This hack looks at how some of the unique attributes commonly found in “techie” type people working within high-technology organisations present additional challenges for leadership development. A simple framework and vision for leadership development in a high-technology organisation based on a web based tool is then presented.
High-technology organisations need to employ highly skilled technical people such as engineers, scientists, mathematicians, computer programmers, etc. Let’s call them “techies”. These organisations often start small and can then go on to grow rapidly. There are demands to keep ahead of the wave of technological change and this rate of change seems to have no bounds adding pressure to be constantly adapting. Outsourcing also places pressures on “techies” to step up, as lower engineering type roles are commoditised and shipped off shore to “reduce cost”. The issue is around who can lead the legions of “techies”. Often the easiest approach used is to select the most technically skilled person and/or the person who has been around for a while and promote them into a leadership or management position. Often the results of this approach are not positive, this not only starts to damage the morale of the other members of the team but also that of the new leader/manager. However having a leader who has some appreciation for the technology in the organisation can be a huge advantage especially when setting strategy and gaining the respect and followership of the “techie” army. The challenge is how can we develop “techie” leaders? Let’s face it quite often “techies” are unique in the way they approach problems, I should know as I am one of those people! Usually they are very analytical and quantitative in their approaches and coming from educational backgrounds that focus on the development of their technical skill in their chosen field rather than broader skills such as organisational behaviour. Relating, managing, and leading people is often left to “on the job” type training at best in the hope that some will step up and be able to lead as teams and departments grow in size.
By nature “techies” love technology and more recently sharing technology for free, i.e. open source. So why not create an open source leadership development system, build it on a web based platform and use some concepts from social networking type sites. Within this system create the tools to work through a proposed five phase development framework as outlined below. The Framework 1. Strategy Alignment – The organisation agrees development of non-technical leadership and people skills within its “techie” ranks is important. 2. Identification – who wants to be a leader now or in the future? This is not necessarily about saying who has potential but instead asks who wants to give it a try. Equally it allows those who are actually content to focus on their technical career to do so without the fear of being promoted into leadership positions. It may sound unbelievable but some engineers do leave the profession for fear of having to actually lead or manage against their will. Some “techies” are in it for life, could we agree this is actually ok? These people then create the “followers” group who can be trained on good following skills. 3. Initial Assessment – Those who wish to jump on the development train are run through various forms of assessment to establish, strengths, weaknesses, goals, and past experience. Getting people early in their career is essential to ensure growth from the bottom up. 4. Experience and Challenge - Exposing technical people to leadership challenges and experiences has been identified as key to their development. The tool will provide real and simulated experiences and challenges that users can respond to and have feedback on their decisions and approaches. 5. Assessment and Feedback - The final phase to close the loop. The use of data and measurement is good motivation for technical people and they will respond well to this. This last phase is used to identify areas that have improved and those still needing development based on the requirements of the current and potential future roles. Once identified this forms input into phase 4 and the cycle continues throughout the career path. This is the phase where people who struggle to make progress are identified and may be better suited to a technical career path. The Tool The tool would allow operations such as: • People to complete assessments and place feedback on other people’s decisions, leadership, behaviour. E.g. a Facebook Like / Dislike type concept. • Mentors can issue real or simulated challenges to expose people to new experiences and assess their response. This can build a database of organisational challenges for the future. • Followers can rate leader’s performance on a real time basis to provide a graph similar to political “worm” type charts. An instant pulse check for people in the upper layers on how things are tracking. • Weekly “simulated” or current real situations faced by the organisation can be issued with the ability for everyone to log a potential response or solution and these are in turn rated by everyone else.
Motivation and development by technology “Techies” love data and measurement, give them a tool that is simple to use and intuitive and they will use it. Provide them with the ability to contribute to the tool within a set of parameters that is being used to assist their development. Therefore they can feel empowered to not only be part of the development process but also be improving the process and developing confidence along the way. Reduce the fear and retain good technical people There are “techies” that do not necessarily want to lead or manage, and instead fear the day they may have to be promoted. Why not let them carry on that path and instead develop their followership skills and allow them to contribute to the tool that improves the development of their leaders. After all they are the people being directly affected by the success or failure of the leadership development. Organic growth of the tool As more data, simulated or real challenges and experiences are entered into the system the more powerful the tool grows for the future. “Techies” as leaders, better strategic decisions and more respect? Development of “techies” into leaders who want to be there through exposing them to experiences and challenges then providing support means they in turn lead their fellow “techies” and have a good perspective on what makes them tick as such. This also allows them to understand how to get the best out of their people and assist with strategic decisions. In turn “techies” tend to respect someone who has progressed from their own ranks, “one of their own”, given they actually have been given the skills to lead and manage. Broader decisions and innovation Issuing current real challenges or situations and gathering solutions and feedback on these from anyone in the organisation could result in unlocking some potentially innovative solutions that the top levels may not have considered and find hidden potential. Equally it allows people to have a go at proposing a solution and learn whether that would be considered a good or bad approach if faced with a similar challenge in the future. Add in the concept of having cross organisation collaboration and things can get even more interesting.
1. An organisation needs to agree to invest in developing technical leaders. 2. Chat to the “techies” discuss the concept and “wet their appetite” to build the tool. 3. Put aside some time during the working week for people to put together a quick “prototype” of a system within a small organisation using some pre-build software frameworks and tools. 4. Run through the phases and load in some simulated or real challenges into the system then see how people respond.
Dr B. Frey, Massey University, NZ. For showing me the OB light and often answering a question with a question!