Executive Leadership In Technology
As many of the new companies that are starting today are start-ups in technology, and as other more established companies are re-branding themselves are tech companies, executives need to reevaluate their understanding of leadership in technology.
Before going into actionable changes, it is important to understand what makes technology employees and management unique.
What makes technology leadership different?
Compared to other business sectors, tech has the highest turnover rate at 13.2%, according to the turnover report by Linkedin. The median tenures at Amazon and Google, both companies that pay exceptionally well, are just 1 year and 1.1 years respectively. On average, because it takes 51 days to fill vacancies, tech companies are spending exuberant amounts of time looking for talent and trying to keep them at their company. While most turnover issues may be attributed to the compensation structure of other business sectors, compensation isn’t the main issue that is causing high turnover within tech companies.
The main issue is the talent competition within a finite pool of employees. Especially in areas such as machine learning, predictive analytics, and AI, there are only so many skilled workers who have the knowledge to complete projects. Usually to combat this issue, companies will just pay a higher wage, but as I established before, that isn’t enough to keep tech employees motivated to stay, especially since all the “big” tech companies pay high competitive wages.
The first attribute that tech employees are looking for are projects that are highly engaging or as Harvard Business Review calls it “The cool factor.” If the company that the employee currently works at isn’t seen as innovative or the company is slow to embrace new technologies and change, employees will move on because they know their worth on the market. What this leads to is a “same people, different company” phenomenon, where tech employees work with the same people in different roles in different companies because of the high volatility of employment. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has consequences in that employees are more likely to prioritize maintaining connections rather than having difficult conversations about team weaknesses, strategic disagreements, or accountability. Also, because of this phenomenon, titles mean very little as compared to other business sectors, and authority is earned over time, which may be both a good and a bad thing.
The second attribute that tech employees are looking for is a clear path for growth within the company. This is a big issue for small companies who may only have 1-2 developers/data scientists in their entire company or for larger companies who are taking a leap of faith by higher data scientists for ROIs that they aren’t able to see yet. It is hard in both of these scenarios to promise a path to promotion, especially when there might not even be a path up.
With these issues in mind, how do you be an effective leader in tech?
As a leader, you need to build an increased level of trust between yourself and your tech employees along with facilitating trust between your employees. This begins with creating a concise organizational structure which allows clarity on future growth. Employees should be able to visualize what they are working towards. The organizational structure can’t just be the titles within the company, but more importantly it must have the roles and responsibilities associated with the title. While the titles can be permanent, the roles and responsibilities will and should be updated as priorities and projects are completed and changed.
Planning and Prioritization
Top down project selection is the quickest way of getting tech employees to leave your company. To address “The cool factor” dilemma, tech executives need to involve the employees in the planning and prioritization of projects along with asking the employees about new investments and products that the company should use. Tech employees need to feel as if they are part of the journey to success and not a cog in the machine. Without a say in the future of the team or company, tech employees will feel left out and will not take accountability of new projects. To be bought into the vision, the employees need to know the train of thought behind that vision. This planning phase needs to be done frequently, preferably on a quarterly basis, as technology advances at a very fast rate.
There are two ways that communication can manifest itself in the tech org structure: Internal and External. Internally, there needs to communication within your team to make sure that progress is being made every week, work isn’t being replicated, and that team members know who to ask for help when an issue arises. This communication should be at the very least weekly and while it can be facilitated by the executive, the conversation should be dominated by the tech employees who are talking about their work.
Externally, it is the executive’s job to facilitate engagement between the tech team and other business sections. This begins with the executive becoming a presence within other business sectors and a champion for the tech team. Becoming an advocate for the tech team within the broader organization will make your tech employees feel as if their needs are being heard. This engagement will lead to cross-collaboration between the tech and the non-tech business sectors, and this collaboration will allow the tech employees to engage with the end-user. End-user engagement leads to tech teams understanding business outcomes, fixing pressing needs for business users, and fostering a sense of curiosity about the implementation of the tech products they develop. The executive needs to make sure that accomplishment callouts are relayed to non-tech business sectors, as that will allow people outside the team to actively connect business outcomes with tech employees. This will also allow for an alleviation of tensions between tech and non-tech employees ,as it will seem as a joint effort rather than separate business units. Overall, the role of the executive is to make tech seem as a capability for the business users rather than a separate organization.
Tech companies have been getting a bad rep with many scandals and lack of diversity. Since this is a topic that as an executive you may have discussed ad nauseam, I’m not going to dive deep into it. The two main things about maintaining a good tech team culture is 1. Leading by example and 2. Providing your employees with a sense of purpose.
The last actionable task to being an effective leader in tech is having thorough reflection processes in place. These reflection processes go hand in hand with the planning and process stage for project selection, but there needs to be team reflection after project completion, individual reflection after both accomplishments and disappointments, and the relaying of any new learnings from projects that have been completed. There also need to be clear metrics for what success looks like at the company and plans for how those goals can be reached. Once goals are reached, part of the reflection stage includes callouts to the team and the company for work well done.
At MetaLogic Consulting, we are aware of how to have effective leadership within tech. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these findings can act as a framework for you to create your own leadership strategy.