Some of the most successful CTO’s I’ve ever worked with come from non-technical backgrounds. At a time when technologists and businesses seem to worship technology, it’s important to take a step back and question if that’s really where technology leaders should be focusing their time and energy.
I strongly believe that the future of technology leadership is much more about leadership, not so much about technology. The reality is that the people who know the most about technology are the ones out there doing things — they are the developers and the engineers on the ground. Leadership, fundamentally, is a different skill set and is one that’s too often overlooked when it should be the centre of attention.
You can see this trend across any number of industries. Specialisation is such an important part of the economy that it’s not really possible for the person in charge to also know the most about every individual thing. The moment you step away from the coalface your ability to understand the latest trends and contribute on a technical level starts to depreciate. Nowhere is this more true than in the rapid-pace world of technology.
The phrase “T-shaped” skills go back to the ‘90s and describe deep specialisation partnered with enough broader knowledge to effectively collaborate with experts in other fields. The shift we need to make is to start thinking about leadership as a specialisation in and of itself.
At 101 Ways, we help business and technology leaders improve their outcomes, in part, by becoming better leaders. Here, we’re going to explore these trends in greater detail, look at the strategies we’ve seen work and provide practical advice that you can use to improve your leadership skills today. Let’s get started!
Suggested reading: If you want to learn more about how to pair leadership with a data-driven mindset, check out our new whitepaper — How to Become a More Data-Driven Organisation.
What businesses want versus what businesses need
There are a lot of companies out there that want everything from a leader. They want someone who is an amazing technologist and can code every language under the sun — all while inspiring teams and being a natural leader.
Whether or not you know how to code Python or R is a yes or no question. Whether or not you can inspire those around you and effectively lead a board-level technology agenda is harder to pin down. It’s like how technical specifications are so often the focus of technology procurement when the bigger picture questions about how a new investment will actually impact your operation are so much more important. In both cases, you need to take a step back — and this plays out in the numbers.
According to research by McKinsey, the top-quartile core IT organisation have CIOs who are more involved in shaping business strategy and have technology leaders who are able to think strategically.
These survey figures are a little old, but the message here has only grown. CXOs in leading companies are almost twice as likely to consider their tech leaders to be “visionaries and partners” than baseline organisations, according to Deloitte’s 2020 Global Technology Leadership Study, which also placed leadership as a core technology soft skill while highlighting the growth of non-traditional tech soft skills.
Interestingly, of the 1,311 survey participants in that Deloitte study, 40% were actually “business leaders” — CEOs, CFOs, COOs, etc — demonstrating the evolving nature of what a “technology leader” even is.
Building respect defined by differences
The belief that technology leadership is about being the “best technologist in the room” is also related to the priorities of developers, data scientists, and engineers themselves. Specialists tend to respect specialisation — specifically, their own specialisation. If you can’t show them up at their own game, how are you ever going to convince them to follow you?
A lot of technology leaders, both those with and without technology backgrounds share this fear. Realistically, it’s a challenge that every technology leader needs to answer. Whether or not you try to be the best technologist in the room, you’re not gonna be able to do it — you’ve just got too many other things to do. So, what’s the answer? There are two main parts to this question:
- They can’t do your job either: Highlight the skills you have that the people working for you don’t. You might not be as good of a coder, you might not be able to code at all — but your engineers wouldn’t know how to even start to secure the funding they need for their new project, and wouldn’t want to figure it out anyway. What’s more, they don’t even know the challenges that the business really needs to solve.
- Be comfortable not knowing all the answers: Embrace your vulnerability and use it as an opportunity to champion individuals in your team. Take their advice seriously, trust their technical expertise, and then use your skills to help them focus on their jobs and provide them with the resources they need to get the job done.
Fundamentally, commanding respect is about showing your curiosity and demonstrating your ability to create outcomes that matter to others. Do that and you will win respect, whether or not you know how to code. It’s really that simple.
How to be a better leader today
The future of technology leadership starts with a handful of small and large things that you can do to improve how your teams operate and your relationship with the wider business. What this specifically looks like will depend on a number of factors, chief among them is likely the size of your organisation.
Running a team of ten is very different from running a team of 100. Eventually, you become a manager of managers, and making this transition is a significant challenge for any CTO or CIO that has grown with a company. However, a lot of the fundamentals remain the same. Here are five points that should shape your thinking when it comes to the technology leader you want to become:
- Focus on the business: Your overall success will depend on your ability to use technology to drive business outcomes. That means having a seat on the board, participating in business-level strategy, and communicating with individuals from across your organisation. You then need to bring those insights to your technology teams and keep them focused on the right challenges and solutions.
- Find and foster great talent: You can’t be the best technical expert at everything, but you need technical experts for each of those critical tasks. It’s your job to find the right people, provide them the support and inspiration they need to do their best, and then trust them to get the job done.
- Translate technology: You are the conduit between technology and the business, and it’s your responsibility to explain the value of technology to other business leaders who might not be thinking about it at all. This is really the flip-side of being “focused on the business”, and is a critical role for technology leaders today and in the future.
- Be purposeful about culture: People work best together when they have a personal connection. Making that a reality is really as simple as talking about what you did on the weekend, and remembering to ask what Dave’s kids are up to, etc. However, particularly in the context of remote working, maintaining these connections is easier said than done. It’s more important than ever to make time for those conversations and build relationships. As a leader, you need to model the behaviour that will keep your entire team working together effectively. Building these relationships yourself will also help you maintain the respect you need to lead.
- Embrace strategic change: Technology is always changing, and so is business. You need to maintain a flexible mindset and adapt when needed. This really comes back to finding the right people and listening to them. Again, you won’t be able to stay on top of all of the trends, but you can speak with people who are and then put their advice in the context of what your business actually needs. From there, it’s about thinking strategically and identifying change that can deliver outcomes that really matter.
When taken together, the result is a holistic approach to leadership that will allow you to make better connections with your teams and across the wider business. Ultimately, this is what technology leadership is about, and it’s something that you can start today.
It’s about taking connections and leadership seriously
Every Friday, our CEO at 101 Ways, Zane Gambasin, sends out a company update on Slack about the week, and people are encouraged to jump in and start a thread. It provides useful information, but it’s a task that could have easily been delegated. The point is that it’s not really about the company update, it’s about a message from the CEO.
This type of connection is both purposeful and personal, but its power should not be underestimated. Little things like this foster a connection with leadership, creating a sense of community that’s hard to quantify — helping the entire organisation work together. Getting this right and effectively inspiring people is what you need to do as a leader, and that really has very little to do with technology.
The thing to remember is that coding and development aren’t actually your job as a technology leader. Your job is to drive strategic and business-level alignment with technology, represent your teams in the boardroom, and inspire those around you to deliver their best. You need to cement technology as a leading capability within your organisation, find and nurture the right people, and then trust them to get the job done.
If you want to learn more about leadership or get help refining a strategy that’s actually built for you and your organisation, get in touch — there are 101 Ways to do things, and we are here to help you get it done right.