Human Resources and Technology

Leadership in a tech world

July 31, 2017
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In my role as an IT operations consultant and strategist, I am fortunate to have worked with a number of tech firms. Through my experiences, I have found that many technology companies struggle with the same thing — leadership.

To set the stage, here a few things I have learned:

  • Title is meaningless in a culture where engineers are worshipped
  • Two years of tenure makes you an “old-timer”
  • Most colleagues have worked together, in some form or fashion, in previous companies
  • Some of the most senior managers don’t do much work — they are simply on payroll to keep competitors from recruiting them away

To be a leader and to thrive in this environment, do we need a different leadership style? Are the differences between leading in tech and leading in non-tech really that different? Yes. And there is research to support this.

There are four categories that are uniquely challenging in the tech world. These challenges are also highly predictive of execution and innovation, which are strong indicators of organizational performance. From the research, these four categories are:

  • The “cool” factor: If the company isn’t seen as the “coolest” and isn’t staying on top of the latest and greatest technologies, people move to companies that are.
  • Relentless pressure: Tech employees must deliver on tight timelines and quick turnarounds. Over time, the “hero” culture emerges and engineers are rewarded when boundaries between personal and work life are blurred.
  • Consistent ambiguity: Techies have to manage shifting priorities and navigate through shared accountabilities, misalignment and their competition.
  • Déjà vu all over again: In the tech workforce, everyone knows everyone. For this reason, employees are less likely to address personal weaknesses or areas of conflict as it could pose a risk to future opportunities.

As a leader, how do you combat these challenges? From my experience, there are two crucial norms that need to be established:

  • Make it safe to speak up. Crucial Conversations is a book I leaned on in many roles to help people utilize a common language, so employees feel safe to bring up concerns when they have them — even if they are sensitive topics.
  • Allow anyone to hold anyone accountable. Many companies have adopted the Netflix Culture of Freedom & Responsibility, but miss the mark when it comes to accountability. Regardless of position, commitments need to be kept and managed. High-accountability cultures are much better positioned to address the challenges any business faces, especially those specific to the tech world.

Leaders who are passionate about fostering an environment that promotes honest dialogue and radical candor, as well as creating an atmosphere of accountability are more likely to thrive in the challenges faced by the tech industry.

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