Monkey Puzzle Blog

Illustration on managing technical and innovative teams

Tech leader challenges - managing technical and innovative teams

For a sector so dependent on the productivity and engagement of its people, the tech sector has always been at the centre of a paradox - technical people aren’t known for being natural people managers. As a tech leader that puts you at disadvantage, especially when there’s a huge amount resting on getting the best from your people.

Your people are your innovators and they need to be resilient to the challenges faced by the fast-paced and constantly changing tech world. So, your number one challenge is how to help your people to be engaged, productive and able to manage and inspire others.

As organisational psychologists, coaches and writers of the best selling book ‘Real Leaders for the Real World’, we’ve helped many tech leaders master communication skills and manage through some of the leadership scenarios you might recognise in this article.


Making remote collaboration and extended teams work

Let’s start with the obvious challenge. Because of Covid-19, many companies have had to move to remote collaboration, and fast. What started well for many and is now commonplace, isn’t always a friend to innovation. Microsoft boss Satya Nadella - who has developed ‘Teams' for video calls no less - recently complained about remote working, feeling that the really inspired, creative work happens not on video calls but in casual conversations before and after meetings - like it used to be.

Onboarding new technologies and processes requires a learning curve - we’ve all noticed that. However, tech businesses need to use it so it doesn’t hinder productivity and prevents from employees becoming demotivated. That the boss of Microsoft is bemoaning remote working tells us that we need to find a way to facilitate the random encounters that innovation needs.

We have run workshops where this is a key observation of our clients as well. They really miss those coffee machine conversations, as they walk between meetings and feel that scheduling a call immediately changes the ‘casual’ nature of the interaction. We’ve addressed solutions to help creativity whole remote working in our recent blog ‘Advice for leaders: Creating an engaged and productive culture in the future home based organisation’.

On the positive side, embracing remote working will help the sourcing, hiring and retention of talent - always a challenge to the tech sector - especially for those employers who, until now, have limited their search to local talent pools. However, employees will also realise they are now in a stronger position to work anywhere, due to the opportunities remote working has opened up. The challenge for leaders is to retain good people who could, in theory, work for anyone.


Technical people aren’t people managers

Tech businesses need engaged talent and collaborative teams to encourage innovation - but technical people are not always naturally strong in people management or communication skills. So, while projects can be absorbing and all encompassing, the day to day business of team leadership, let alone actually focusing people on their future career development, fails to get the attention it needs.

Often, good people are left wondering how they’ll progress to where they want to be - so they find the solution elsewhere. The challenge for tech leaders is how to develop team leadership and engagement skills in their technical people that will enable them to build and retain high performing teams.

We are working with some tech clients on a group basis, helping them get together and learn together and manage their organisational and people issues. This involves helping them to improve their communication and team dynamics, understanding the benefits of spending time on people issues and also doing personal development work individually to help them adapt to their non technical leadership roles. It also helps when the organisation makes focusing on people a key requirement of senior leaders and those that want to be promoted to that space.


Coping with intense workloads / risk of burnout

The tech sector is known for its tight timelines and short project cycles - both of which put intense pressure on employees. Often a ‘presenteeism culture’ emerges where people feel they can never really switch off, which in turn leads to disengagement, burnout and turnover - not to mention the pressure on relationships outside of work.

The challenge is how to help teams cope with intense workloads and delivery expectations, without falling into unhealthy behaviours that impact on wellbeing and productivity. One way of addressing this is to focus on the outcome rather than activity and help leaders and teams really challenge the work that they are doing and how necessary it is for the outcome. Anyone can experience burnout, often without recognising the signs. If you are concerned about potential burnout - for yourself or a colleague, this recent blog will help. The denial phase of burnout that no-one talks about.


Are your people able to cope with rapid growth?

Rapid growth may also be a contributor to burnout. That’s because your people may have had limited experience within management and team leadership positions - and all of a sudden there are 50 people onboard. It’s understandable why they might lack the skills, experience and confidence to lead themselves and others. The danger comes when poor performance because of the pressure of growth, in turn, affects that growth.

What’s more, newly promoted team leaders, many of them having been there since start-up, can become anxious about having difficult conversations with team members who they also see as friends. The challenge is how to cope with expanding rapidly without diluting the culture that was attractive in the first place and preparing people to succeed in bigger roles.

One solution is to look at the organisational principles already proven to work - and to bring in some external support, experienced in working with tech leaders. We’ve often found that tech people try to find new solutions or new ways when perfectly acceptable basic structures ( that they may not even be aware of ) can really help.


Clinging onto routine tasks

Rapid growth also means it’s no longer viable for leaders to do many of the things they did in start-up days, which may not have been that long ago. As growth comes, tech leaders must ensure that strategic tasks are not buried under even busier daily routines.

One way to help meet this challenge is through the availability of others who can step up and share tasks or leadership. That’s why developing leaders at all level is so important. A lack of leadership capacity brings the risk of not delivering, leading to reputation damage and stifling growth opportunities.


Preserving your culture as you grow

Fast-growing tech companies often face the challenge of preserving the positives of their culture as they grow. Culture is generally formed early on by founding members and key management. These individuals work closely together, making it relatively easy to maintain company culture. But as the business adds new personalities (not to mention extra locations), it can be a real challenge to onboard and absorb all these new starters and preserve the company culture.

It may also be unrealistic to hold onto a ‘founders’ culture’ as a culture will change over time with the number of people and the teams that you put in place. Whether the culture remains as it was or develops and evolves, it has to be one that your people are happy to buy into and respect. The key here is to identify the cultural elements that worked at the start and remain important and make sure they are maintained. The ones that may have worked at the start but are no longer relevant need to be dropped or developed. This can happen if there is a focus on them and honest analysis of what no longer works.


How Monkey Puzzle can help leaders in tech


Leadership Development

We have adapted our Collaborative Leadership Programme to focus on the specific challenges leaders have managing technical teams. Tech leaders tend to also be more interested in the research and science behind their development, so the style is heavily evidence based. Group sessions centre around a facilitated discussion with coaching helping to dig into their unique leadership challenges. What’s more, we know people in tech don’t enjoy the role play scenarios so often found in training, so we guarantee ‘no role plays’.

Find out more about our Leadership Development programmes.


Coaching

We have been used extensively by tech companies for coaching because many of our coaching team have clinical training and so can help support employees with burnout, imposter syndrome, and social anxiety which are all common in the tech industry.

Monkey Puzzle works with an experienced network of inspirational associate coaches, highly qualified in a range of coaching interventions.

Find out more about our Coaching services.


Time Mastery

Tech workers usually have every app and gadget available but still, struggle to prioritise their time. In particular constant context switching, other peoples’ priorities, and communications coming at them from many channels makes working to their best rhythm challenging.

We have adapted our one-day Time Mastery programme to the particular issues faced by tech workers. This includes one to one coaching session to help them use the material from our book and programme to design a rhythm that suits them and their work.

Find out more about Time Mastery.


In conclusion

Tech people are first and foremost innovators and more likely to be absorbed in their work rather than interpersonal team relationships. They are also prone to the negative side effects of intense work and may not even be aware of the pressure they are putting themselves under. However, they also like to improve things - and that’s where the logic behind introducing ‘people processes’ will eventually be appreciated.

As a leader, if you can show them the reasons behind different ways of working and leadership interventions and why they are an improvement - leading to more productive outcomes - they are more likely to adopt and embrace it.


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