Are the leadership development challenges of fast-paced technology organizations really all that different? After a year-long study involving many of the largest and best-respected companies in Silicon Valley, leadership experts say the answer is definitely “yes.” Fast-paced tech companies really are different, and so are the challenges they face as they develop their leaders. Here are a few examples.
- Velocity of Change: Tech companies typically grow more rapidly than their mainstream counterparts, and the threat of disruption is a constant companion. New players are always emerging, so standing still isn’t an option. Instead companies must outpace their competitors – even if they don’t know who they will be.
- Skills Gaps: Many tech leaders move up based on the strength of their tech skills and not because they are great leaders. They often lack basic management capabilities, as well as the emotional intelligence and self-awareness to realize their impact on others.
- Stress: The work may be exhilarating, but techies often feel massive levels of stress. Many have taken on huge roles at a very young age, and they worry whether they are up to the challenge. Some feel as though they are walking a tightrope without a net.
- Disdain for “Typical” Training: Tech companies tend to be proud of the culture they’ve built and use it as a differentiator and recruitment tool. Workers immersed in that culture expect the same uniqueness to infuse development initiatives. They don’t like off-the-shelf content, and they won’t sit still for solutions that can’t be backed by data. Surprisingly, they also aren’t fans of purely digital learning. They prefer face-to-face development opportunities where they can ask questions, debate and challenge.
- Leading the Unfamiliar: The tech industry not only rides waves of disruptive technology but also disruptive levels of turnover. Leaders have to be agile at adapting to the unfamiliar and at managing stress on the brain, body and interpersonal interactions.
Does this sound a lot like your organization? If so, what should your training team do to support life in the fast lane and development for time-stressed leaders? Here are nine tips that can help you respond to this new world order and get the most out of your training investment.
1. Bring on the heat.
Tech leaders need to develop faster than those in other industries because they reach senior roles at younger ages. They need accelerated continuous development that can meet them where they are today and quickly catch them up to where they need to be. Learning needs to be rapid and continuous – not a one-time event. To set a steady, accelerated pace for development and jumpstart learning, you’ll need to balance three important factors:
- “Heat” experiences that place leaders in uncomfortable, unfamiliar and complex situations where results matter. These experiences can be internal or external to your organization, including stretch assignments, experiential learning, expeditions, and simulations that balance risk with potential rewards.
Some heat experiences provide a safe place to learn from mistakes (e.g., an expedition) while others can be career-altering (e.g., a new product launch that fails). Keep in mind that leaders already experiencing high heat from industry disruption, rapid team turnover and other workplace challenges may learn more when stretching their wings in a safe environment.
- Colliding perspectives that expose leaders to new points of view very different from their own. Leaders learn from people who are different from themselves, who challenge their assumptions, and who get them to reflect in meaningful ways that advance their thinking.
- Reflection time and support that allow new experiences and perspectives to be integrated. Reflection is a skill that isn’t often an area of focus, and it doesn’t come naturally in fast-paced environments. Yet it’s critical to learning – advancing each individual’s world view and changing how they lead.
One caution: The most effective learning happens when heat experiences, colliding perspectives and reflection get equal attention. Most tech leaders get too much heat, moderate exposure to new perspectives, and not enough time for reflection. Strive to get the balance right and make the most of heat experiences without causing burnout.
2. Become source agnostic.
Expand your thinking beyond competency-based classroom learning and create multiple channels for development. Remember, it’s not about where leaders learn. Instead, it’s about what information is consumed and how it’s being applied. Leaders might learn by watching a TED Talk on their smartphone, reading best practices posted in a Slack group, or listening to a podcast on leadership by a well-respected guru. Connecting leaders to sources of information they might not know about can lead to spontaneous learning.
3. Offer short bursts of development.
Tech leaders are time poor, but they tend to be fast learners. Since many of today’s management fundamentals have known, skills-based solutions, you can quickly transfer basic how-to information in bite-sized portions. You can address how to give feedback, how to conduct a performance review, or how to tackle other actions important to the success of your team. This approach has become so popular that many advanced training practitioners now see themselves as “curators” of content that’s a good match for rapid learning. They scan the industry for the best tools and solutions and then package them in videos, podcasts, infographics, and other easy-to-absorb formats.
4. Balance short bursts with deeper dives.
While time-stressed leaders may prefer shorter forms of development, the workplace is complex – and so is leadership. Not all organizational dilemmas can be solved by quick bursts of information. Leaders also need deeper development to teach them how to think and lead through complexity, especially as they move up the leadership ladder. Use disruptive experiences, expeditions, study tours, simulations, mentoring, coaching, and other deep-dive, immersive opportunities to help leaders identify problems, learn systems thinking, and develop a strategic focus.
5. Use advanced analytics.
Leadership solutions work best when they reinforce what’s unique about your company. Advanced analytics can help you connect disparate data (e.g., HRIS, engagement, customer satisfaction, performance) and identify those specific leadership behaviors that will have the biggest impact on business outcomes. Use the information to guide program development and to teach your leaders how to succeed in your company’s own unique environment.
6. Focus on resilience.
Many young tech stars are promoted into high-pressure roles before they’ve learned how to deal with the stress. Work becomes all-consuming, and regular exercise, healthy eating, and a good night’s sleep get sacrificed. Protect your people investment by helping your team build healthy habits and the physical, emotional, and mental resilience they need to cope with workplace demands.
One high-pressure organization in Silicon Valley approached the issue by delivering a workshop on resilience to a core group of 120 managers. Those early adopters then cascaded the techniques they learned to their teams. Within a single month the company taught 1,200 employees how to reduce stress and build resilience.
7. Leverage strengths.
When people tackle tasks that match their natural strengths, they exhibit more confidence and less anxiety during times of high uncertainty. Make the most of feedback, assessments and other tools that promote self-awareness and help leaders recognize roles and assignments that simply aren’t a great fit. Self-aware leaders know when to call on the strengths of other team members rather than going it alone. When leaders do have to work against their strengths, help them focus on resilience to avoid burnout and costly mistakes.
8. Promote peer-to-peer learning.
Tech leaders love learning from their peers, so why not use that to your advantage? Consider bringing together first-time managers or other small cohorts of leaders who are going through the same transition at the same time. Give them opportunities to share experiences and to collaborate on better ways to lead. Or engage your team the way Google did with its “Googler to Googler” program. Offer employees the opportunity to teach leadership topics they are passionate about to other employees. They might upload content to a portal and deliver it themselves or engage the help of a training facilitator. These types of initiatives can leverage resources that would otherwise lie latent.
9. Connect the rest of the system.
Even the best training and development program will fail if you neglect those factors that ensure learning takes hold and is transferred into the workplace. Great organizations decide on the leadership behaviors they want and then connect all the backend initiatives needed to support them – including training, incentives, evaluations, feedback, hiring, firing, and promotions. This end-to-end alignment can help you accelerate learning, continuously develop your team, and successfully compete in today’s fast-paced, global marketplace.