I spoke to a client this week. He’s the CEO of an incredible high-growth tech company that’s just raised around $200M in financing. We started to explore what the next level looks like for him and for the firm - he’s able to switch gears from fund-raising to accelerating growth - and it’s clear that there’s some major expansion ahead.
We explored several topics, and quickly got on to the critical issue - how does he grow the company in a healthy way, and scale company culture as new offices open and new recruits come on board, without diluting the very elements that made the company successful in the first place?
It’s a wise question to be asking.
Culture is what happens when you’re not looking. It’s the difference between a high-performing environment where people want to give their best, and mediocre, humdrum workplace where people do the minimum.
Creating a consistent culture is important because it creates a shared sense of belonging and it reduces the risk of silos and divergent decision-making. Simply put, it allows a company to preserve the factors that makes it successful.
But when you’re growing fast, how do you scale a culture?
The ugly truth is this. In fast-moving sectors like tech, 90% of smart and experienced business leaders - like you! - are going to fail to achieve the incredible results they envision.
In the spring and summer of 2018 xquadrant surveyed over 150 senior business leaders in order to understand their top business goals and the organisational challenges that were limiting their ability to execute.
In the first article, we saw who completed the Organisational Leadership Survey and revealed their top business priorities.
In this article we dive a little deeper and examine what leaders found are the biggest roadblocks to attaining those strategic objectives.
We asked respondents to choose which organisational barriers were the biggest roadblocks to achieving their #1 strategic objective for the business.
Growth-oriented leaders are consistently maxed out. The overriding barrier citied by leaders in high-growth contexts is that they and their team are permanently maxed out (47%). This is prevent the strategic thinking needed to get the organisation to the next level.
It’s hardly new news – but digital disruption is now top-of-mind in practically ever sector.
You probably have your own favourite stats on this issue. Here are mine. 63% of industrial players and 81% of tech companies are experiencing significant disruption, or are expecting it within 12 months. (Source: Russell Reynolds Associates).
Digital disruption poses an existential threat to many incumbent players, who need to:
As an organisation moves forward with its digital transformation project, one key topic can easily get overlooked amongst all the discussions on strategy, technology and business processes.
Because at the heart of digital transformation is a leadership and people question: How will our people live this digital transformation – and how can we instill the necessary values, mindset and practices?
I spend a lot of time helping businesses work through the people, cultural and leadership issues that hold back digital transformation. Here are 7 people issues that companies who are serious about genuine digital transformation will need to navigate. >> Read more…
It’s well known that the proportion of M&A deals that fail to create the expected value remains alarmingly high. A survey a couple of year ago from by Aon Hewitt found that nearly 50% of companies had failed to achieve their stated value-creation objectives from the deal. So what’s going on, and what can leaders do about it?
The Aon survey is clear that ‘deal failure’ (failure to create anticipated value) comes from a variety of drivers. What is interesting is that factors #2, #3, #4 and #8 are solidly people factors. Indeed, mismanaged cultural integration ranks as the second leading cause of deal failure. >> Read more…
Put it another way, it promises a lot but generally doesn’t result in lasting organisational impact.
Why is this?
Well, let’s take a typical scenario. Does this sound familiar?
Bob comes back from a two-day leadership training offsite with 40 other VPs from his company. He’s found the program engaging and interesting and is motivated to put some of the management concepts into practice. He walks in to the office with a shiny new binder of material under his arm.
His team groan. Not only are they slightly resentful that their manager has been on another ‘jolly’ whilst they get on with the real work, but they’re now suspicious. What new hoops is their manager going to make them jump through now? What’s the fad of the month?
“Don’t worry,” they whisper to each other. “Let’s just smile and keep our heads down and his enthusiasm will burn off in a couple of weeks.”
And indeed, within a couple of weeks there’s no real sign of any changed leadership behaviour. The team keeps doing what it’s always done, how it’s always done it.
I’ve seen this scenario many times. And to be honest, I’ve probably been in Bob’s shoes myself. I’ve got my fair share of dusty management course binders on my own shelf. Fair cop.
I remember the earliest time I saw this play out. It was early in my career and a senior manager came up with a team plan called “VISTA” – which his team immediately dubbed “Virtually Impossible State To Achieve”! It was dead-on-arrival.
The more we see this play out, the more cynical and sceptical we get about whether ‘soft skills’ can really be improved and whether any of this people-development stuff can really deeply transform an organisation. But before we write off people development, let’s have a look at why the current way of doing things just isn’t delivering. We’ll start to see that there is a better way.
Let’s break apart that scenario a little and understand the six distinct factors that tend to turn leadership development into a dead-end activity. >> Read more…
If you are looking to scale your company significantly and penetrate new markets in the coming year, you’d better beware.
Recently, as part of my leadership consulting work in tech, I’ve spoken with CEOs and COOs of several exceptional start-ups who are on exactly that journey.
Often the focus is on preparing systems and processes to scale – but there are a handful of regular organisational issues that consistently crop up to put the brakes on high-growth firms.
Here are the top five. Plan for them now and set healthy foundations in place.
Your leadership team has some exceptional talent – but also some strong personalities! So are the key leaders really aligned, communicating openly, and performing together at a high level? >> Read more…
“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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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 to be specific challenges to the sector that I've seen in my work consulting and coaching tech-sector CEOs and their teams.
P.S. We specialise in helping leaders and teams in fast-moving tech/digital markets take their impact to a new level, so they can create breakthrough business results, have a bigger impact on the world and on their team they thought possible, whilst freeing up time for themselves. If you want a fresh perspective on your #1 challenge right now, perhaps we should talk.