Coaching, both personal and professional, can help to understand your potential and discover ways to exercise that potential in your daily work. For Maryam Umar, coaching has proved to be highly useful in her tech work of leading testers and engineers.
Maryam Umar, head of quality engineering, gave a keynote about the power of coaching for leading test teams at Agile Testing Days 2021.
Umar mentioned that she works with three types of coaches: a personal coach, a physical coach (personal trainer) and a career coach. All three of them help her strengthen different parts of her life which she continually works on to try and improve her role as a department head.
Umar started with personal coaching and personal training in 2019:
I realised then that I was trying to juggle a lot of things in my life and I needed someone to help me understand how I can identify what is causing this imbalance. We started out by exploring my boundaries and how I react when those are crossed. We also discussed a lot about where the stress to be perfect comes from in my work and life.
I met my personal trainer also in 2019. The goal there was easy: building physical stamina which directly impacts mental strength. This in turn helps me in managing stress during crunch times at work.
Her journey with her career coach is somewhat different, as Umar explained:
I first met her pre-pandemic as part of a leadership training course. I found that we had a good rapport with each other and I sought to proceed further with them as part of my training budget allowance. I used some of the feedback I got through my performance reviews as well as some personal career goals as an outline for discussion during my coaching sessions.
Mentoring and coaching has helped Umar in her daily work as a leader:
I am far more aware of my responses and reactions now especially during difficult conversations and decisions, e.g. when I am starting to feel that there is a conversation about underperformance coming up, it makes me anxious. So I prepare to have the conversation in a space which is less stressful than a meeting room so it helps both myself and my team members. Being self-aware helps me equip myself with useful tools for managing anxiety, stress, overwork, long-days, team morale, etc.
InfoQ interviewed Maryam Umar about her experiences with coaching and mentoring.
InfoQ: What were your expectations from mentoring and coaching when you started as head of quality?
Maryam Umar: I actually did not explore the idea of being coached as a head of the department. I had heard a lot about the term mentor and started asking my previous managers to mentor me when I stepped into a managerial role.
What I realised then, was that my understanding of the term “mentoring” was unclear. I had hoped that I would get guidance on where to apply for roles and how to prepare better for them etc. Instead, mentoring really talks about giving advice to inexperienced people about the task and role at hand.
For mentoring, I actually needed to reach out to professionals in the software testing industry. These included Lisa Crispin, Isabel Evans and countless others who I have met through an extended network of test engineers around the world. I also have a special interest in metrics and for that I reached out to Daniel North and Jez Humble (for his work with his colleagues about the DORA project).
The idea of coaching came to me when I attended a couple of courses that spoke about coaching for leadership. The course material helped me discover a coachie side of my personality which I started using to work more effectively with my teams.
InfoQ: What techniques do you use for combating stress and balancing the demand for delivery?
Umar: I rely on my conversations with my coaches. I always openly discuss stressful situations with them.
My personal trainer ensures that I don’t miss sessions as physical training is very good for releasing endorphins which are needed for tackling hard problems at work. When we get very busy, we also forget about our nutrition which my trainer keeps me honest about :).
I will be honest- I end up neglecting my personal coach and start speaking to my career coach more when work stress rises. This is because the problems I come across can be better resolved by discussing the weaknesses that my personal coach already helped to uncover with my career coach. I present the situations and we dissect them and discuss how I can think about my responses better.
Prioritisation is also very important when there are competing items during demanding projects. I usually sit down and discuss priorities both with my manager and my team. We also collectively assess what items can have a high impact in a short time. I then look at communicating about the progress of the remaining items in a structural form to the rest of the organisation.
InfoQ: What have you learned?
Umar: I have fortunately learned that I have chosen the right career path. I have found a lot of fulfilment in creating and nurturing teams and helping my teammates discover their strengths. I have also learned that I am a leader who is keen on transparency with their teams. whether it comes to priorities, re-organisations or hiring decisions. Whenever I have shared with my team why the organisation decided to not take the recommendations suggested by us, they always appreciated the honesty and collectively worked together to use the resources that were available to work within the recommendations.
InfoQ: What advice do you have for tech people who move into a leadership role?
Umar: It is not for everyone. Work on building your resilience. Chalk out focus time and stay committed to it. As a leader, not many people will praise you. But if your team is praised, therein lies your success.
Always stay humble. Be flexible about your goals. They shift as you learn more about yourself as a leader. Create an external network which you can use to bounce ideas off from and also vent to during difficult decisions.