Name: Ben Dyer
Title: Head of Software Engineering
Organisation: Allen & Overy
I work for a global law firm called Allen & Overy (A&O). As Head of Software Development, I lead engineering teams that build the integrations between our legal systems, operationalise the data the company produces, and bespoke AI-powered legal applications for our clients.
I started my career in electronics and software development. After some entrepreneurial excursions into co-founding start-ups, I spent some time as a contractor and then moved into permanent work. I have worked on diverse technology area including cryogenic freezers, video and audio equipment, electronic musical instruments, mobile apps and enterprise-scale solutions.
Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!
I hope Ben's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
Believing in myself and realising that I have something of value to offer. As a leader, there are times when it's hard to point to something tangible and say "I did that". I'm a strong believer in the Flywheel Effect conceptualised by Jim Collins in Good to Great. Good leadership can overcome momentum and friction, and use compound effect of regular, small improvements and behaviours to keep the flywheel running.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I caught the bug of "making things happen" in my twenties when I co-founded a series of tech start-ups. I took away some hard lessons, but realised I had some nascent, if unrefined, leadership capabilities. Like many tech people before me, I resisted being drawn into leadership positions. I didn't want to give up the joy of deep work. Fate had other ideas, and through and a series of acquisitions, redundancies, and organisational changes, an opportunity appeared to lead and grow an engineering team. As one opportunity led to another, I become more comfortable with leadership as a focus and I found myself working with my future boss, who later invited me and my team to join A&O.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I'm a "seize the day" person. I've adapted to waking at 5am every day with few exceptions. I like to use that time to exercise, reflect, and learn.
My working day starts at 7am. I'll look over the day ahead and work on any preparation needed for later in the day. I put blocks in my calendar for lunch, focus time, and learning. I take regular breaks during the day - usually a short walk while listening to audio books.
I use a simple TODO app to capture and prioritise the things I don't need to keep in my head. Like most people, procrastination is a constant challenge, so I grasp the opportunity to tackle any tasks that inspire me.
I use online note taking to help me formulate and articulate ideas, so I have them on hand wherever I need them. It's more important to raw capture thoughts and then refine them later.
If I'm doing focus work, I use focus-specific instrumental music to stop my thoughts from wandering too far.
A&O operate a hybrid working policy, so I travel to A&O's London office 2-3 days a week. I organise those days to benefit from in-person interactions.
I'll finish the working day around 6pm, but will occasionally work later if needed. The evening is a combination of family time and hobbies (in my case song writing or coding). I aim to be asleep by 10pm. I'm sure my younger self would be horrified by this working pattern, but then again that person survived on less sleep!
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
Being able to provide clear and direct feedback at the right time, even when it's uncomfortable. Kim Scott's book, Radical Candor, is an excellent guide to giving and receiving feedback that's "not mean, but clear". Empathy is a valuable trait, but it needs to be used in the right way to avoid becoming "ruinously empathetic".
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
It's tough to narrow it down to one book as so many have shaped my thinking, but The Promises of Giants by John Amaechi stands out. John challenges leaders to uphold a series of behaviours, or "promises" to become better leaders. The core messages highlight how leaders must understand the power they wield, using that power with empathy and compassion to raise others up, and looking inward to acknowledge your imperfections.
It impacted my leadership because I become more aware of my biases, I refined my communication, and I began to understand the impact of my words and actions based on the reactions of others.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
Build a habit of continuous learning and never stop learning. The rest will follow.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
I was working within a group of three companies that were struggling financially. Two of the companies were subsequently closed with mass redundancies (including me), and the remaining company was set to be acquired by a larger organisation that had a radically different "corporate" culture. I was asked to lead one of the engineering teams for the newly acquired company. There was a lot of unease, distrust, fear, and hostility. Many engineers left out of resentment, and I was left in a tough position where I tried in vain to bring the cultures together, reassure those who had stayed, and learn harsh leadership lessons on the fly.
The experience was meaningful for me because it was the catalyst that motivated me to become a better leader. I had an over-reliance on instinct, was too reactive, and blissfully unaware of the goldmine of inspirational leadership ideas, techniques and behaviours that existed out there. I learned that leaders can't always be liked, and there are situations that are hard to salvage. I learned the power of setbacks and resolved to keep learning. I often think about the company, the people that were affected, and what I will do better next time.