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Empathy first: Driving growth through people leadership

Eleni Katsoula avatar

Eleni Katsoula
November 30, 2020

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As a consultancy, Collabora provides expert open source solutions to ensure the best possible result for our clients. Our business aims at fulfilling niche markets, and at its core we have our people. Talent, skill and expertise are unique and valuable traits for any company - at Collabora however, our mission is to not only see how we can ensure our people are equipped to complete projects successfully, but also that we foster a work environment where all Collaborans feel heard, empowered and supported.

Our values and responsibilities

As a People Lead at Collabora, my job is to look after our Engineers with regards to anything related to performance, training, coaching, mentoring, professional growth and feedback. Equally, I need to ensure wellbeing, inclusion and a sense of community. By reading this you will probably think “yeah sure, don’t all companies advertise that? What makes you special?” - allow me to iterate. :)

In the FOSS world, the sense of community is very strong and highly valued. What drives us is not merely financial success, but also the satisfaction that we have contributed to a global common goal. Therefore, along with a fundamental human need, social belonging is also interconnected with our professional milieu. When looking at Collaborans, what connects us is a sense of common vision and mutual respect.

My team consists of engineers in the domains of Graphics, Kernel, XR, Apps and Web, and I have been working with them for about a year so far. I myself have a background in Management and Operations, so the question I always get asked is “how do you connect with engineers when you are not one yourself?”. Well first of all, we are all people. To feel respected, valued and appreciated are universal values that we all share, so a good starting point is to not look at our different backgrounds as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to learn. In the subsequent sections I will provide a bit more insight on how this is achieved.

Improving communication

If the genuine intent is to get into the other person’s mindset, then active listening and empathy are key ingredients that you need to improve communication. I am stressing the word genuine here, because I am not referring to tips and tricks on how to look engaged; truly care about the person in your team and allow them to open up at their own pace and to their own degree if they wish to do so.

What are the results of that? Bonds are formed at work. Suddenly your “reportee”’s identity is no longer limited to e.g. “kernel engineer”, they are also the person who loves to bake, the one who shares their astrophotography pictures, the one who juggles, the one who takes their sons on an annual sailing trip, the one who is a volunteer at the fire brigade, the farmer, the dancer… I could go on and on. To help foster that, we also have channels on our internal Mattermost instance that are related to common interests such as Foodies, Musicians, Gaming, Parents etc., have created “clusters” of 5-7 people where we meet bi-weekly or monthly to discuss company news, do targeted soft skills training and also share some personal anecdotes to connect. Our People Ops and Office Admin teams have created fun monthly quizzes open to all. Moreover, following the lockdown of early to mid 2020, it has become Collabora’s mission to actively help improve the health and wellbeing of all our people. A committee has been formed to provide training and information as well as come up with motivating group fitness challenges

Collective Leadership and the Engineering Framework

A flat hierarchy, open culture and business model based on highly specialised expertise comes with a lot of benefits and creates a very powerful dynamic within Collabora. Naturally, leadership gets a more collective sense in such a paradigm and requires an adaptive approach towards support and management. For this purpose, we have rolled out the Engineering Framework. Our Business Strategy Leads form quests for their respective technical domains and guide strategic decisions, our Technical Mentorship Lead ensures continuous learning, promotes best practices and skills management and our People Leads act as “line managers” for the engineering team with regular 1on1s on progress, motivation, career growth, soft skills and anything that requires assistance. This way we can ensure we capture and support what drives each individual, how we can help them to feel fulfilled and accomplished in their job whilst keeping an eye on their future professional path.

Wellbeing, Diversity and Inclusion

The Engineering Framework and the People Lead role have been created to help with growth, transparency and continuous improvement. In line with improving communication, an additional endeavour is to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and we can truly leverage our talent and potential, i.e. to actively support openness. What is beautiful to see is that this is not merely a “top-down” initiative, but people also open up themselves. Recently, a Collaboran launched the Neurodiversity channel and created a presentation to promote awareness about being on the autism spectrum. It was a highly insightful training and helped pave the way to our collective effort for an open culture.

This year, the global pandemic has put a strain on us all. Motivation can become hard to maintain, worries can cloud our minds. More so now than ever before, it is important to try and connect with our colleagues. As People Leads, we need to go beyond “how is your project going? Do you need any help?” and ensure our team feels safe, is able to cope with increasing everyday challenges and has someone they can voice their concerns to.

The definition of a concern can vary immensely from person to person; it can involve the global economic trend in times of Covid-19, or everyday struggles such as how to minimise risk and maximise benefit when carrying out essential tasks such as grocery shopping or going for a walk. We all have different sensory realities; the way we perceive risk, uncertainty and threats is not black and white. Allowing people to open up and invite you to their own way of viewing their world is crucial, as of course is their freedom not to do so if that is what they wish. Should people choose to give you their trust, please note that it is not to be seen as a source of information - it is a privilege. From that point onwards, it is our job to do our best to support our team on their path, which of course is also beneficial for increasing job satisfaction, performance and a sense of loyalty within the company.

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