Leading a tech team in the current culture of competition and globalization comes with a unique set of challenges, and requires a distinct set of leaderships skills to mitigate them. A recent report from corporate training and leadership development firm VitalSmarts lays out the particular competencies tech leaders need to build successful organizations and products.
"Everybody who's ever worked in tech feels like there's something quite different and unique about that culture and the whole industry," said VitalSmarts vice president of research David Maxfield. "The questions we were asking were: 'Are these differences real, do they matter, and if so, how?'"
The researchers first interviewed more than a dozen leaders from tech firms asking about the unique challenges of the field. They then surveyed more than 3,600 managers and employees from both tech and non-tech organizations to determine which challenges were specific to the field and impact innovation and execution.
The four culture challenges identified are realities of the field that a strong leader can master, Maxfield said.
Here are the top four management challenges in the tech industry, and strategies for how to successfully navigate them.
1. The cool factor
Potential employees are drawn to a tech company that is perceived as being on the cutting edge by the public and the press, the researchers found. "It makes sense, because that's what tech is all about—innovation," Maxfield said. However, this cool factor does not translate to the office itself. "Nobody was interested in things like an espresso bar," Maxfield said. "It was, 'Are you working on a project that's resume worthy? Do newspapers and venture capitalists think it's cool?'"
Strategy: The best leaders expand beyond telling potential hires how important their technology is, Maxfield said. These managers can explain how employees are helping to make a difference in the world, and can demonstrate the importance their team has in the organization. Even if the team is responsible for lower-profile activities, strong managers show employees why what they do is cutting-edge, and communicate that to the rest of the company as well.
2. Relentless pressure
Tech employees often work long days, weekends, and holidays, and check their email constantly, Maxfield said. When one project ends, they jump immediately into another with no down time. Those in the tech industry face pressure to create new projects and deliver to customers globally amid constant competition, sometimes creating a tense workplace environment.
Strategy: Seek and share information. The leaders who are best at handling pressure are those who can recognize when an employee needs a change or a break. "It's almost like you're a coach of a basketball team, sending players in and out as they exhaust themselves," Maxfield said. "It requires that you are observant as to how they are doing. In management, that means asking a lot of questions, and when you see it, you take action quickly and don't run them into the ground." This also means you must have a strong enough team to be able to switch people in and out, he said.
3. Consistent ambiguity
Tech leaders often create intentionally competing projects to determine what the best product or solution will be, without knowing the answer at the start. Then, it's up to people on the team and their leadership to determine whether the project succeeds, or should be changed or terminated. Operating in this way is a challenge for teams who don't know if they are working on the beta that will make it or that won't. It requires you to trust your leadership to keep you in the loop, even when leaders may not know where things are going.
Strategy: Managers who handle this ambiguity best are those who can manage up, and have frequent interactions with their boss and other higher ups asking questions to clarify the scope and progress of the project. Those above can shed light on what projects are working and which are not, which the manager can then communicate down to the team. "Those intermediaries have to seek that information from senior leaders and keep the teams informed so they can do what they need to do," Maxfield said.
4. Déjà vu all over again
Tech workers operate in a small pond: Many tech workers have a highly specialized set of skills and are located within constrained geographic regions, such as Silicon Valley and Seattle. You may work with some of the same people you do today again in five or 10 years at another company. You might lead one project, and they might lead the next. Therefore, burning bridges can be costly in this industry.
Strategy: Determine your intent when giving feedback to a colleague, knowing that they could someday be your boss. "It's about, 'How do I give disappointing feedback to a friend who I want to keep as a friend?'" Maxfield said. The best way is to offer feedback in a way that the other person sees as helpful to them and their career.
"These four elements are a part of their world—they're not problems, they're realities," Maxfield said. "The task isn't to solve them, but to thrive with them."
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Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.