Be A Test Leader Not A Test Manager – Essential Leadership Skills

Leadership is, and always has been, an inherent skill required by anyone wanting to be successful within QA roles (well, in any role, really). However the right mix and application of those leadership qualities varies based on many factors, not least the immediate working environment and wider culture within an organisation. This post looks at the skills needed to be a Test Leader.

The growing adoption and evolution of agile practices across the industry shifts the focus to what I would describe as the more human element of leadership. What you say, the way you say it and the personality you put into it is becoming more and more important. Leadership is not about telling people what to do, it’s about creating the environment for positive outcomes; whether that is in a 1-2-1 conversation or as a leader responsible for QA across a global organisation talking with his or her peers.

QA Analysts

When I look at QA analysts whom I consider to be ‘at the top of their game’ they have many facets that I can point to as to why I regard them as such (usually many that I myself can only hope of emulating!). A deep knowledge of QA, it’s application, the techniques that could be used in a given situation. Technical prowess; from both a coding and automation standpoint. A thirst to learn, to evolve, to grow knowledge. However the real gains are made in applying these facets of their arsenal effectively – and leadership skills play a key role in enabling that. That may mean proactively pushing for a three amigos session. It might mean creating a wiki page detailing some risks you perceive as part of a new feature or story and leading a session within the team to review them. Realising the team lack knowledge in a particular area and taking it upon yourself to gain and share that knowledge – that, for me, is leadership too.

Underlying all of these examples of what may be seen as non-traditional leadership are a set of skills that many career QA professionals may struggle to exhibit naturally. The confidence to speak up within a group setting and the bravery to make your point even if it goes against the popular view are not inbuilt skills for many. I’m not totally sure why that is. It could be the natural personality of those who are similarly naturally good at testing or it could be that years of filing bug reports as a primary means of communication has had an evolutionary effect!

Communication Skills

What’s clear to me is that these softer, communication based skills are becoming paramount to a tester’s success; I will, in a future blog, talk more about how I think emotional intelligence and NLP should be front and centre for the learning agenda of anyone serious about forging a career in software development and indeed how too many organisations are teaching subject matter expertise ahead of these vital core skills.

So how about those in traditional ‘management’ roles within QA? No doubt some of that management activity will remain for the foreseeable future; particularly in larger, more corporate environments. However in forward thinking environments where continuous improvement is a central theme how does their focus change? For me I look to these leaders on the ground to be advocates and enablers for positive change. To create the environment and headspace for others to excel and to encourage that advancement to happen.

Less Management

It’s less about ‘management’ and more about facilitating. I want them to be in tune with their colleagues and have the people skills to bring out the best in individuals. Creating that great work environment is something many companies profess to hold in high regard but so few seem to achieve the ultimate goal of being somewhere people genuine love working, where they feel valued, challenged and enabled to grow – having the right leadership culture can change that.

Again I feel that the successful leadership on show here is more subtle than being a ‘strong manager’. That is not to say I would expect my leaders to be soft – there will, particularly within certain organisations, be times when that strong leadership, even a degree of bolshiness (some would say I apply a few degrees too many of this at times…I couldn’t possibly comment) is appropriate and effective. However what I really want to see on the ground are teams where facilitation is used over direction, collaboration over prescription. Line management in corporate organisations is such a static, stale activity based on mind numbing metrics and targets; shifting it to be a more human, inclusive activity will, in my view, reap huge rewards.

Be A Test Leader

So, finally, how about people who sit in that ‘Head of QA’ or similar such role – why is this needed and what does it look like? I can only speak personally but I see my effectiveness being at it’s highest when I can foster the culture that i’ve alluded to throughout this blog post and that really is a huge part of the role; and far from an easy one in many instances! Yes there are other responsibilities, what you might call more ‘traditional’ activities but I genuinely believe that the value add from this role is in driving culture. There will always be a need to set some direction, to make decisions, to have the heated debates….but it’s impossible to do that alone. Empowering a wider capability to use their ability, knowledge and desire to evolve is one of the most powerful things a leader can, and should, do.

QA has often been an afterthought for many a project, programme or organisation however that is changing. When we are given the opportunity to lead QA to a better place it’s an opportunity we should all grasp with both hands; showing what an asset a collaborative, forward thinking QA capability can be to an organisation.

About the Author

Elliott Stanley

Find out more about @elliottstanley82gmail-com