7 Key Leadership Challenges in Tech
“The key differentiator between Tech companies that are built to last, and those that die after launch, is that leaders recognise their intrinsic duty to not just build a product but build a culture.” ~ Granny/Maxfield/McMillan
One of the interesting paradoxes of the tech industry is just how important people are to success! The fast pace, rapid change and constant innovation means that engaged, productive and empowered teams are essential to the success of any firm.
And yet, amidst the whirlwind and pressure, leaders can often be accidental rather than intentional in how they develop their organisational culture and capacity.
Here are seven specific leadership challenges I’ve commonly seen in tech firms, and a question to stimulate your own thinking on each.
1. High-performing teams as well as high-performing technology
Engineering talent is the lifeblood of tech companies, and yet technical leaders are not always naturally strong in, or particularly interested in, people management! However, engaged and empowered employees and collaborative teams are absolutely critical in an industry where responsiveness and innovation are so central.
>> The leadership question: In an ‘engineering culture’, how can I help technical leaders develop the skills and mindset to build high-performing teams?
2. Becoming bilingual
Successful tech companies marry two very different skill sets. On one hand, the visionary, focusing on big-picture futures (growth strategies, market disruptions, and breakthrough ideas). On on the other, the engineer, with an intense attention to detail (lines of code, technical standards, interfaces).
Of course the ‘visionary engineer’ can exist. But too often, the two sides fail to speak in a way that the other truly understands. This creates mistrust and misalignment in the organisation, and can easily result in hype-driven initiatives that fail in the execution, or technology-led projects that fail in the market.
>> The leadership question: how can I create a ‘bilingual’ culture that harnesses the distinct voices and talents of both visionaries and engineers?
3. Mastering ‘always-on’
The tech sector is known for its relentless pace, tight timelines and short project cycles. This puts intense pressure on employees, and often a ‘hero culture’ emerges that encourages ‘always-on’ behaviour, which in turn leads to interpersonal friction, turnover and burnout.
>> The leadership question: how can I help my team cope with the reality of intense workloads and high expectations, without falling into unhealthy personal rhythms or counterproductive behaviour?
4. Laying healthy foundations for hyper-growth
Tech firms often experience high growth, and people issues risk become the limiting factor. If the firm is to thrive as it grows, it will need to proactively develop high-calibre leaders (building the ‘leadership bench’) and intentionally preserve the culture.
>> The leadership question: how can we expand rapidly without diluting the culture, prepare our staff to succeed in bigger roles, and build trust across global, dispersed teams?
5. Retaining key talent and core skill sets
If acquiring new talent wasn’t hard enough for a growing business, retaining that talent is a critical leadership issue for many tech firms. Technology has become vital to almost every company in every industry. So the employees that tech companies worked hard to recruit and develop are highly sought-after, and staff turnover can become a problem.
>> The leadership question: how can I create an organisation that people really want to work in, and that employees are genuinely committed to?
6. Articulating purpose beyond the IPO
Employees are more engaged and empowered when they are working for a cause bigger than shareholder value – even if they are the shareholders!
This is easy for some tech firms, but for those working at the IT infrastructure layer the link between product features and a worthy purpose can feel like a stretch. However we can draw inspiration from CEOs like John Chambers, who provided a motivating vision of Cisco’s broader impact that went way beyond selling switches and routers.
>> The leadership question: How can I articulate a clear and compelling vision for the greater purpose and impact for my firm or organisation?
7. Navigating the small world
In particular tech hubs such as San Francisco, where job mobility is high, employees are aware that today’s peers may become tomorrow’s managers or reports in another firm. So relationships are kept cordial, leaving the door open for future opportunities. But this can easily descend into conflict-avoidance that can create unhealthy cultures of entitlement and mistrust.
>> The leadership question: how can I create a culture which respects and prioritises long-term relationships without drifting into conflict-avoidance, mistrust and lack of accountability?
So there you are, seven specific leadership challenges I’ve seen repeatedly in tech: navigating engineering culture, bridging ‘visionary’ and ‘engineering’ voices, mastering the relentless ‘always-on’ pressure, laying the organisational foundations needed for rapid growth, retaining talent, articulating a shared purpose, and ensuring peer relationships do not drift into accountability-free zones.
There are many more areas to mention, but these seem some of the most specific challenges to the sector.
Do you agree? What have I missed?