Good developers code well. Great developers code well and lead well. Being a “cowboy coder” — a lone ranger executing tasks on his or her own, unaffected by the rest of a team — might work temporarily, but it won’t mean long-term success for the developer or the team. The truth is, no one works alone in this industry. Everyone depends on everyone else, and if your developers are not willing to build relationships with others, cultivate interpersonal skills and learn to communicate well, they’re not going to be a valuable contributor for very long.

Being well-rounded is important for all developers, but it’s non-negotiable for a developer in a leadership role. One of the best ways to ensure your leader is up to the task is by looking within your existing team. They’re already familiar with the types of projects your team works on, and they’re already immersed in the culture. You’ll have much better luck in the long-term elevating a current team member than hoping an outside hire will have what it takes.

But how does a team lead or executive determine which team members might make a great investment as a leader? There are five must-have qualities to look for in potential leaders on your IT team:

  1. They look at the big picture.
    One of the most important qualities of a leader in IT is the ability to take a step back and understand the whole picture of the project on which they’re working. Knowing the project is bigger than their individual tasks and working to understand how all the pieces fit together gives them perspective and insight they might not otherwise have if they only focus on their one piece. Leaders are of course innovative and share their ideas, but they are always cognizant of how those fit in with the larger structure and overall goals of the project.
  2. They listen to other members of their team.
    It’s important for leaders to take into account the challenges their team members are facing and the ideas they bring to the table. They listen first and take those opinions into consideration to create a plan that addresses everyone’s needs, rather than forcing their opinion on others or being overbearing.
  3. They can express their ideas and opinions clearly and with humility.
    Many developers are unfortunately unskilled at expressing their ideas and explaining their work and the rationale behind it. A good way to determine a potential leader is through meetings like daily standups. Are they able to clearly communicate what they’ve been working on and the successes or potential challenges they’ve encountered? It’s extremely important for a leader to be able to communicate well about the work they do, especially when working with others outside the development team, without being defensive or easily frustrated.
  4. They can balance needs and expectations from team members as well as higher-ups.
    A great developer and leader has the ability to synthesize two areas of concerns: those of team members and those of higher-ups. There’s a lot of diplomacy in the development world. The needs and wants of developers may at times be incompatible with the needs and wants of company leadership or clients, so it’s important to be able to understand both sides and synthesize them in a way that works for both. Even if neither side is able to take the exact path they were anticipating, you can still achieve a consensus if your developers are able to use their skills and creativity and the goals of the project are met.
  5. They take responsibility for their work and their team’s work.
    Leaders understand they are part of a team and the value of owning their role in it. They not only take responsibility for their own work, whether successful or not, but they take shared ownership in the work of their teammates, helping wherever needed without being overbearing. Leaders are not only knowledgeable, but approachable and available to their teammates when they get stuck on a problem.

Even if you’re not actively looking for a potential leader to elevate or promote within your IT team, chances are high that — if these individuals are skilled developers — they will move into leadership roles eventually. Friction often occurs between leadership and development teams because there is a significant gap in understanding. The difficulty understanding one another’s perspectives creates challenges that ultimately end in frustrated employees and missed project goals. Investing in your developers early on to help them cultivate strong interpersonal and leadership skills better prepares your team for success.

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