense projects.

Practice boundary setting. It can be very difficult to set boundaries, especially in high-pressure situations or when dealing with larger organizational challenges. As leaders, we have a responsibility to build sustainable work environments for our staff, and ensure our teammates have the space they need to lead balanced lives.
With that, the way we balance our own personal and professional lives also matters; people perceive when we send emails or answer to messages, and whether we take time off. At the same time, building sustainable teams also means ensuring that our own workload and energy levels are sustainable, so we can support our teams in the long-term.

Take many short breaks. Smaller breaks are better for the brain to reset and refresh. At around 11:00 a.m., I go for a short walk to get a coffee around the corner and sit in the sun for a bit. Some days, I take a longer break around that time to go go for a long walk or run errands; pre-Covid, this used to be my gym time.
Given the current distribution of my teams around the whole globe, midday is usually when the majority of my meetings start, usually a mix of one-on-ones with my peers, manager, and direct reports, or other people across our company that I work closely with, and some team meetings. These last until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. my time, and I’ll take short breaks in between to have a light meal, tea, or sit on the balcony for a little while.

About the Interviewee

Lena Reinhard is VP product engineering at CircleCI, the leader in continuous integration and delivery for developer teams. In her 15+ year career, she’s been building and scaling high-performing engineering organisations and helping distributed teams succeed, starting with  her own startup to corporates and NGOs. Reinhard is an acclaimed international keynote speaker on topics like leadership, DevOps transformation, and organisational scale, at conferences such as O’Reilly Velocity, The Lead Developer, and CTO Summit. She is passionate about helping teams increase their effectiveness and business impact, and scaling culture for organisational performance and health.


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