Do Techies Make Good Leaders?

By Robert M. Fulmer and Byron Hanson

They can, but developing their skills definitely poses challenges

It’s hard to develop leaders in any industry. But people in the technology sector seem to believe it’s especially hard in their business.

So is it?

We put that theory to the test and concluded that tech people have a point: The speed of the industry’s growth, along with the type of workers it attracts—young and with backgrounds in engineering and science—does, indeed, lead to some unique challenges.

What follows are the key insights and lessons that emerged from our research, which involved surveys of technology companies and interviews with industry leaders. Although the focus of this study was the tech sector, our previous work suggests that these lessons could be useful to any company seeking to improve its leadership-development process.


By Robert M. Fulmer and Byron Hanson

They can, but developing their skills definitely poses challenges

It’s hard to develop leaders in any industry. But people in the technology sector seem to believe it’s especially hard in their business.

So is it?

We put that theory to the test and concluded that tech people have a point: The speed of the industry’s growth, along with the type of workers it attracts—young and with backgrounds in engineering and science—does, indeed, lead to some unique challenges.

What follows are the key insights and lessons that emerged from our research, which involved surveys of technology companies and interviews with industry leaders. Although the focus of this study was the tech sector, our previous work suggests that these lessons could be useful to any company seeking to improve its leadership-development process.

Formalize the System

Many high-tech companies are young, so their systems and procedures for grooming leaders aren’t well developed or firmly established. As tech companies grow and mature, however, the need to set up more formal leadership-development processes becomes crucial to retaining key employees. The tricky part is planning the right time to do it.

Questions to Ask Yourself
  1. Are you having trouble filling critical leadership jobs?
  2. Are some of your key people leaving for better opportunities at other companies?
  3. Does your corporate culture reward and respect technical expertise more than leadership ability?
  4. Is it a struggle to get people to participate in coaching or mentoring programs?
  5. Do you believe your ability to groom people for leadership roles is being hampered by the nature of the tech business?

If you answered yes to some of these questions, it may be time to fine-tune your organization’s leadership-development process. Encourage managers to make leadership a priority by measuring the thoroughness with which they try to develop subordinates. Recognize and reward managers for coaching and mentoring others. Help would-be managers understand why leadership is important to the company’s success.

Tech companies that wait too long risk disorganization and the loss of good people. But those that put formal systems into place too soon risk restricting the entrepreneurial climate that is a founding principle of successful high-tech start-ups.

Picking the exact moment to formalize the process appears to be more of an art than science. Typically, a company will recognize it’s having trouble filling critical leadership jobs and that key people are leaving for better opportunities at other businesses. Successful companies recognize the warning signs before there’s a real problem.

Focus on Data

While professionals in all industries like and use data, tech professionals simply love the details. This insight can be useful in building support for leadership development at tech firms.

Our research suggests that one of the best ways to compel tech leaders to improve their leadership skills is to measure things such as the thoroughness with which they try to advance the careers of their subordinates. Measurement may be as simple as calculating the percentage of a manager’s direct reports with completed performance reviews or succession plans. Or it may include more sophisticated analysis of employee surveys aimed at comparing the environments created by various leaders in a firm.

Intel Corp. says it became much more adept at talent management once it started measuring the extent to which managers engage in development and career conversations with their team members.

Knowing it could show up on their performance reviews helped managers see that the company considers talent development critical to its success, says Deb Whitaker, a senior consultant on executive leadership at Intel.

Executive Adviser

Innovations in management theory & business strategy – a collaboration with The Wall Street Journal

Value Leadership

Helping tech professionals see the value in leadership can be difficult. Technologically oriented people often get more personal satisfaction out of designing and building new products and services than they do out of managing people. As a result, they may be reluctant to give up hands-on involvement in day-to-day projects.

To fix this, tech companies need to create a corporate culture in which leadership is rewarded and respected as much as technical expertise.

Self-image also plays a role in a leader’s effectiveness.

Managers who see themselves primarily as technical experts are less likely to spend time developing subordinates than those who see leadership as their main role. In addition, most people will listen differently to feedback from a person they view as a team leader as opposed to someone they view as a technical colleague.

Engage the Audience

Tech professionals tend to be smart, practical, competitive and action-oriented. They also are typically fast learners, capable of moving quickly from one concept to another. So while many of them need to learn the fundamentals of leadership, they probably won’t thrive in a program that looks and feels like Leadership 101.

See Also

Further reading from MIT Sloan Management Review

  • Can You Measure Leadership?
    Robert Gandossy and Robin Guarnieri
    At top companies, where the inspired use of metrics helps to identify potential leaders and develop their skills, the answer is yes.
  • Bridging the Gap Between Stewards and Creators
    Robert D. Austin and Richard L. Nolan
    Clashes between bottom line-oriented managers (stewards) and creative technical employees (creators) may be inevitable. But if not managed well, the conflicts can jeopardize a company’s ability to innovate.
  • Developing Leaders: How Winning Companies Keep On Winning
    Robert M. Fulmer, Philip A. Gibbs and Marshall Goldsmith
    How do some companies keep a steady stream of leaders moving up? By focusing on the five essentials of leadership development.

For that reason, tech companies should design leadership courses that are smart, specific and fast-moving to keep participants engaged. Classes and activities that simulate real-world problems and competition typically lead to better outcomes.

Getting senior executives involved in the training—not as talking heads but as teachers and facilitators who add value through their experience, observation and feedback—also is valuable.

Encourage Coaching

Coaching is an important tool for developing leaders. But the people we interviewed said many tech companies struggle to establish effective coaching or mentoring programs.

Part of the problem is that tech companies often hire and reward people for being the smartest “techies” in the room, not for nurturing the careers of lower-level team members. If tech companies want to encourage coaching and mentoring, they need to recognize and reward employees for doing it.

Some tech companies have embraced “peer coaching”—an approach in which colleagues in similar positions work together for a few days and then provide feedback to each other on what they observed. A peer-coaching relationship places coaching at a collegial level rather than at a leader/subordinate level, which can be more easily accepted and respected in a technology-company culture. Peer coaching can remove some of the baggage that goes along with receiving coaching from your boss. The feedback tends to be based on “what I’ve seen here,” rather than “who you are.”

http://sloanreview.mit.edu/executive-adviser/articles/2010/3/5238/do-techies-make-good-leaders/
_________________________________________________________________________________

Robert M. Fulmer is the academic director of Duke Corporate Education, a provider of executive-education services affiliated with Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. He has authored or co-authored more than 150 published articles and almost 40 business books, monographs and editions, including the recent Newcomers in Paradise. Byron Hanson is a managing director at Duke Corporate Education and an adjunct professor of leadership at the Curtin University of Technology’s Graduate School of Business in Australia. He has been researching and teaching leadership globally for the past 12 years.

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