Managing in Tech: Exude Cool, Thrive Under Pressure and Dance with Your Stars

By Staff Report

Jul. 19, 2017

Every industry swears it is unique, that its business environment requires a distinct set of leadership skills and practices. But no sector can make the case for uniqueness better than technology. Its combination of high-velocity competition, complexity, global talent and interdependence among rivals is unmatched. Dense geographic concentrations foster even more cultural idiosyncrasies.

While exotic anecdotes about tech culture make for fun social commentary (“My husband and I work at competitors. I hide my travel plans from him so I don’t disclose trade secrets”), are the differences between the cultures of tech and non-tech companies simply a matter of degree or of kind? Do the differences change the physics of management? Are there unique competencies required of managers to thrive in tech companies?

We interviewed senior and midlevel managers across large and medium-sized tech companies both inside and out of Silicon Valley. All subjects were drawn from the database of my company, VitalSmarts, and included individual contributors, managers and HR professionals. We asked them what advice they’d give to a niece or nephew who was transitioning from a manager role in another industry to a manager role in tech.

The answers were fascinating. One leader described the unique dilemma he faces when he has a brilliant engineer who he doesn’t want on his team but who he is terrified to lose to a competitor that is racing to market alongside his organization. Another leader described how disconcerting it is to work in an environment where being a vice president means nothing when pitted against a mercurial game designer with his own agenda.

Each leader identified the challenges they felt were most important and unique to tech. As the interviews progressed, we developed categories that captured similar challenges. By the end, we uncovered seven challenges that emerged as trends.

Next, we tested these challenges by surveying 827 tech employees and 2,800 non-tech employees. The questions measured the frequency, severity and solvability of each challenge. Below are the descriptions of the seven challenges and the survey results.

  • It’s Gotta Be Cool: Tech employees are drawn to elite companies and path-breaking projects. If their current company or project isn’t seen as the “coolest,” on top of the latest technologies, or getting top press coverage, then people move to companies that are.

Results: Tech subjects confirmed this pattern is important and is also uniquely challenging within tech.

  • Build Rhythm and Flow: Tech employees face relentless pressure, intensity and work at a grueling pace. They work long days and during weekends and holidays. They must deliver on tight timelines, quick turnarounds and short project cycles.

Results: Tech subjects confirmed this pattern is important and is also uniquely challenging within tech.

  • Overcome Ambiguity Through Dialogue: Tech employees must navigate unclear, overlapping and shared accountabilities that can create confusion, misalignment and competition. In addition, these priorities, projects and assignments are constantly shifting.

Results: Tech subjects confirmed this pattern is important and is also uniquely challenging within tech.

  • Déjà Vu Accountability: Tech employees make up one big network. Peers today become managers, peers or direct reports in another company tomorrow.

Results: Tech subjects confirmed this pattern is important but does not differentiate tech from non-tech.

  • Dancing with the Stars: There are a few tech employees who are so valuable and unique as to be considered A-players or unicorns. They’re difficult to replace and so the company puts a disproportionate effort into attracting and retaining them.

Results: Tech subjects confirmed this pattern is important and is also uniquely challenging within tech.

  • Interpersonally Challenged: Tech employees are technically skilled but not “people persons.” As a result, their behavior can come across as rude, arrogant or oblivious and negatively impact the work environment.

Results: Tech subjects confirmed this pattern is important but does not differentiate tech from non-tech.

  • Bigotry Blind Spots: Tech employees aren’t always sensitive to diversity and inclusion issues. As a result, some minorities and women feel excluded, slighted or devalued.

Results: Tech subjects rejected this pattern with a below-average score. In fact, they were significantly less likely than non-tech subjects to rate this pattern as especially challenging. These results jump off the page! In contrast, leaders described cultural blindness as an important and unique challenge to tech suggesting that our survey subjects were blind to their own cultural blindness.

Impact on Performance

Overall, six of the seven challenges are common within tech, and five differentiate tech from non-tech companies. So why should a tech manager care? Our next step was to understand whether skill in navigating these challenges predicts performance — something leaders care about. Using a performance scale and regression analysis, we found that four of our 30 survey questions — encompassing four different challenge areas — did an extraordinary job of predicting performance. These survey questions, in order of importance, are:

  1. It’s Gotta Be Cool. “To what extent are your managers able to make their projects and their teams the cool ones that people want to join?”
  2. Build Rhythm and Flow. “To what extent are your current colleagues able to manage work pressure so they can succeed at their jobs long term without letting others down in the short term?”
  3. Overcome Ambiguity Through Dialogue. “To what extent are your priorities, projects and assignments constantly competing and shifting?”
  4. Déjà Vu Accountability. “To what extent does the desire to maintain positive relationships (knowing that you’re likely to work with each other again in another company or in another role) prevent your department from being as successful as it would otherwise be?”

Our research indicated that tech managers who mastered the challenges represented by these four challenges significantly boosted the performance of their team.

Solutions: Discuss What Can’t Be Discussed

As we shared this list of cultural idiosyncrasies with tech leaders, few were surprised. But what surprised us was that few had ever been trained or coached on how to deal with them. Our interviews suggested two reasons these challenges go unaddressed:

  • Acknowledging these challenges is like a fish admitting it’s in water. It seems obvious and pointless. But this lapse fails to make conscious a related reality: that the water is a torrent hurtling the fish toward jagged rocks.
  • There’s a heroic cultural norm in tech that suggests real players are too smart or too motivated to be daunted by these realities. As a result, these challenges become “undiscussable.”

The best tech leaders approach these human challenges the same way they would approach a technical challenge. They discuss the challenges, set improvement goals and apply scientific principles to solve them.

Here are management strategies tech leaders can use to address four key challenges:

  1. Connect to Cool:To attract, engage and retain top talent, the most successful managers are deft at making the work of their teams “cool.” They look beyond the trendy perks and focus on making tight connections between the work their people do and one or more of the following strategic areas:
  • Strategic Advantage —Connect to the organization’s identifying character, secret sauce or competitive edge.
  • Critical Uncertainty —Link to a burning platform or urgent opportunity.
  • Tech Edge —Show how projects push the edge of the technological envelope.
  • Careers —Show how the team or project will further a person’s career.
  • Social Values —Link the team or project to the positive impact it has on customers, society and the world.
  1. Build Rhythm and Flow:The best tech managers actively build a predictable rhythm and flow of work to reduce the relentless pressure of the industry.
  • Build Rhythm —Engineer procrastination out of the workflow by asking employees to track and report daily progress, provide lifelines to help when pressure peaks and allow employees to utilize and define their downtime.
  • Build Flow —People’s engagement peaks when they work in a state of psychological flow. When managers provide challenging work, autonomy, feedback and an interruption-free environment, flow naturally follows.
  1. Overcome Ambiguity Through Dialogue:Keeping people on course and on track despite overlapping assignments, unclear ownership and changing priorities is a constant challenge in tech. The best tech leaders manage “consistent ambiguity” with dialogue. They build norms that support those who discover and confront contradictions as soon as they occur — a strategy that minimizes formal and informal divergence, inconsistencies, unrealistic deadlines and scope creep in plans and priorities.
  2. Déjà Vu Accountability:Successful managers know the tendency to prioritize positive relationships over accountability is a false choice. These leaders create a culture where accountability doesn’t come at the price of current and future relationships. To do so, they:
  • Create Safety —Managers approach accountability as an exploration of causes and solutions rather than blame and shame which bolsters trust and improves performance.
  • Build Skills — Managers provide training and practice for holding others accountable without undermining relationships. Unless and until people have the skills, they’ll bite their tongues and problems will persist.
  • Step Out of the Middle —The best managers avoid using position power. In this industry “code wins arguments.” Deference to authority should never win out over deference to expertise.

The most fundamental finding of our study is that while most tech leaders know they’re living in a rarefied world, few have mapped its actual features or mastered its navigation. The best tech leaders understand that today’s success is about product, but tomorrow’s is about culture.

The unique nature of the tech world doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. What can change and change quickly is a manager’s ability to manage the idiosyncratic challenges that come with the territory. These recommendations will equip managers to excel in a world that outpaces even the best and brightest.

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker and vice president of research at VitalSmarts. For the past 30 years, Maxfield has conducted social science research to help Fortune 500 leaders and organizations achieve new levels of performance.

The study collected data from 827 tech employees and 2,800 non-tech employees during 2015. Tech employees were defined as employees of companies that create technology as a product or service and include organizations like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel, Oracle, Uber, etc. All subjects were drawn from the VitalSmarts database and included individual contributors, managers and HR professionals.

The study included formal interviews with senior and midlevel managers across large and medium-sized tech companies, as well as senior HR managers from these same companies. Each leader identified the challenges he or she felt were most important and unique to Tech companies. Researchers identified seven challenges that emerged as trends across the body of interviews. They then tested these seven challenges with a 30-question survey that measured the frequency, severity and solvability of each challenge.

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