The Future of Tech Leadership

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The world is volatile, uncertain and complex.

No industry is affected by this more than the tech industry.

We see the convergence of technologies causing an unprecedented pace of change, which places ever greater demand upon people.

There are several trends affecting tech companies:

  1. The pace of change 

Rapid iterations in product lifecycle, only short term planning (often no longer than 3 months out).

While companies in most industries may look to double in ten years, tech companies do so in two or three.

Disruption is constant and competition is rapidly emerging.

2. Competition for talent is fierce

The more in demand the skillset, the smaller the pool of talent, with many players fishing in it.

Talent in this market know their value, will command high salaries and will move around often.

Retention is a continuous battle and calls for the development of an attractive culture and distinctive brand.

3. Culture is critical

Often culture reflects the founders and is a coveted asset, used as a recruiting tool to attract talent.

Founders may think their company is unique, however, how do you maintain culture when over 50% of the staff have been with you less than three years?

4. Stress is intense

Work is fast paced, fun and challenging, but this places great demand on people, who are taking on more responsibility at younger ages.

This is as exciting as it is dangerous, as continuous stress can have such a negative impact on the mind and body if managed poorly.

5. Tech leaders need specific skills

Many may be talented in their technical skill, however have missed basic management skills early on in their careers, which is a poor foundation for leading effective teams.

Immense IQ usually equals an inverse EQ, giving leaders little awareness of how their behaviour impacts on others. 

Leaders must be resilient enough to maintain compose throughout sustained periods of stress and pressure. Even though investors typically care for returns more than people.

Distributed teams and a ‘work from anywhere’ mentality, which in reality becomes ‘work from everywhere’ and requires adaptations to foster connection and collaboration.

The challenge of influencing and inspiring vs just telling people what to do.

6. Standard development doesn’t cut it

Content that seems generic or impersonal to the culture and industry will be shunned and disregarded.

Solutions must be evidence based with solid data to back up assumptions and potential returns.

Interestingly, most tech companies use less tech solutions for development than their non-tech counterparts. Many prefer personal and face-to-face interaction. 

how can your learning & development initiatives remain relevant now and in the future?

We believe that Rapid Continuous Improvement enables fast paced companies to be matched by their development efforts.

Rapid - People are becoming more skilled at drawing insight from development, discarding irrelevant information to find what is relevant to their circumstances. 

Continuous - There is no beginning and end, companies are evolving and iterating, so must learning. Training no longer happens in the classroom environment, but a continuously changing and evolving ecosystem of challenges, clashing perspectives and reflecting on experiences.

Improvement - Leaders need to evolve both in skills & competencies (horizontal development) but also more sophisticated thinking and mindsets (vertical development).

7 Practices for Rapid Continuous Improvement in Tech

Now we understand the context, how do we respond?

1.Give leaders Heat Experiences

Leaders in tech are intelligent, keen and sharp.

Heat experiences are assignments that test them under the following conditions:

  1. It’s something they haven’t seen before

  2. The outcome matters

  3. It’s competitive and they can succeed or fail

  4. Important stakeholders are watching

  5. It’s intensely uncomfortable

High performers given heat experiences on a regular basis build complex maps of the circumstances that they may encounter. Allowing them to assimilate information quickly and make decisions rapidly.

High performers are constantly seeking bigger more difficult challenges that their current maps can’t explain, boosting their performance and resilience. 

The only word of caution here is that people can only be pushed as far as they are supported. A lack of support will burnout great people as they try to deliver results despite the circumstances.

2. Build supportive structures for shared learning

Tech leaders love to learn from each other, sharing experiences, hacks and strategies to overcome complex challenges. 

Development initiatives must build in mechanisms for shared learning & insight to emerge. 

Google's 'Aristotle Project' and their mindfulness program called ‘Search Inside Yourself’ allow Googlers to share their passion, knowledge and talents with each other that might otherwise have lay un-utilised.

Leaders need to develop networks that are open, diverse and deep. Whereas many have the complete opposite, closed, homogeneous and shallow.

Developing networks of people who act as informal mentors that give guidance and support.

How could you build supportive structures in your company?

3. Data and culture = leadership optimisation

Tech leaders crave unique leadership development models, with greater demand for:

  • Data driven solutions

  • Solutions that are specific to company culture

Therefore development efforts must use relevant data from the business to hone in on the most effective practises of the highest achieving people.

Example: Googles Project Oxygen

Google carried out research to identify what factors made some managers more effective, what was it that differentiated them. 

"Googlers wanted to see more effective cross-organization collaboration and stronger decision making practices from leaders.”

Source: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/the-evolution-of-project-oxygen/

Through this research they arrived at ten concrete behaviours that could be taught and emulated. 

  1. Is a good coach

  2. Empowers team and does not micromanage

  3. Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being

  4. Is productive and results-oriented

  5. Is a good communicator — listens and shares information

  6. Supports career development and discusses performance

  7. Has a clear vision/strategy for the team

  8. Has key technical skills to help advise the team

  9. Collaborates across Google

  10. Is a strong decision maker

The advantage of tapping into research like this enables development initiatives to concentrate effort on behaviours that are evidenced to improve performance the most.

4. Develop leaders using three elements

The most successful leaders aim at the intersection of three distinct elements:

Heat experiences - Challenging and uncomfortable projects that force you to evolve.

Clashing perspectives - Seeking out, understanding and learning from those with differing perspectives

Integration - They took the time in reflect on how they could implement these new perspectives to advance their thinking.

Therefore we can adapt learning & development projects to ensure we are stretching even the most accomplished leaders. 

Leaders Greatest Challenges

In a survey by the Centre for Creative Leadership, they interviewed 100 senior execs and 100 mid-level managers. 

Through this research they identified the top three challenges faced at senior and mid-level as follows:

Senior Executives:

  1. Change Management:

  2. Leading it

    1. Culture change

    2. Coping with change

  3. Collaboration challenges (especially with peers)

  4. Leadership styles and skills (especially executive presence, assertiveness, patience)

  5. Talent

  6. Communicating vision and strategy

Mid-level Managers:

  1. Collaboration challenges (with everyone)

  2. Leadership styles and skills (especially delegating, assertiveness)

  3. Change:

  4. Coping with change

    1. Culture change

    2. Leading it

  5. Talent development

  6. Engagement of staff

This data allows companies to focus their development budgets on the areas of most common challenge.

Do you have data on your leaders greatest challenges? How might you gather it?

5. Support time-poor leaders (bite sized and engaging)

Tech leaders are fascinated by learning, however it’s hard to engage them in development efforts because they find them too time heavy and lacking relevance to their role. But we can address these issues directly.

a. Bite-sized learning 

Making learning accessible in brief lessons that can be applied immediately allows leaders to learn and apply, rather than forget most of what they learnt before it gets implemented.

Most traditional L&D is forgotten, due to more information being offered than the learner can apply. 

There is a trend in skills training towards short two-hour workshops and coaching sessions that can be delivered on-site or online vs traditional day long trainings.

This allows leaders to focus on learning and implementing one skill at a time. 

b. Engaging learning

For senior leaders to become engaged with development activity it is important that the culture of the organisation supports it, i.e. the senior leadership team is involved along with the rest of the company.

For learning to be engaging it needs to be relevant to the values of the organisation. For example, one company decided to get their customers involved in their learning & development efforts, which attracted the customer centric senior leaders. This worked so well that they ended up expanding to suppliers, regulators and potential customers. 

6. Bite-sized vs deep learning

The challenge is that bite-sized learning might not always be appropriate when it comes to learning complex models or skills.

Some say that bite sized learning is key, whereas others say quite the opposite. The reality is that you need both, but we must know where and when to apply each, or use a blend.

Developing leaders requires a blend of efficiency and effectiveness. It’s best to deliver competence based skills training via bite-sized content or practice sessions for efficiency.

But more ambiguous high level strategic challenges aren’t going to be solved by a 20 minutes video presentation.

Both bite sized and deep learning have their applications and limitations, it would be a mistake to ignore one over the other.

7. Cultivate a low friction, energised culture

The growth cycle in the tech industry is so short and so ferocious that ever younger people are being thrust into higher level roles, without having developed the wisdom of experience to cope effectively. 

The positive news is that resilience can be rapidly developed using evidence-based methods that reduce reactivity and increase composure. It’s not so much a case of removing stress, but improving communication and composure.

When leaders can communicate effectively within a supportive environment, they can share the load with others or request help when needed.

Composure is developed through practice and experience, which helps leaders to remain calmer and less emotionally charged when faced with difficult situations.

Under such pressure energy must remain high to drive everybody forward. Otherwise it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and see a drop in morale, which saps energy and creativity.

Summary

The way people learn and develop is changing, learning and development initiatives’s must adapt. Instead of holding onto outdated models we must challenge ourselves continuously to evolve our approach, so we can inspire the leaders of the future.

Credit: I want to credit The Centre for Creative Leadership for their research papers that inspired this article.

David Raybould