Lessons Learned from Top Tech Leaders
Despite the significant challenges faced by many industries, 2020 was a very strong year for the tech sector. As employees quickly shifted to work-at-home and consumers accelerated their e-commerce purchasing, technology became the connective glue that allowed people to engage and continue with a minimum level of normalcy despite quarantine and social distancing. Some observers believe that the pandemic accelerated technology adoption by at least five years. 2021 has not slowed down the pace at which technology firms are growing as the Q2 earnings reports demonstrated with Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), and Facebook reporting an increase in their collective revenues by 36%, to $332 billion.
At Summit, we have had the opportunity to partner with many successful fast growing technology firms. In May, we hosted a panel discussion with several of our clients and had an engaging dialogue as they shared their experiences about the leadership skills they find most valuable to propel their success (watch webinar). Across our work with tech clients, we have observed a set of leadership skills that seem to stand out in terms of success in that industry. While many would argue that the leadership capabilities required to be successful are consistent across industries, our experience working with clients in the tech sector has shown us that specific ones tend to surface more consistently and have a disproportionate impact on leadership performance in this industry. These skills include:
- Cross-functional collaboration
- Network building
Cross-functional Collaboration: While collaboration is essential in any organization, it is particularly critical in the tech sector given the nature of how much of software development occurs today. The shift from the more traditional waterfall model of software development to agile, with its use of journey teams or pods, requires significant cross-functional collaboration. Rather than teams working in siloes and taking a linear approach to development, software development today relies on teams of product managers, engineers, designers, among others, collaborating in short sprints that accelerate the development process. This approach relies far less on top-down direction and rather, empowers small and agile teams to innovate more quickly leveraging the collective expertise of the team. Successful teams have learned to set aside personal biases and agendas to accelerate progress and fuel innovation.
Adaptability: The tech industry is notorious for the speed at which it evolves and changes. To thrive in this environment, leaders must absorb the lessons they learn from experience and apply them quickly to new, and sometimes, unfamiliar situations. To innovate requires testing and iterating novel approaches and the ability to quickly extract the right learnings from those opportunities and apply them moving forward is key to success. Leaders must also constantly keep an eye to the future, scanning the external landscape for the next disruptive technology that might put it at a competitive disadvantage. Learning to take an outside in view of what customers require allows tech leaders to identify new requirements and pivot quickly to ensure they don’t fall behind, or even worse, get disrupted.
Unlearning: While learning is key to being adaptable, being able to unlearn is equally as important in a fast-changing environment. The introduction of new technologies requires that leaders challenge their previous knowledge and current assumptions and incorporate new thinking on a regular basis. Effective change leaders understand the value of unlearning. They recognize that challenging the status quo and driving continuous improvement or innovation requires old mindsets to be dropped and new ones to be developed. While most of us are very familiar with how to learn, unlearning old approaches or habits is a skill that requires awareness and focus, in addition to effort. It requires the creation of new habits and the letting go of old ones. In our recent webinar, Nishant Patel, Founder of Contentstack, said “I had to go through a process of unlearning and understanding. We are constantly trying to get agile and increase our velocity of releases, so I had to unlearn what I had learned to try new things in our new world.”
Network Building: Technology companies are well known for exchanging talent amongst themselves relatively fluidly. Even with the tech sector expanding well beyond Silicon Valley to places such as Austin and the Raleigh-Durham metro area, the industry’s ecosystem is relatively small. Retaining talent is one of the biggest, and most costly, challenges tech firms encounter. The tech industry has a higher turnover rate than other industries at 13%, with companies like Google and Amazon having a reported median tenure of just one year. Attracting the best talent often relies on a leader’s personal and extended network. By developing and maintaining strong relationships as someone progresses through their career, they are more likely to be able to call on that network when identifying talent to recruit. In perhaps the most competitive talent market in the world, personal relationships can be the difference maker in terms of putting together the strongest teams.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, once quipped, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat.” The tech sector will continue to be a rocket ship, fueled by leaders driven to innovate the technology that impacts every aspect of our lives. While many leadership capabilities are not industry specific, four skills: cross-functional collaboration, adaptability, unlearning, and network building are differentiators in the highly competitive, and fast moving, tech sector.