Leadership as a concept, a bit like tech, has evolved drastically over the last 100 years. Where previously the role of a ‘boss’ took on almost military-like connotations of orders given and followed (often referred to as ‘Autocratic’ leadership), the practice of leading has grown far more nuanced than this over the years.
You may have heard or read about the idea of ‘Servant Leadership’ where a manager’s main goal is to support their employees to be their best selves – and it is the employees’ commitment and engagement that drives the organisation forward. Or, perhaps you’ve come across the ‘Coaching Leadership’ style, where a manager fosters and supports their people to realise their talent by supporting them through a personal development journey driven by the individual.
With technology, these leadership styles all exist in the industry, but we also demand a number of other skills specific to the field. In this article we’ll look at some of these traits, which we know our clients are looking for in the next wave of tech leaders.
The ability to motivate and inspire people
A good leader in technology shouldn’t just give directions. Their communication, manner and guidance should all have a positive impact on the team around them. This doesn’t mean regurgitating the company’s values or purpose statement, but is a broader practice of consistently reinforcing the meaningful work being done and the great potential that lies ahead of the team.
The motivating tech leader will make sure to motivate the team as a collective, as well as drill down into each individual’s personal motivators to get the most out of them. Some team members may be motivated by the importance of the work such as social good. Others may be driven by financial incentives. These motivators can all co-exist with careful leadership.
Inspiring others goes a step further – it’s not just about encouraging hard work, but showing employees that they’ve got the freedom and ability to solve challenges, try new things and develop their careers. An inspiring tech leader will advocate for their people, and help show staff their potential.
An understanding of the technology itself
In some industries, a great leader doesn’t necessarily need to have the hard, technical knowledge; with delegation and people skills enough to drive results.
In the IT world, many of the challenges faced by teams are technical in nature. Leaders, while not necessarily having to be an expert, do need to understand the platform or discipline well in order to provide guidance for their team. In many cases a leader will have formerly worked in a technical role and can draw upon this experience, combined with good mentoring to help a team perform better. Some tech leaders have a ‘T’ model of knowledge – expert in one programming language or discipline such as Front End Design, with a broader understanding of other areas such infrastructure, web services and data management.
The leader will be an escalation point when things don’t go as planned – for this reason alone, it’s important that they have knowledge about the area their team is responsible for. This will allow better negotiation, and more ways of finding solutions.
Adaptable to big changes
Does any industry change quite as fast as technology? It’s hard to find a field that evolves almost daily. Changes to software, languages, laws, protocols, best practices… the list really goes on. Change doesn’t just come out of industry advancements, however, with digital transformation and changing project requirements two big factors that all tech teams have to deal with.
The tech leader needs to be able to adapt their own direction and their team. This is why motivation and inspiration are key – if a team suddenly needs to pivot away from one approach to another, there’s a risk the team can be left feeling dispirited. It’s the tech leader’s job to reinforce the good work the team is doing and coach them through big changes, be it project scope, services or technologies. The leader needs to try and lessen the impact of changes on their team’s workloads and happiness at work, ensuring they still feel stable through turbulence.
Change is scary for many, so a leader needs to outwardly display a willingness and even enthusiasm about adapting to change – lead by example and celebrate the positive aspects of a constantly-evolving industry.
Resilience in the face of adversity
Adversity comes in many forms – change being one. Other common adversity a team faces includes client relationships, internal company pressure, project overages, lost work, mistakes made by the team, large workloads and restructures.
As a tech leader, others will look to your character as an indication of how to navigate through adversity themselves. Panic, frustration or hostility in a leader can permeate rapidly through a team causing heightened levels of anxiety. Instead, the leader needs to be the calming, stable voice of reason, offering perspective to the wider team during difficult periods. This isn’t to say leaders should downplay situations, but rather guide the team through them.
Adversity in work can stick around for a while, wearing down a team without the right measures in place. As a leader, you’ll need to take care of your own health and wellbeing outside of work in order to remain resilient through the other side of challenges. Expect to support at least some of your team during these patches with matters beyond simply the task at hand – mental and physical wellbeing being just a few examples.
A ‘future’ mindset
With all this talk about change, it makes sense that a forward-facing view on things would be useful. While tech leaders don’t necessarily have to become ‘futurists’, they do need to keep an eye on where their discipline is going and how this might affect the business or its clients. A leader will stay on top of industry and technological changes and ensure their team is across these as needed.
Imagine a scenario in which software critical to a client was reaching its end of life (EOL) per the vendor. An entire business’ operation can be at risk due to things like this happening. While a business and its vendors will often have agreements around supporting this scenario, the tech leader should stay on top of big changes, even if just to reassure clients or their business.
It’s not just risk mitigation that makes forward-thinking important, it’s opportunity as well. As new technologies are developed, a leader can bring these to a business and help inform planning. Is there market disruption on the table? Can we get ahead of the competition by adopting new technology first? Remember, ‘leadership’ is more than leading people, it’s leading conversations, too.
Whether you’re a CTO, Lead or Project Manager, organisational skills are essential. Being organised doesn’t just mean managing the team’s workflow through disciplines like Agile, but organising your work day, week and month as well. Supporting the team, navigating challenges, staying on top of industry changes…that’s all time consuming work. You should also expect to be meeting with more than just your own team regularly – your peers and those you report to (even a CEO will report to a board in many cases). Planning out as much of your work as possible is the best way to avoid something falling through the cracks.
A leader’s organisation skills will trickle down into their team’s own time management skills – you’ll be looked to when someone needs help improving their efficiency. What are your strategies for delivering work on time, managing expectations and balancing work/life? Make sure you have this mastered before becoming a leader to others.
Your role as a leader is to support others. That’s not possible without a range of soft skills that you’re constantly improving upon. Often, the difference between a good and great tech leader is in the soft skills. Think about your current abilities in:
Empathy – How well do you relate to others’ challenges? Can you connect and support someone when they’re going through a hard patch? Do you understand others’ perspectives easily?
Listening – Leading is as much about how good we are at not talking as we are at giving direction. Are you an active, engaged listener?
Conflict Resolution – Are you good at resolving disputes, either personally with another person, or as a mediator? Disagreements are normal at work, how they’re dealt with makes all the difference.
Patience – Will you be happy to go at a slower pace for someone still learning? Can you remain calm when someone’s approach or attitude isn’t quite aligned with yours?
Collaboration – Can you facilitate a group of people, all with different viewpoints, to collaborate on a piece of work with great outcomes?
These are just a handful of dozens of soft skills. Honing and building these into your arsenal will make you a more effective, respected leader.
The learning never stops
You might find yourself teaching others a lot as a leader. But the only way to stay current and effective is to become a lifelong student yourself. A good tech leader will sharpen their tools technically, as a manager, as a negotiator and a host of other ways. Expect to do lots of reading and listening to podcasts as part of your ongoing education!
You might wish to enlist the help of a mentor outside the organisation you work in. Or perhaps there’s someone inside the business that you can get coaching from. Having a variety of education sources will keep you sharp and engaged in your own personal development journey.
Finally, remember that one of the strongest traits a good leader has is wisdom. This is only gained through experience. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be a perfect leader at the start of your career in management. You will find as you encounter new problems and solve them, your leadership toolbelt will grow. Our personal experiences will be readily applied to future challenges that present in similar ways, helping your business and your team navigate through the adventures of working in the tech industry.
Are you the next successful leader in IT?
If you’re looking for a leadership position, or indeed a new leader to join your business in the IT industry, then chat to our team about opportunities in the New Zealand market. We consistently have new jobs available, and keep close relationships with our employer clients about their needs.