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Many of the most famous tech companies were founded by technical experts, such as Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg, who catapulted into leadership positions without any formal business training.
These non-traditional leaders are now responsible for companies at the forefront of modern industry, as well as enormous amounts of capital, both human and monetary. Alphabet has 85,000 employees and revenues of more than $111 billion, and Facebook has 33,000 employees and revenues of $40 billion.
Judging by the numbers, these leaders have not been stymied by their lack of business training. In fact, one study of 35,000 U.S. and U.K. employees discovered that the presence of technically skilled bosses was an “incredibly strong predictor of high job satisfaction,” and that companies recognized as the best places to work were “more likely to be led by core business experts.”
While success for experts-turned-leaders is possible, it is not effortless. “As an expert, you had the answers, or at least the resources and techniques to find them,” leadership coach Jenn Lofgren explained in Forbes. “As a leader, your role is now to support your team in finding the answers themselves.”
In addition to all-encompassing leadership skills, like strong communication and management, here are four keys for tech founders who want to excel as leaders.
Increase Self Awareness
Leadership institute Roffey Park places self-awareness at the core of all leadership skills. In a white paper, it stated: “Greater understanding of the way [leaders] function as individuals and the impact they have on others” engenders more effective relationships and better results.
To develop self-awareness during a transitory period, Lofgren suggests that leaders seek feedback from their reports and peers, and invite critiques with probes like, “Where do you see me voicing my opinion rather than asking questions?”
Roffey Park also recommends this type of constant external evaluation, saying: “What technical experts find particularly valuable is feedback on their behaviour and working styles. Being able to see themselves as others see them can be enlightening, transformational and profound.”
Pursue Diverse Talent
A vital component of self-awareness is the acknowledgment of imperfection. Transitioning tech experts must pinpoint where their weaknesses lie, then fill the gaps through strategic hiring. “As an engineer, I have never been a big people person,” Marcin Kleczynski, co-founder of Malwarebytes, told Forbes. “I focused on finding a co-founder who was good with people, so that their strengths complemented mine.”
The best leaders will emulate Kleczynski, hiring a diverse array of business and technical talent. “Innovation thrives when expert users make up about 40% of an invention team,” a group of researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Any less and the company will lose sight of what its customers need; any more and the group will tend to converge on old ideas.”
Another study agreed with this finding, saying: “Our empirical analyses show that companies that are equipped with both business and technical skills are disproportionately more likely to introduce new-to-the market innovations than firms that have only one.”
Learn to Tell Stories
The most effective communicators transcend precision and accuracy — they tell stories. Steve Jobs, one of the most famous tech expert-leaders, was recognized for this skill. In the early days of Apple, he positioned the company’s work as a battle of good versus evil. “The people at Apple saw themselves as not just making boxes or making money; they thought of themselves as changing the world,” wrote Robert Cringely in Accidental Empires.
That legacy has continued beyond Jobs, as Apple Store chief Angela Ahrendts explained to Forbes: “We have to tell authentic, emotive, and compelling stories because we’re building relationships with people and every great relationship has to be built on trust.”
Although it is challenging to tell compelling and accessible stories about technical topics, it is often essential for securing funding, hires, or news coverage. Therefore, when communicating with non-technical team members, stakeholders, and media outlets, Arif Harbott of Digital CIO urges leaders to “use the language of business” — terms like “ cheaper to build, easier to maintain, faster to change” — in lieu of technical jargon.
Develop a Strategic Vision
When Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his Harvard University dorm, he did not envision changing the way the world communicates. As the company has grown, and faced a tumultuous series of challenges, that need for an overarching vision has become painfully apparent.
In Leading Change, John Kotter called “Underestimating the Power of Vision” one of the greatest errors a leader can make. “Vision plays a key role in producing useful change by helping to direct, align, and inspire actions,” he wrote. Without an appropriate vision, Kotter said leaders risk heading in the “wrong direction or nowhere at all.”
To combat this, tech experts must allocate time and resources toward determining their company’s vision. As Digital CIO’s Harbott explained, “If your aspiration is not making your team feel nervous then you’re probably not aiming high enough.”
Both the academic and business worlds have shown that today’s technical experts are poised to make strong leaders. To do so, however, they must rely on more than their technical expertise. By developing self-awareness, pursuing crucial hires, telling stories, and creating ambitious visions for the future, they may well become the leaders we remember tomorrow.
January 30, 2019 at 09:17AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs