Recently, I was inspired by some innocent posts on Reddit, to talk through what it means to be a technology leader in today’s world. For those who also are in newly found technology leadership roles, one thing you’ll immediately notice is that it is different from what you have known and the responsibilities continue to change. The truth is it is less about technology and more about leadership and there is no TL;DR.
There are four key aspects. I’ll go through each one of these below showing you how they tie with the tech leadership role.
Things that seem obvious to you and your company may not be obvious to everyone. As part of the leadership team, you really want to keep this in mind. Once you do, what you’ll quickly realize is that you won’t be an expert in every area you need to be.
One of the solutions here is finding those who are experts. On the surface, it seems like well-meaning advice but how do actually do you that? You may hear “hire those smarter than you”, and that’s valid. However, if anything, you’ll want to make sure you can answer the WHY you should be doing so.
You just don’t have time to solve every problem that exists. It would be nice to, and also have the world accept your solution, but that just isn’t the case. And time isn’t the only problem. To solve a problem you’ll need to create circumstances which are different then what led to the problem in the first place. You can do this by focusing your attention on learning something you didn’t know before. But you can’t keep doing that. Problems will start to pop up everywhere you will get overwhelmed quickly. You’ll be learning less than you need to, and solving only a fraction of the problems.
The perfect world is to have mini-replicas of yourself to get the work done. If the spectrum is “do all the work yourself” to “exact clones”, the real solution is somewhere in the middle. Find those that can understand most of what is necessary. Then, provide alignment and strategy so they can create most of the solution you wanted. You still get to solve the problem you want to solve, with most of the solution you wanted to use. Success.
Now you know your WHY and you hired the right people, it’s time to apply the same principle to how your team functions on a daily basis. Use your team, they are working on the moving parts every day while you are responsible for keeping it all together. You can’t make decisions without them, because they have the more relevant information. Figure out who are those you can bounce ideas off.
While it is important to grow your team, as a leader, you should already be thinking about who is a good replacement for you (FYI, this isn’t only advice for CTOs). As the future of your company is at stake, you can work harder, but finding help is more effective. When you leave your current role and grow to take on harder tasks, you’ll need a replacement. Additionally, as your team grows, you won’t have time to follow up on all the minutiae, so delegating becomes even more important.
Keep in mind that once and if your company grows, tomorrow will be different, there will be more money, more staff, and more problems. These questions may help you get ready for testing moments ahead:
You are responsible for the future of technology. This isn’t just how to architect the current software, services, and design. Don’t forget that how it all looks now will dictate how it looks like 6 months, 1 year or even more than this down the road. You really want to make sure that the technology at your company is on track for the future. Also, you’ll want to answer some of the following questions:
You’ll be faced with many questions from yourself and your team as you go forward. You don’t need to be able to answer every question on the spot but you need to be able to figure out how to get those answers. It helps to spend some time thinking about those possible situations before they come up. It is good to be prepared.
Find a mentor. I can’t stress this enough.
What’s important is that you can continue to find others who may know something that can help you. They may be in a different role, i.e. not pure technologists, perhaps what you need at that moment is someone with a different mindset. You want to find peers in your role too so that you have others to bounce ideas off. This isn’t a new concept, and reading this quick post is a start, but where do you go from here? You need to find those opportunities for new insight.
Everyone can give you great advice, but not all of it is relevant. There may be similarly named roles elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they are all responsible for the same things. For instance, if you are a CTO, then feedback from another CTO can be unique to your situation. However, what’s most important is figuring out what your team needs to succeed.
It can be difficult to find a good mentor, but it can also be easy, you just have to be on the lookout:
Knowing a bit more about yourself and the situations you are in helps to identify others who may make a good partner. They will encourage you to improve.
You need to think about your communication style. It isn’t just what you say, it is how you say it, and also what you say. You can’t make everyone understand, but they have to understand enough to do the right thing. And everyone will hear something different.
The simplest explanation is that we don’t all speak the same language. But even if we do it isn’t exactly the same. In general, that is a cop-out. When we communicate just with one other person, it requires both communicators to be on their game to ensure they understand each other. When you are talking to many people at the same time, it is more difficult to get this feedback. Do you often find yourself repeating a message? How do you actually know if the others heard what you said? People think on different wavelengths. This is how your message will be heard:
While about 68% heard the right message, each of these sections is where someone heard something different. Each will hear a cross section of your message. And each listener will do something slightly different. Those in the middle understood your message, but as you get further away from the epicenter of the message, fringe understanding develops. Some will get stuck on a mispronunciation, or an unrelated person problem, or just didn’t understand a phrase you used. It will happen.
One solution to this problem may be asking ‘What did you hear?’ My rule of thumb is that 80% should respond with the right thing, 10% think I have no idea what I’m talking about because they are smarter and do something way better than I could imagine, and 10% will ignore me because they are so far behind.
As a tech leader, you need to master collaborating with others too. In your role, this will likely mean delegating actions to others. The crucial thing to remember here is: be clear about your expectations but also understand their expectations. Failing to do this will exacerbate the issues caused by misunderstanding. If you aren’t clear, it is easy for others to fill in the expectations, and they will. It will take a simple request and sometimes blow it out of proportion. “The bear is sticky with honey”, may be profound or simply that the bottle of honey is sticky with the honey.
As for assigning my tasks to others on my team, I delegate anything I think can be done at least 70% as well as I can do it. That may seem like a low number, and it is. Don’t forget that your time is more valuable than doing things perfectly. If a task can be delegated and get done at an acceptable level, do it. And an acceptable level is way less than you want it to be. If it isn’t a risk to delegate something for you then you aren’t delegating enough things. Yes, you do need to focus on the larger picture, but also if you don’t delegate it, how will they get be able to do it 80% or 90% as good? How will they grow to tackle these things?
As a scenario:
Your PM, CEO, whatever, decided you’ll pivot today, instead of X (etc…) you are going after Y.
The first thing that comes to mind is This will impact my team. Here are some things that you should think when it comes to communication and collaborating with others about this change:
These are questions about how your team works and what works best for them. Think about it. Something that makes sense for the company may not always make sense for your current team.
Make sure your team is prepared to deal with new directions are soon as possible but is also prepared to buckle down and invest more time in fixing the current situation.
The single most important thing here is: now that you are recognized as a leader, you are always on stage. With everything you do and say, it impacts the company in many ways. When you are answering questions about the company or yourself, others can interpret that as “the company thinks X”. That is an extremely powerful message you are in charge of, but also can be dangerous. Your thoughts can be turned into real successes or innovation, or cause a downward spiral.
Don’t forget that once you’re a leader, some will listen to you just because of your role, others won’t for the same reason. You’ll want to be prepared for both. Your messages will need to be tempered to handle sending the right message to the right audience. Think “What will my engineers hear when I say this and what will be executive team think when I say this?”, “Is that the same message?”, “Is that okay?”.
Everyone asks for books, so I’ve included my favorites here.
How to be a great leader:
How to think about technology as a company grows, it is less about technology and more about how solutions work together: