While every industry presents its own unique challenges for managers, the tech industry can prove to be especially thorny. A report by the Korn Ferry Institute found that a large number of executives from companies like Cisco and IBM acknowledge a shortage of ready-to-promote leaders – and that the tech industry is facing a potentially insurmountable leadership problem as a result.
A handful of daunting realities contribute to this perception:
- Few employees aspire to become managers. In an industry that values hands-on making, people want to stay close to the product itself. Engineers – not managers – are lionized, and little thought is given to management skills by those not already in management roles.
- Speed is king. There’s little room for employee training or leadership development within the “move fast and break things” model. Many companies feel that if you’re not actively working on the product, you’re wasting time.
- Tech is one big, shifting network. Because employees tend to chase the shiniest, newest ideas, turnover at tech companies is often high, and career ladders are anything but regular. You may end up directly managing someone you worked under at your previous position – or vice versa – which confuses hierarchies.
- Youth dominates. It’s not uncommon to see C-level executives with barely five years of experience under their belts – and you can bet they haven’t spent much of that time learning key leadership skills. This issue is compounded by the fact that relatively young companies frequently lack the systems for grooming and training leaders.
- Many are reluctant to acknowledge these challenges. The fast-paced world of tech often results in a tough-guy mentality – “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” – that discourages employees and managers alike from speaking up about getting the support they need to succeed.
These challenges are not insurmountable, however. And while it may seem like standard best practices for leadership training and management skills don’t apply to the fast-paced world of developers, many of the same principles that help managers in other industries grow into true leaders are applicable to tech as well.
Create a culture of transparency and support
There is nothing more toxic than when employees and managers feel they can’t speak up about their needs for fear of appearing weak or incapable of handling the pressures of their job. If employees don’t feel supported, they become disengaged, leading to low productivity and high turnover. According to data collected by the University of Southern California, actively disengaged employees can cost their companies between $450 and $550 billion annually, while teams that consist of engaged employees outperform peer groups by 147% in terms of earnings.
The best employee training and development program in the world will be useless without a company culture that encourages employees at all levels to seek the resources they need to enhance their skills and grow as engineers and managers. This kind of culture needs to come from the top: managers and executives must demonstrate their commitment to supporting their direct reports clearly and frequently, and show that talent management is just as much of a priority as getting widgets out the door.
One way to do this is by implementing transparent feedback processes – not just for managers to evaluate their employees, but for employees to evaluate their managers. This demonstrates that constructive criticism and self-improvement are valued, and helps people at all levels of an organization identify the skills they need to work on.
Make room for individualized training
Anyone who’s developed an app for Android knows that one size never truly fits all. When first designing an employee training program, consider all the ways that your employees may want to develop their leadership skills. People learn best when it’s on their own terms, because they can focus on the skills they need the most help with. Allowing employees to choose which resources they draw from – as well as when and how they seek them out – will afford them a much-appreciated measure of freedom and independence.
Online courses are becoming a popular solution for many companies. Employees can work at their own pace, learning everything from new software or productivity methods, to topics that would typically be included in traditional MBA coursework. Many distinguished colleges and universities offer MOOCs (massive open online courses) on a variety of topics, but some tech firms choose to modify existing platforms – or even develop their own – in order to create an experience that is tailored more closely to their needs of their employees. This can be especially effective for leadership development, allowing employees to learn and internalize management skills as they apply to their company’s unique organization and culture.
Increase breadth to advance your career
From designers and UX architects to QA experts and analysts, the tech industry encompasses a wide range of career paths and job titles beyond programming. Employee training – supplemented with professional coaching – can help diversify your skills and add breadth to your capabilities, opening new directions in your career trajectory.
Breadth is an especially important quality in leaders; when managing a team that includes experts in a variety of different fields with a wide range of responsibilities, it’s essential to have a keen understanding of the challenges and intricacies associated with each role. Even if cross-training in a related discipline doesn’t result in a career move, diversifying experiences makes for better and more empathetic leaders and managers.
Harness the power of relationships
Hard skills can easily be taught via a standardized platform like an online course, but effective leadership involves a great deal of so-called “soft” skills that require more than simple rote memorization. For this reason, personal relationships – whether a mentorship or a coaching arrangement – can be invaluable for developing as a manager.
A recent survey from Bersin by Deloitte found that 95% of leaders who have professional mentors get promoted within 18 months. Observing a more experienced peer or superior can provide crucial insights beyond what can be learned in a management course.
Formal coaching offers many of the same benefits as a mentorship, but within a much more structured set-up. Many companies offer their employees access to coaching services (like Ace-up) to help with a wide range of skills, from communication to public speaking. These kinds of interpersonal relationships provide a sense of accountability and help keep learners honest when it comes to developing their skills as a leader.
Ultimately, the types of employee training programs and methods for leadership development aren’t all that different in the tech industry than in other fields, but there are still significant cultural challenges that hamper effective talent management and leadership training. Industry leaders must demonstrate that supporting their employees and managers is as vital to their companies’ success as writing bug-free code.
Ace-up’s extensive network of highly-vetted executive and leadership coaches can help tech leaders hone the non-technical skills they need to manage effectively. David Sturman, one of Ace-up’s many coaches, leverages his PhD from MIT and more than 30 years of experience at companies like Microsoft and Amazon to help tech executives develop their management and leadership skills to work better, smarter, and more effectively. He says, “Software developers spend their early careers honing their coding and system design skills. When they suddenly find themselves in a management position, their technology expertise provides none of the tools they need for their new role. Software does not behave like people and the once confident expert is now in uncharted waters. Someone who’s been there can be an invaluable guide in these situations.”
See how a professional coach like David Sturman can help take your career to the next level.