The Wall Street Journal recently featured an excellent article, “Do Techies Make Good Leaders?”by Robert M. Fulmer and Byron Hanson both of Duke Corporate Education, an affiliate of Duke University’s Fugua School of Business. According to the article, some inherent reasons tech companies fail to develop effective leaders include the speed of the industry’s growth along with the talent it draws, e.g. young techies with backgrounds in science and engineering. Despite the obstacles, the savvy tech company can build effective management teams. Following is a summary of the authors’ tips augmented by mine:
1. Formalize Management Development Processes: If a tech company is in startup mode, it may be premature to establish a structured training process to develop managers. And yet, a tough to recognize moment inevitably comes when formalized leadership development needs to be installed. The article authors urge companies to keep a close eye on the impending need for structure in this area. The risk of missing the magic moment, according to Fulmer and Hanson, is that employee retention takes a hit in the absence of skilled management. I would add that productivity and project alignment with company goals are also at risk with unskilled leaders.
2) What Gets Measured Gets Done: The writers point out that the techie population enjoys data, so use it to get the desire results. Measure management activities as a way of conveying the importance of this aspect of the tech manager’s job. Examples Fulmer and Hanson provide include collecting information such as how many performance reviews a manager has completed and adding a management category to the performance review of the manager. That always gets attention!
I also like the approach of measuring behavior change post-training. If a company trains managers to provide regular feedback to their direct reports about their performance, it could conduct post-training survey of employees to find out how often trained managers provide positive feedback – the easiest type of feedback to deliver and report on. Knowing that a measurement program is in place tends to produce results.
3) Place Value on Leadership and Mentoring: Not surprisingly, techies tend to find satisfaction in the technical aspects of their work. Once promoted, drawing away from technical activities and focusing on management activities like planning, directing and coaching aren’t as rewarding. Therefore tech companies need to take extra care to reinforce and reward management and mentoring behaviors as much as they limelight technical talents and accomplishments.
As we know from ample research on rewards, these should be adapted per individual. Mary may love the standing ovation at a staff meeting while John may cringe at the public attention and prefer sincere praise from his boss. Regardless of the approach, the commitment to acknowledge and reward management and mentoring starts at the top and needs to penetrate to all levels of the organization.
4) Match Training Methods to Techies: This doesn’t mean conduct exclusively online training for the technical manager. It does mean making it fast paced, varied and relevant – including best practices from seasoned managers. Competition and real-world problems keep trainees engaged in the training.
5) Select with Management in Mind: One item that didn’t get mentioned in the article is the role that initial talent screening plays in management development. One of my most successful tech clients makes its job of developing tech managers easier from the outset; above and beyond meeting technical criteria for a position everyone in the company is screened for interpersonal communication skills. If a candidate can only talk tech-speak, they don’t go further in the interview process. Sounds simple and yet most tech companies don’t make this a key hiring criteria. If this sounds like your firm and you want to make a shift consider the following steps:
- Examine your job descriptions. Remake qualifications to include excellent interpersonal communication skills.
- If your current managers are tech strong and communications skills weak, they may be hiring people like themselves, further limiting the talent pool in your organization. If that’s the case, have someone in Human Resources or an external resource do preliminary screening for tech positions to make sure your company is being fed the best candidates for future management positions.
- Provide interpersonal skills training to your existing management team. Not only will they be more effective in addressing their team and your clients (external and internal,) they’ll be modeling skills for their direct reports. Consider communication skills training for current tech employees as well in order to build bench strength.