EuroSTAR 2014: Monday Highlight – Fiona Charles

Day one at EuroSTAR was focused on a series of full-day tutorial sessions. I was fortunate enough to participate in Fiona Charles‘ class, “Inspiring Testers – Leadership Workshop”. This was an engaging and lively workshop with about 60 attendees, comprising of a series of small group exercises and open discussion.

For the first exercise of the day, Fiona split us into groups of 4-5 people, and within each group, we discussed scenarios where we had seen examples of somebody displaying test leadership – even if they weren’t a leader, and even if it ultimately proved unsuccessful. We considered what skills helped (or would have helped) that person to achieve success in their leadership goal.

Our team decided that Alexandra Casapu’s scenario was most interesting, so that was the one which we decided to write up. I found myself picking up the pen, as is often the case at conferences – you might not be able to tell from the example embedded below, but my sketchnoting has come a long way this year!

We then went around the room, reviewing each team’s sketch, and picking out one key skill which we felt had been particularly useful in that scenario. We compiled a master-list of all those skills, which I extended upon in my notes, so this is a superset of all the skills which were mentioned:


  • Ability to set achievable goals
  • Problem-solving
  • Self-driven
  • Courageous
  • Passion, enthusiasm and energy
  • Decisiveness
  • Initiative
  • Inspiring (of colleagues, and of other leaders)
  • Capability
  • Collaborative
  • Available and approachable
  • Not being paralysed by past failures
  • Strategic thinking / long-term planning
  • Empathy and emotional intelligence
  • Inclusiveness
  • Humility

The most important point is that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” leader profile; a leader’s approach will differ drastically depending upon the team that they’re leading, and how receptive the team is to particular leadership techniques. We had some interesting discussions about the differences (and similarities) between the roles of leader, coach and mentor; and whether it’s possible that someone could be good at one of them whilst being bad at another. We agreed that a lot of the skills overlap.

There was also an enlightening discussion about the cultural parameters which can affect how leaders lead. One particular example which I’ve previously discussed with my Scandinavian testing colleagues is the Law of Jante. This is a series of rules which define behaviours which are seen as unacceptable in Scandinavian society, such as “You’re not to think you are more important than we are”; rules which make it difficult for people to emerge with traditional leadership roles.

In the afternoon session, we split into larger groups and were asked to compose a substantial test leadership problem with which we could challenge another group. The process of designing this exercise turned out to be an interesting leadership exercise in itself, with observers appointed to watch over each group and take notes about the group dynamic. Our group seemed to function in remarkable harmony! We had about an hour to design the exercise, so we weren’t immediately pressured for time, which meant that we could have open and interesting discussions about problems which we’d faced in our daily work. These discussions might not have seemed immediately relevant, but they soon bore fruit as many of them revealed gems (and traps!) which we were able to plant within our exercise.

The exercise which we had to solve was a subtle variation on the classic River Crossing puzzle. The twist was that our team were asked to solve the puzzle without being able to talk to each other. We discovered that writing was allowed, which allowed us to get to the solution quickly and efficiently! We quickly created a “Chatroom” on the whiteboard, where anybody could write what they wanted to say; Anna Hoff also added a useful “Log” section to this, where we could list the optimal steps as we agreed upon them. I helped to build a physical representation of the puzzle (complete with fox, goose and boat!) to allow us to quickly simulate the exercise and agree (with thumbs-up) on the perfect answer.

The exercise which we created for our colleagues was rather more ambiguous. We presented them with a scenario whereby our company had been through a merger, and the test team were unhappy with meeting a newly-set release deadline. We then allowed the other team to question us in a meeting environment, to work out what the issues were (and how they might be resolved). What we didn’t tell them is that we each had a cue card containing our own individual motivations – for instance, one person was upset that they’d lost their management role in the reshuffle, and another person was angry that they’d been overlooked for a promotion yet again. It was a fiendish scenario, and one which required a lot of debate with the opposing team, but they managed to successfully unravel our needs (simply going around the table asking everybody about their background was a big help!) and came up with a plan which would allow us to meet the short-term release date whilst appeasing the bigger egos within our virtual team.

By the end of the session, we’d spent a fun-packed day exploring leadership issues and challenges, and (as we discussed during the conclusion) could each take away our own individual learnings. Personally, I learned a lot about the empathetic side to leadership; I’d always seen a lead as being somebody who acts to make things happen, but it’s equally important to first understand people’s needs, desires and motivations. Decision-making can be effectively facilitated by listening, which can reveal clues for follow-on actions.

I always enjoy Fiona’s workshops, and today was no exception. I’m extremely grateful to have spent the day in her company, and with a packed room of delegates who, as Rick Tracy commented, collaborated remarkably well for what was effectively a room full of “leaders leading leaders”.

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