Leadership success can be measured in a myriad of ways, and Danushka Abeysuriya from Rush Digital says the measure of success that makes him feel most accomplished is when one of his team leaves the business. And this was just one of many surprises that Abeysuriya shared with us here at IMNZ when we sat down with him to find out what being a leader means to him.
Danu Abeysuriya, CTO and Founder of Rush Digital, one of New Zealand’s most innovative and respected digital engineering studios, says that if you hire a great team to then over-manage them is counterproductive. “You hire a team because they’re great at what they do,” he says. “If you tell them what to do, or if you’re too heavily involved, it doesn’t give them the room and autonomy for them to do the best job that they can do in the way that they want to do it.
“Actually getting out of people’s way is one of the best things that you can do.” It wasn’t always that way, says Abeysuriya, who previously thought that to become as celebrated leader like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, a manager had to be the star of the show. But, he says, he was wrong.
“If you’re a really effective, good, easy to work with and able manager, it’s probably a thankless job. There’s an old saying that if an engineer is doing their job then you don’t know their name. “I think that actually applies to good managers.”
Abeysuriya founded Rush Digital, in 2009 and the company now boasts an enviable list of clients, including Disney, Google, Microsoft, Nestlé, Heineken, Air New Zealand, the BBC, TVNZ, Fonterra, Samsung, Nokia and The Warehouse. Yet he says when he stepped into his first managerial role he “didn’t know jack”. “You go in and you think you know a lot or you think you know everything and you quickly realise that is not the case.”
So as a new manager, the graduate of the prestigious M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, says he had to brace himself for the inevitable challenges. “I wasn’t really ready for the emotional demands of being a first time manager, the whole emotional intelligence, and not taking things too personally. All that stuff is part of the growth of dealing with more people problems than technical problems,” says Abeysuriya.
“Great leadership is really about having empathy, because it’s a people focussed role. And having empathy means you understand where people’s backgrounds are, the diversity that goes into people’s lives.” Abeysuriya’s career fast-tracked at lightning speed, and within just one short decade from starting out as a freelance developer, he stepped into the role as CTO of the company he founded. He said part of this journey was having to shift his mindset and accept that by stepping into the role of manager, he’d have to down tools.
“As CTO I oversee a lot of technology but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate to actually building stuff. It’s more about guidance and mentoring,” he says. Abeysuriya adds that to be an effective and respected manager, being accessible is critical.
“Presence is super important. You have to be there,” he says. “People have to know that they can reach you and that you’re available to help and support them.” He adds that, “People need feedback, and it’s actually better to give it constantly, directly, as soon as possible and early as possible. That always leads to the best outcome.”
Abeysuriya says three attributes have stood out in the managers he has admired, which he has since emulated, the first being direct with the team. “It’s not a lot of sugar-coating around issues,” he says, adding, “Level headedness is also super important. If you’re known for being level-headed, then people don’t take it personally or in the wrong way. And then just being super sharp.
“You have to be switched on, you have to have done your homework before you criticise, or give feedback, or even give a reward or compliment.” The moment of his greatest joy as a manager was a surprise even to Abeysuriya.
“It was seeing people move on from the company and do bigger and better things,” he says. “There is a million examples of people moving on and doing amazing things and living the experience and the knowledge that they gained at our company.” Abeysuriya says prioritising using Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘delete, defer, delegate, do’ strategy has been a life-saver as a manager.
“It just has to come down to ‘what can you live without?’, and being firm about saying no to new things.” He adds that the surety of knowing not every project will be perfect has been a game-changer. “There is always going to be some deviation or some adjustment,” Abeysuriya says. “There are times for compromise, and there are times for not compromising and selecting when those moments are is supercritical. And realising that mistakes will be made, and that you don’t have all the information now, but you need to act, as opposed to waiting for all the information.
“If you’re a perfectionist, you’re going to be making trade-offs in other areas.” Along with the dad jokes he’s known for, Abeysuriya says not taking everything to heart, making time to heal, and joking about issues helps.
He adds that “It’s making sure that you surround yourself with people who have a similar sense of humour or have a complementary sense of humour just keeps everything light-hearted, and everyone in a positive mindset, which is super important. As for final advice to new managers, Abeysuriya is clear.
“Buy-in from your team is a lot more effective than just giving direction,” he says, “and nothing goes perfectly.”