Hello! Welcome to Uncommon Leadership. I’m Michael Hunter, with Uncommon Teams.
Today I’m talking with Than Som.
Than is an experienced leader and a founder of her local Agile community. From an early practitioner of Extreme Programming she has developed into a thriving career helping teams find their best way to become the teams they want to be.
Than loves connecting with people and hearing their stories. Today, I’m delighted to be sharing her trademark humor and lightheartedness as she shares her stories with us.
Than Som 0:46
Thank you, Michael! I’m excited to be here!
I’m excited to have you here!
As you reflect over your journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage their unique gifts to best accomplish your goals, when did you first recognize that this approach might be valuable?
I had a lot of thought on that, as I was thinking through, “Man, where did I discover that?”
It happened way early in my career, back when I was just a software engineer.
We were working on an XP (Extreme Programming) team, and we just seemed to struggle. The struggle was trying to translate between business specifications, which at the time, we were using stories and stuff like that, and just getting the team getting together and understanding it.
It didn’t matter what project we did.
There was always this constant struggle of, “The business wants this. The team is trying to build this way.”
One day, I sat there, and I looked at everybody, “Why don’t y’all just get together and talk about this?” Literally, there was communication going over email. “We’re not getting through much here.”
So I sat back and I was like, “Okay, I’m stopping this. We’re going to just pull everyone together and let’s talk through this and try to understand what it is we’re trying to get done here. And quite honestly, we as developers, cannot help you as the business get where you want to be if we can’t see clearly what is the intent behind all of this.”
That is when I realized we’re all trying to work towards the same things. But none of us is really, really good at using our communication skills. And from there, it’s “Business, you’re good at doing business. Developers, we are good at coding and building things. So let us do our jobs. Let us put in our creativity, whether it’s through code, whether it’s through automation, whether it’s through coming up with a different way around this. We’re gonna deliver you the true end result that you really need here.”
That was probably year three of my career as a software engineer.
That’s a lot earlier than I had figured this out. You were ahead of the game there.
That’s how you got started. Was there something that really stood out in your journey since that reinforced and propelled your faith that this is really the right way to go?
So that’s where the initial discovery happened.
Throughout the years, my career would change.
It grew out of being an individual contributor and to more of people management.
It was really the people management part of my career where the recognition in people and their talent, their skill set, but truly, their creativity and just being a pure human being, can change the world and can change the way we do things.
It was during that stage of my life where I struggled the most.
And I say “struggle with” because you grow up. And you think about this, right?
Whether it’s going through the school system, whether it’s going through your career paths, whether you’re working in the private sector and the government sector, there’s always some sort of structure that’s put in place. There’s always some role to play by.
What do these rules do?
A lot of times we think of them like they’re supposed to be guidelines to help you kind of stay safe, but they’re never really truly taught that way.
It’s always, “If you don’t do this, you’re gonna get in trouble.”
Then people started pivoting towards more of the punishment route.
During my time as a people manager, the struggle was, “Well, I know that my people are the best people we’ve got. They come from a mixed background of technology, of domain knowledge, of people experiences. Now we’re up against like a system where it’s like, ‘Well, if we stray out of this, it just creates a lot of chaos for this other sector of the company, whether it’s security or wherever, and then everybody starts raining down on us.’”
I said, “No. I am not going to hire people in and tell them, ‘You can’t do your job the best way that you possibly can because we got all these rules to play by.’”
That was at the moment when I realized, if we just allow people the freedom and the creativity to operate however they need to in order to get the job done, we will arrive at a much, much better outcome.
Outcome is so much more than just the end results.
It’s so much more than just the dollar amount.
We’re looking at, what’s the change we really want to see here?
That’s the pivoting moment for me. “Hey, we can do this better.”
That point of taking the reins and throwing up the rulebook and doing things the way that makes sense, even if it’s not the official or approved way, can be really scary. And can bring a lot of pushback from other people, other parts of the company, even people on the team who are not used to this much agency.
What sort of struggles or experiences have you had, as you’ve pivoted teams and they’re working with their full abilities?
The largest struggle has always been more at the leadership level. When the leaders aren’t aligned.
When I say “aligned” it’s beyond just strategies from roadmaps. It’s also the incentives.
When the people at the top aren’t seeing the same things as the people at the bottom.
I’m not saying the people at the bottom are the lowest of the company. That’s not the point here.
If you really think about it, the people who are actually focused on doing the work, they’re the ones that are making things happen.
When you look at the entire vertical, the organization, and they’re not aligned, we have chaos.
So, what do you do to get back to it?
You have to think through the same set of steps that you typically play by.
These rules and guidelines that are put in place for you to play by aren’t always going to work out.
So, we have to come up with creative solutions.
The struggle is always getting people at the top to see the same thing as that you see, the people doing the work.
The visionaries and the individual contributors really have to work in sync and work together.
One of the situations I ran into was probably like my second job. It was a mortgage company.
The struggle is when I go into meeting talking about, “Okay, what’s the next set of priorities? What is this product that we have, the set of features that we need to have you to do?” You have to talk about who is it for, and it became a battle because it was loan officers or the process officers or somebody else and everybody was number one priority. Of course, as you know, nobody’s ever second anything.
So what ends up happening?
When people don’t get what they want, you can get into a situation where it becomes political.
I literally had the C (executive) suite going “Well, the CEO (chief executive officer) said this,” or “CEO said that,” or “The owner said this.”
I said, “Well shoot, I don’t know what this is going to land me.” I called the owner of the company.
I said, “We need to talk. Your executive team is saying X, Y, and Z are our number one priorities. I need to know, in your mind, what is the number one priority, because I’ve got a whole team to guide through. I’m not going to set my people to work on the wrong thing if this isn’t even on your radar.“
By golly, when I did that, it was the scariest thing ever. I’m like, “Okay, I’m not going to have a job today.”
It’s so funny: the end result of that was, he actually ended up sending me a thank you note. I’m pretty sure I still have that thank you note somewhere. I’ll have to go through and dig through my boxes.
I remember to this day. It read, “Thank you so much for giving me that phone call. It’s very rare that someone will approach me and be open and honest on the state of things. But here’s the top three priorities.” And that’s what I used to guide all my people.
That’s why I say it’s very important to—I stole this phrase from my friend: aligne on incentives.
Incentives need to be top, middle, bottom, everybody working towards the same path.
Everyone has to see, are the things they’re doing the values that are important to them. The purpose, everything, is that aligning with what the organization is saying and the strategies and everything behind it.
What other tools have you found that help you bring about that alignment?
Do we really want to get to all the facilitation stuff?
So, don’t ever call your CEO, your owner of a company, unless you feel you’re ready to lose that job.
I’ve done lots of facilitations.
It is very important for people to have a clear understanding, number one, what their vision is.
Once they understand the vision, it’s going towards, “What do I have in place that’ll help me get there? If I don’t have it in place, then what can I bring on board to get there?”
That’s one way to do it.
Another way is, “What are the skill sets that I have on deck?”
This is the conversation, even as I coach today, that I have all day long with a lot of teams.
When I say coaching teams, I’m a consultant. So these teams will vary from client to client and vary from company to company.
The biggest thing is always, can they see where the business is headed? And if they can’t, we have to sit down and realign ourselves. “What does your overarching strategy look like? Where does that add up to your business architecture?”
These are all these things that people forget about.
Strategy is very important.
Strategy is what helps you to organize your thought, organize the work, and align it with where you’re, the actual direction which is yours to envision.
It is the result of that which translates to the outcome.
The outcome is always looking for change.
And it’s if you really think about outcome, it’s behavioral change. Behaviors are hard to change.
When you said that the outcome is always change, it pops into my head that the outcome of every business is ultimately change.
We think about these big companies like Microsoft and Google as not wanting their customers to ever change because they want their customers to always be buying.
But they have to be changed in their products or we will never upgrade.
They have to be changing their products, or they won’t be up with the time and they won’t be relevant anymore.
That is maybe the most succinct definition of what every business is trying to do I think I’ve ever heard.
And then the differentiator from company to company is, “What is the change that you care about versus this other company and the other one down the road?”
You have to really think about what’s the motivating factor.
We talked about, you can change the product. You can add more suites, a product to it, or a couple restructure your business.
The other thing that people forget about, your user base could change too. Because it changes from generation to generation.
You have to also look back at human behavior, what is their trend looking like. Twenty years ago, this is how users interacted with the software. Interacted with the application. Interacted with the hardware.
Modern days, how many people actually sit down and still have a clunky desktop.
You know, subsidy. Everything is so unique and so small.
Now we’re entering into the land of VR (virtual reality). AR (augmented reality). Immersive experiences.
With these companies, their user base could change too. It’s going to be a lot of the people who are interested in cutting edge technologies wanting to live in a very truly immersive world.
And all round that is the way people act. They also change right?
What all of these bring about is emotions.
People get excited when they see positivity coming out of all of these products.
People get excited when a simple act triggers some sort of emotion for them.
That’s what they buy.
I just went to the Louis Vuitton store today. I took my children with me because it’s close to Valentine’s Day and we love spoiling our children.
That’s the other part of me. I’m a mother of two. I love my two kids.
I love it when my children see, whether it’s an object or product or some sort of experience, and their eyes just kind of wide open and excitement and you see the sparkles.
That is what I’m willing to pay for.
I want my children to be happy.
If that thing is gonna give them happiness, by golly, it’s coming home.
It’s the same with all these products.
Oftentimes, as you said, there’s the disconnect between what the business is trying to do, what the founders and executive suite is trying to do, maybe between themselves even.
By the time it gets down to the engineers who are actually writing the code, actually figuring out how the features should look and what they should do, there can be a vast gulf in understanding between each of those levels.
How do you gauge how dramatic that gulf is?
At what point does it become…how much of a gulf is, “Just fine. It’s not a big deal.”
How do you know when it moves past that point of “Okay, now, this disparity and understanding is too big to be viable, and we have to do something to bring things back in alignment.”
So let me understand the question. How big is the gulf typically? Is the gap?
How do you understand how big the gulf is? And how do you identify when that gulf becomes too big to be workable?
A lot of it depends on what gets lost in translation.
Look at us, just a moment there.
You’re obviously asking me a clear question.
I’m like, “Okay, let me understand the question.”
It comes down to our understanding of what is being asked of us.
Even though we all speak English all the time, we don’t.
What we hear and what somebody else says may not always match.
You have to be very intentional in understanding what is being asked of us.
Are we hearing the same thing our partners or executives are saying here, and are we understanding that message?
So to uncover that, you have to look at what’s the original message and the details, if there are any.
Executives speak in very high level, their details, it’s all business lingo because they got to sell to investors, a lot of times.
We speak in very tangible things—when I say we, developers, business analysts, people who are actually doing the work—speak in very tangible things because the end result is what matters and that line of work.
So, in order to understand how much of a gap we have, is to look at from the original context to the breaking it down and actually doing the work, how much do they match up?
It’s a matching game is what it comes down to.
Once we understand that and kind of see that, then we can see, how close or how far off are we?
It all comes down, tying it all back, communication is key in everything.
Communication, partnership, the ability to learn, understand what is being asked of us, understand that we have to get the right information.
Then piecing it all together and saying, ”This is the thing that we’re going to do.”
It takes a lot more analysis, a lot more thought, before you even can sit down and write that first line of code, to say this is a thing.
And then afterwards, you have to do verification. It’s software, we call it testing and validation, whether it’s through a suite of automated tests, whether it’s having an entire quality engineering team to validate it, you have to validate.
So that’s the first tier.
Then you have to think about, “Now, once this thing makes it to market, we got to sell it, we need to validate this with our customers.”
If we’re bringing those practices closer in—not every company does this, I hope they do—if we’re doing more human-centered design, bring in a lot of that validation upfront, then we get closer to that message and can actually close that gap a bit more.
So if I might say this in a different way, engineers in Agile worlds are typically used to doing demos and reviews every sprint. The best way to ensure that we’re getting a clear understanding of what needs to be done, all the way up to the executive suite and out to our customers, would be to include our CEO, key customers, customers we don’t have yet in our demos and every sprint be showing, “Here’s what we’re doing. Does this match up with what you want us to be doing?”
Hey, if you ever get to a point where you can get the executive layers to see demos every sprint, that would be amazing. That’s not realistic.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It is.
Here’s the thing: we always see executives at that layer where they’re almost like untouchable.
But the reality is, they love seeing things in action.
They love the excitement when seeing people come together and actually produce and deliver.
They love it even more if you get it ahead of time.
Depending on the size of your organization, whether you’re a small startup or whether you’re some very big company out there, and also the size of your sprint, there’s absolutely no reason why the CEO can’t see it. Or have somebody take it to him.
That’s why you have a lot of product managers, program managers that kind of represent all of that.
I’m not one that believes in all of these traditional things, that I gotta play by the rules and I can’t have access to anybody.
If I know who you are, my having your attention is going to expedite things and help people get there faster. We’re going to talk.
It’s probably a pretty safe experiment in most cultures, company cultures, to shoot off an email to the CEO saying, “Here’s the awesome new thing I think you might be interested in. Just thought you’d like to know.” If their secretary filters it out, no big deal. If they look at it, say “I don’t care,” no big deal. And best case, they look at it and, like happened with you, send you a thank you, “That was really cool. I didn’t know we were doing this. Thank you so much.”
It comes down to how do we look at leadership?
We always talk about servant leader and all this other stuff, but how many people actually live and breathe it?
My thought around all this is, and I know this is politics coming into play.
I remember having some sort of conversation with a friend of mine who at one point in time was running for school board.
He didn’t win though. I was sad.
But we got into to a conversation that was, if you really think about it, the President of the United States is probably the servant of America that is in the highest office, right? Because the people have to vote for him.
So, in theory, we don’t work for the President, the person works for the people, right?
So, let’s pivot that and look at the CEO.
Obviously, we as employees don’t really get to vote for the CEO or whatever.
But he gets hired, and his job or her job is really to spearhead the company. Make sure that it, every single company, is positioned well in such a way that it’s profitable, and it’s taking care of its people.
It’s the taking care of its people part that I feel is the most important.
Profit is necessary to keep a company going.
But, if you don’t take care of people, we understand where it’s going. It’s going to tank eventually.
So that means that at the highest level, the CEO should also be serving his or her people from all tiers, not the other way around.
If there’s new ideas coming up, whether it’s an innovative idea or not, why not hear about it and see where this can take us?
No idea is too small to be thought about.
No idea is too small to even be shown.
The only idea that’s too small is ones that really, people don’t talk about.
How do you help executives—and anyone, really—realize that taking care of their people really is their primary task?
You have to show value. Because everybody speaks in term of value.
Nowadays, there’s all these little add-ons to meetings where they’re like, “This is how much the meeting is costing based on the number of hours, dollars per hour, you pay each people.”
In order to show them that people is their primary focus, you also have to show that, here’s the value that everybody brings to the table.
Doesn’t matter if it’s your secretary.
Doesn’t matter if it’s the janitor. So many people still have office buildings they go to. And if you don’t, you work from home, it’s the lady who comes in clean your house.
Everything’s an ecosystem.
By having all these people within your company, within your organization, here’s every single step that they add to, to get you to where you are, to get the company to where it’s going to make more money.
If you are in a company where they don’t see value in the people, time to go, buddy. You’re not going to last long.
Well, that company is not going to last long.
Tie back the value proposition to every individual.
You have to understand that everybody has to have a seat at the table somehow. Whether directly or indirectly.
If you don’t, the voices that represent you, or your own voices, won’t be heard, and it’s not gonna be bubbled up.
These executives are such a high level that their focus is not necessarily on every single individual, but they’re relying on their own first team, their own leaders to make sure they bring the challenges to them to make sure that every single person with an organization is valued and taken care of.
So then, one way to measure the gap between my understanding and the executives’ understanding would be to understand the value that I’m adding, understand the value that my team is adding, and mapping out how that aligns with the vision we’re hearing from the executives.
You have to also ask yourself, are these executives sharing these visions well?
I have been in town halls and all-hands meetings where the direction sounds so amazing. But when it comes to execution, it’s “You guys aren’t heading towards the right direction.”
I’ve sat at the table with these executives and said, “Here’s what your people were hearing in terms of a message. We need to really correct course and come back and be like, Is this message aligned with where you’re going? Because if not, you really need to sit down and work through that.”
There’s a lot of time spent in crafting these messages and these strategies before it even gets shared out to people.
Yes. And the people crafting them often don’t realize that the words they’re meaning to say, are not the words that are coming across and are not the words that are being heard by the people who are meant to hear them. And so, having someone, like you did at the mortgage company, pass the message back, “This is what we heard, Is this what you meant us to hear?” can be immeasurably valuable.
It’s very rare that someone like a team lead back then, because that was all I was, is able to just call the owner of the company and be like, “Hey, we got to talk.”
Also, at the time, it was a much smaller company. I think its employees numbered 500 or something at the time. They’re way, way past that now. I’m pretty sure if I were to go back and put myself in that position again, like now in that same company, I’d probably have to go through some management before I’d even make it to the CEO.
The reality is, when you’re an executive and you lose touch with people, no matter where they are in your organization, then you have lost touch with your own reality and your ability to serve.
Serving is my ministry; I’m hoping it’s everybody’s ministry too.
You got to serve the people within your organization.
You got to serve the people outside your organization.
At the end of the day, your job at that level is to serve.
However far up the organization we do have access to, even if it’s just our immediate manager, we can always say, “This is what I understand from what I just heard. Is this what I was meant to take from that?”
Having an open dialogue is very important.
I hope that everybody who’s a people manager, if you call yourself a leader, will continue to have an open dialogue with your directs, your peers, and then those above you.
Because your directs are looking to you to help carry their voice.
Whether it’s a concern, whether it’s positivity, whether it’s an innovative thought, we need to bubble that up.
So that the people responsible for the health of the people within the organization understand and are aware and say, “We’re headed towards the right direction, we’re gonna be an innovative company,” or “We’ve got concerns here because here’s the employee voice surveys and here’s how they’re coming in and we’re not looking too good right now. So we better do something about that.”
When I say they also need to represent the voice of their peers, when you become a people manager, hopefully you’re not on an island.
If you’re on an island, run.
You have to be able to leverage and work with your peers to build an even stronger leadership tier, organization, however you want to think about that, in order to protect and guide all of your directs.
Then, also, become a stronger voice to push up.
When you’re in the middle, not only do you have to manage down, you also have to manage up.
When I say “managing up” I’m not necessarily saying managing people, but the expectations.
Everyone’s looking to you and hoping that their concerns, their interests, and everything is something that you’re carrying and thinking about. It is your job as people manager to constantly always be putting your people at the forefront.
Then, the other thing to think about when you’re a people manager, how you behave, how you speak, all these patterns become an impact.
People will be looking and seeing.
Are you carrying yourself in such a way where you’re representing the right type of style of leadership that your people are going to be proud of? Your peers are looking to you, going “Is this this type of behavior that I want to actually emulate?”
The people above you are looking, “Is this the right person to have in this position to continue driving things forward?”
Impact is something that people don’t often look at.
It’s very, very important.
Impact comes down to emotional impact, decisional impact, positional impact, you name it.
The most important one is, you’ve got to be able to take care of the emotions.
Because, like it or not, when it comes down to it, people will not listen to facts when emotions are already the thing that they’re focused on.
It’s the thing that really strikes me as illogical.
Emotions are what drive all the consumers who are buying whatever we’re producing, whether that’s a consumer or another business, and yet so many businesses expect us to, as we take off our coat and hang that up, to also take off our emotions and hang those up and do our work with just pure logic, which of course we can’t do.
Well, if we were robots, sure. But we are not robots. We’re human.
We’re multifaceted, and that’s the thing.
The exciting thing I love was, when you did that interview with Esther Derby, you talked about histories and how we can see it play a role in how organizations behave, people are the same way.
Every single one of us, myself included, carries with us a slew of history that shapes the way we think, that shapes the way we act, that shapes the way we speak, and also shapes the decisions we make.
For example, I am a minority. Based in, culturally, as a female, in the tech industry. As a refugee. That’s my background.
It comes with all history, like the refugee side of me, like my family, we survived the genocide coming to America. So there’s a whole huge impact around all of that, understanding, “Here’s the things we got to watch out for.”
Because when we work in a job with other people who have similar backgrounds, this is probably what they’re feeling and that history is going to carry with them. Any sort of unsafe environment or response is going to trigger something.
The other part of me that probably a lot of people don’t see and don’t hear because I don’t represent, what they understand anymore is, I grew up in poverty.
For people who have lived through all of that, living paycheck to paycheck, section housing, all those things, that itself carries its own set of historical background.
Think about the steps they had to take and the struggles and challenges from emotional impact, from a psychological, physical safety, all these things, financial safety, that they had to overcome to get to where they are today.
When it comes to decision making, they’re probably going to make decisions that’s going to protect them financially.
Then the other side of me, it’s the colonial days. My parents, they’re Southeast Asians, and at some point in time, France conquered Southeast Asia. So guess what? All these rules that, everything comes into place.
Obviously, everybody has history that comes with them.
It is that history that’s going to create patterns in their lives and help drive to a lot of decision making that they do.
And, the compassion comes from that too.
That’s where you have to start thinking about empathy versus sympathy, all these things.
And, everybody’s unique in their own history.
You’re not going to see one person that’s exactly the same as another one because everybody’s experience is going to shake that up.
The more we understand how our histories are affecting the way that we are today, and the more we can be aware and ask for help understanding how our colleagues’ histories are impacting the way that they are and what their experiences, the more we can understand how those experiences and histories are clashing and where they’re collaborating. The more we can hold together the best of all those things to move us forward and mute where those are in conflict.
I like to say, find the strength and the weakness.
Because there’s going to be times where these histories will make you weak.
It is those challenges that everybody overcame that makes them strong.
If you can find the strength of the weakness across every single person, whether it’s a team, whether it’s somebody you work with, you’re going to find a bond, a true bond experience.
A prime example: my son had his string concert yesterday, Saturday, and I happened to be there, sitting right next to this young lady. I call her “young lady,” but we’re probably the same age.
She’s got four kids, I’ve got two, but our our sons are of the same age and they’re in the same string concert together.
Two completely different schools.
We’ve never met each other before.
I was looking for a place to sit.
She was like, “Oh, these aren’t reserved, you can come and sit and it’s okay.”
So I sat down next to her and the next thing I know, we just started with a, “Hey, hi, hello.”
By the end of the concert, I had walked away with her phone number, her name, a lot of information around her family, and we’ve got a playdate for our two sons coming up.
It’s a shared connection.
She shared with me the emotional trauma she went through, trying to start a family with her husband. And we just connected through that.
So, even though people may recognize some things as weakness, there is strength in it.
You just have to find it.
And we just connected on that topic.
Every weakness has a strength at its core.
It’s been a fabulous conversation today. What else should I ask you?
When are we doing lunch?
Let’s do that after we stop recording. 😉
What do you want to leave our listeners with today, Than?
Oh my, I really really enjoyed this.
At the end of the day, leadership isn’t hard.
What’s hard is everything else that goes into it.
So, if you see yourself as a leader, the most important thing you have to recognize is you’re a servant first and then leader next.
Once you understand that, everybody can lead with grace.
I think you just gave me the title for this episode.
What, lead with grace?
Leadership isn’t hard.
No, it’s not.
You have, I think, the most unique gift I’ve ever seen for our audience. What’s your offer for them?
Well, I think I said in the form, if they want to reach out to me, send me an email, I’ll send them my favorite books. I love to read, and I love to read on almost every subject. Send me an email and I’ll send you my book.
That goes right into the last piece, which is, what’s the best way for people to connect with you?
Email is the best way.
The other way is through LinkedIn. I get LinkedIn messages. I’ll try my best to not filter people out.
My phone number is the hardest to reach. Because if I don’t know who you are, I’m really not answering this.
I don’t do Facebook.
I’ll have those links in the show notes.
Thank you so much, Than.
Any last last words today?
It’s a beautiful Sunday evening.
If you’re in the Midwest or the Columbia or St. Louis area, go and play. We need that sunshine.
Audience, thank you so much for being with us today.
Absolutely follow up with her offer for, send her an email and discover what she said to you.
Have a great day.
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