In software development and testing, a lot of strain is put on improving technical skills. Getting the latest and greatest certifications, staying current with IoT testing and TDD (Test Driven Development)/ BDD (Behavior Driven Development), or learning a new programming language. All of these are likely to come to mind for ways to develop new skills, stand out in your department, and have a bigger impact.

But what about soft skills? How can you, as a QA manager, empower your test team with the tools they need to deliver quality?

In addition to technical professional development, QA managers and test leads must work on their ability to create a valuable, creative test team. This requires an understanding of one’s own role, knowing when to step back and when to step in, and spreading the responsibilities and benefits of leadership.

Here’s how QA managers can uplevel those critical leadership skills.

Don’t require testers to wait for permission

Even though being a self-starter is a valuable trait in the workforce, someone who waits for permission is still more common than someone who gives themselves permission.

What a QA engineer wishes he could change might be procedural, or something to do with how collaboration occurs with development. Within reason, he or she should feel able to simply make the change. It’s better to encourage testers to try new things and risk that they fail, rather than require that they come to you with every single new suggestion.

When you remove the obstacles that may prevent people from being self-sufficient, you give each individual on your team the opportunity to showcase their actual skills. For that reason, you should put in place sound processes that enable your team to work with minimal supervision but high accountability. This is especially important in an agile development environment, where roles and responsibilities are more fluid.

Understand the value of your role

There’s no place for micromanaging people in agile and DevOps. Micromanaging is equivalent to moving too slow, and it represents a role-based rather than a project-based mindset. Most importantly, it doesn’t allow people to come together creatively. So, time to let go of all the minute details and trust your test team.

Just because managers aren’t in charge of overseeing minute details, doesn’t mean they don’t have a valuable role. On the contrary, when you remove roadblocks and involve your team early in all relevant processes, work gets done faster and with higher quality. Thus in an agile environment, managers are less like directors and more like mentors in charge of nurturing, motivating, and guiding team members.

If you want traditional teams who follow your lead, then don’t change. You’ll get the same results you always have.

Bob Galen

Recognize that in agile, everyone is a leader

Unlike traditional waterfall approaches, in agile teams, roles and responsibilities are equally distributed.

Daily standup meetings are a great example of the collaborative nature of agile. Everyone shares the issues that are blocking their progress forward, and everyone present has a chance to clear those blocks for one another.

This can and should occur outside of standups too. Testers should feel comfortable with reaching out to anyone else on the team for help. Similarly, they should also be able to provide clarity and assistance to anyone on the team.

When every stakeholder knows what is happening and is involved in removing obstacles, then everyone is a leader. Every day, anyone on the team has the opportunity to lead the way forward, so long as trust and collaboration are already in place.

Balance technical skill development with soft skill development

We’re not saying to give up on acquiring new technical skills for yourself or your team. Just don’t expect those skills to get anyone ahead without a deeper purpose in place.

Agile leadership coach Selena Delesie said it best in a past TechWell interview:

I went to school for computer programming and mathematics. I did the certification training early on and I gained more technical skills. I took more classes to learn more things but it wasn’t helping me get a whole lot further ahead. I made smaller strides but in terms of my impact in the organization, it wasn’t as impactful as I wanted it to be.

I realized that I had to really work on the soft skills, the personal skills sides and also fostering within myself, my own ability to recognize my own value, my own worth to gain more confidence, clarity, and how to communicate that message, how to connect with people. That’s really led to a larger shift in my ability to influence and impact in any place.

Selena Delesie

You can achieve this by investing a bit more time in yourself – and learn how to strike a balance between hard and soft skills. So you might make a personal commitment to being a clearer, more upfront communicator while also taking a Ruby class online.

Bring this mentality to your testing team by suggesting the hard skills and the soft skills they can work on during reviews, in informal office chats, or when they come to you for help.

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Free yourself up to tackle bigger problems

The best thing about not micromanaging testers (and instead, trusting their ability to make decisions) is that you free yourself to focus on the bigger picture and provide even more value to your organization.

You can identify bigger problems like resource waste or inefficiencies, issues in tightening the feedback loop to developers, or a gap in knowledge transfer between customer support and QA

Now you get to show up to tackle even bigger problems, all the organizational stuff that maybe you thought was always getting in the way.

Selena Delesie

Tackle any “us versus them” beliefs

An awesome company culture is invaluable. You can choose to contribute to an environment that’s igniting and inspiring or foster one that’s stale and pessimistic.

The “us versus them” mentality between testers and developers is a product of waterfall methods that separated the roles, processes, and timelines surrounding development and testing. Even with collaborative development methodologies, this mentality can still persist and put up walls between testers and developers. Conversation barriers can impact product quality, so discourage this mindset whenever possible, and try to foster good communication and collaboration between teams.

Take a situational approach to “stepping in”

High-performing teams don’t have anything blocking their way. Not people, not processes, not tools. These teams are self-directed and take initiative – and that means that managers have to step out of the way.

Agile methodology coach Bob Galen notes:

Stepping aside does not mean that you’re not leading. To the contrary, I’ve always felt that this style of leadership requires more of you. It’s situational and subtle.

Bob Galen

If you step in too much, you’ll send the message to testers that they need to come to you and ask permission more often. But if you don’t step in where needed, product quality will obviously suffer. Taking a situational approach requires that you use your intuition and judgment in the moment, rather than relying on existing rules and procedures.

Choose passion and purpose

It’s okay to get geeky. To get excited. To be visibly passionate.

QA managers and directors recognize passion as the chief indicator of a tester’s ability to positively impact product quality. Passion paves the way for every other skill to be developed. It helps testers to truly care about the entire lifecycle of a product.

Put simply: #lovetesting. For you and your team, this should come naturally. If not, figure out why.

Measure your success 

Ultimately, how do you know if your management style as a QAM or test lead is working?

Ask yourself if you are contributing to greater cross-departmental collaboration, helping testers to increase their hard and soft skills, removing barriers to development and deployment, innovating QA processes…? And most importantly, is your team improving and delivering quality app experiences? If yes, then you are successfully managing your test team.

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Dayana is a QA engineer turned technology writer living in Milan, Italy. She's always down for a smoothie.