To keep pace in a rapidly shifting industry, technology companies need young and technical-minded employees who are eager to innovate. But are they the kind of staffers who make good managers, or are tech companies -- many of which are young themselves -- setting themselves up for leadership troubles?
That's a question asked by Robert Fulmer and Bryon Hanson -- academic director and managing director of Duke University's corporate education affiliate, respectively -- in an Aug. 23 Wall Street Journal article. Their conclusion? Tech companies that don't address the issue will eventually pay, both in company defections and in an inability to fill top spots.
One of the difficulties, argue Fulmer and Hanson, is in getting technology-oriented employees to trade off their hands-on involvement in day-to-day activities in favor of managing people. "To fix this," they write, "tech companies need to create a corporate culture in which leadership is rewarded and respected as much as technical expertise."
That's easier said than done. Tech companies naturally hire and reward people for their ability to build innovative products and services, not their track record in developing the skills of the staffers beneath them. When placed in a management position, employees that see themselves as technical gurus aren't likely to see helping their subordinates grow as a primary part of their job.
So what should companies do? Come up with ways to measure the leadership skills on display within the organization. "Measurement may be as simple as calculating the percentage of a manager's direct reports with completed performance reviews or succession plans," write Fulmer and Hanson. "Or it may include more sophisticated analysis of employee surveys aimed at comparing the environments created by various leaders in a firm."
As an example, the authors cite Intel, which keeps track of how often its managers talk with their team about developing their skills and moving their careers forward. Deb Whitaker, an executive leadership consultant at Intel, said that the potential for the conversations to pop up in a manager's job review helped them to see the light.
Just like other companies, tech organizations need formal leadership-development programs, say Fulmer and Hanson. But it can be difficult to gauge when to put one in place, since high-tech start-ups don't want to squash that early spirit of entrepreneurship. If they're too late getting around to it, though, key employees might get discouraged and head for the door.
On the plus side, tech professionals tend to be whip-smart and competitive, and they learn quickly -- even when the subject is leadership. For that reason, write Fulmer and Hanson, leadership programs should move fast, encourage competition and simulate real-world problems, and should never feel like "Leadership 101."The authors also recommend the use of peer coaching, a relationship that "places coaching at a collegial level rather than at a leader/subordinate level, which can be more easily accepted and respected in a technology-company culture."