Managing Tech Teams: 4 Unique Rules for Success

Every industry swears it is unique—that its business environment requires a distinct set of leadership skills and practices. But no sector can make a case for uniqueness better than Tech. Tech’s combination of high-velocity competition, complexity, global talent, and interdependence among rivals is unmatched. Dense geographic concentration in regions such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, and Bangalore foster even more cultural idiosyncrasies.

While exotic anecdotes about Tech culture make for fun social commentary, we at VitalSmarts wondered are they real? and do they matter?

Specifically, we set out to uncover whether differences between the cultures of Tech and non-Tech companies are simply a matter of degree or of kind. And second, we wondered if the differences change the physics of management. Are there unique competencies required of managers to thrive in Tech companies?

Through interviews with senior and mid-level Tech managers, we identified seven common challenges Tech companies face:

  1. It’s Gotta Be Cool: Tech employees are drawn to elite companies and path-breaking projects. If their current company isn’t seen as the “coolest,” on top of the latest technologies, or getting top press coverage, they move to companies that are.
  2. Relentless Pressure: Tech employees face relentless pressure. They work long days, during weekends and holidays, and the pace never slows. They must meet demanding expectations and deliver on tight timelines and short project cycles.
  3. Consistent Ambiguity: Tech employees have to navigate unclear, overlapping, and shared accountabilities that are constantly shifting and can create confusion, misalignment, and competition.
  4. Déjà Vu All Over Again: Tech employees are one big network. People who are their peers today become managers, peers, or direct reports in another company tomorrow.
  5. Dancing with The Stars: Some Tech employees are so valuable and unique, they are considered A-players or unicorns. They are difficult to replace and the company puts a disproportionate effort into attracting and retaining them. As a result, if a superstar acts up, his or her poor behavior is often overlooked but negatively impacts morale.
  6. Interpersonally Challenged: Some Tech employees are technically skilled, but not “people persons.” As a result, their behavior can come across as rude, arrogant, oblivious, etc.
  7. Bigotry Blind Spots: Some Tech employees aren’t always sensitive to diversity and inclusion. As a result, some minorities and women feel excluded, slighted, or devalued.

Impact on Performance

But why should a Tech manager care about these challenges? As it turns out, the differences people observe between the cultures of Tech and non-Tech companies are profound enough to require a unique set of leadership competencies. Tech leaders’ skill at mastering these challenges is a powerful deciding factor of their teams’ overall performance. However, while most Tech leaders are familiar with these challenges, few Tech companies offer training or coaching on how to solve them.

By combining our in-depth interviews with our thirty-five years of research into the best practices of influential leaders, we recommend the following management strategies Tech leaders can use to address the four key challenges:

  1. It’s Gotta Be Cool
  • Connect to a Strategic Advantage.
  • Connect to a Critical Uncertainty.
  • Connect to a Tech Edge.
  • Connect to Careers.
  • Connect to Social Values.
  1. Relentless Pressure
  • Increase Flow.
  • Reduce Peak Pressure.
  • Demand a Regular Rhythm.
  • Build in Rest and Renewal.
  1. Consistent Ambiguity
  • Manage Up.
  • Eradicate Scope Creep and Hobbies.
  • Build Systems for Adjusting Priorities.
  1. Déjà Vu All Over Again
  • Create Safety.
  • Build Skills.
  • Step Out of the Middle.

While there are specific steps leaders can take to address these challenges within their teams, organizations also need to address these challenges at a cultural level through three norms:

Dialogue:  A culture where anyone can speak up and share his or her concerns when it’s in the best interest of the mission—even when the concerns involve sensitive, risky, and potentially volatile topics. If you can’t talk about a problem, you can’t solve it. This norm not only creates a robust, elephant-free organization, but one that quickly surfaces the best ideas allowing companies to better innovate and execute.

In our experience through VitalSmarts in working with the largest IT companies across the globe, such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc, Software engineers and developers range of finely tuned skill, not so much in communication skills and creating psychological safety!

In our latest podcast Kate Selway, People and Capability Director for Jade Software, shares her passion around leadership development. She continues to drive a strong focus around redefining the organisation’s values as well is the implementation of soft skills.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Accountability:  Anyone can hold anyone accountable—for both product and cultural expectations—regardless of role or position.  The ability to hold others accountable is the glue that keeps our human enterprises from spinning apart. High-accountability cultures are better positioned to address challenges.

Influence: The key differentiator between Tech companies that are built to last, and those that die after launch, is that leaders recognize their intrinsic duty to not just build a product but build a culture. Companies that are exclusively about product create toxic cultures by default. This happens, because building cultural norms is seen as less important and less cool than building product. In sustainably healthy Tech companies, leaders exert consistent and intentional influence to shape the social system in a way that leads to sustained innovation as well as short-term execution.

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

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