Leading the technology function can be challenging for many CEO’s.  Yet, for other CEOs it comes more naturally.  Every CEO can learn how to become an effective leader of their technical teams by improving their leadership skills.  There are things that will make a difference when leading technical folks, either positive or negative.  In this four-part series I will cover those things that will help you lead the technical function in your company and avoid those things that undermine the effectiveness of your leadership.

When you think about the technology function in your company, how happy are you with it?  CEOs often feel they are spending too much on what they are getting.  Or they feel that the technical function is apathetic toward the success of the business, requesting more money to spend on technology that isn’t likely to make a difference.  Or they believe technology gets in the way of the success of the company.  Negative views like these are harmful if they dominate your leadership interactions with your technical team. 

When leading the technical function, lead optimistically, just as you would a sales or marketing team.  Understanding the technical team wins will give you fodder for an encouraging speech and will enable you to do what CEOs do best: Provide motivation and inspiration especially when it is needed. The challenge for CEOs is technical folks often fail to “toot” their horns when they have a win, unlike a salesperson who closes a large contract.  Or, when the technical team attempts to articulate their win, the narrative is not easily understood by others.  The communication gap can be daunting.  When it is difficult to understand the technical win, the next best alternative is to recognize the accomplishment simply in terms of a goal set and achieved. 

Recently, I was leading a technical team for a client.  Our objective was to improve the web speed of the product detail page.  The team believed that if they were able to load the product detail page faster it would result in a positive impact on conversion. 

When the project was done, the lead engineer explained all the technical improvements that were made on the page.  While these improvements were understood by the engineers, the CEO was not technical and did not understand them, or the level of effort and ingenuity that went into them.  The lead engineer also added that the team’s goals were to improve page conversion and page speed.  The lead engineer reported both goals were accomplished.  The CEO’s response to the email went like this: “While I don’t understand the technical explanation of all the stuff the team did, I do recognize a WIN when I see it.  Congratulations to the team on accomplishing their goal!” 

The honest and positive response from the CEO landed on the team like a magic spell.  It energized and motivated the team to go after their next win! 

Not everything is going to be good and there are times when the CEO will need to make corrections the technical team needs to hear.  Doing this the right way will lead to positive outcomes and improvements.  Doing it the wrong way will lead to discouragement and poor morale.  So, what is the right way and what is the wrong way?

The biggest mistake I’ve seen CEOs make is critical statements like, “the team doesn’t care about driving revenue” or “the team is always negative when I ask for something.”  Or “they only tell me why it can’t be done” and “why can’t they find a way to get something done like all my other departments?”

If this resonates with you, you are not alone!  However, criticism is rarely an effective leadership skill.  What is effective?  Restate the criticism as a constructive complaint.  Be specific about the complaint.  For example, “Hey Eran, I needed your help with this problem.  What I got back was all the reasons why it can’t be done.  What I need to hear is a solution.  Can you give this more thought and come back to me with potential solutions by Friday?”

In this way, you can frame a criticism, “You always say no, it can’t be done” to a specific complaint, “I needed a solution for this problem, and I didn’t get it.”  Effective communication is at the root of good technical leadership.  Be sure to express your concerns in the context of a complaint (single situation) and not a criticism (generalization of the complaint to all situations).

What potential does a technical team have?

Seeing the potential of a team enables a CEO to lead that team toward solving business problems and to having a meaningful impact on the success of the business.  Some CEOs don’t see this potential. Instead, they see the technical team as a service department performing a “request – response” function within the company.  This is called “service orientation” or “order-taking” and it is well beneath the potential of most every technical team.

When technical teams fall into an unhealthy “order-taking orientation”, the focus for the technical team is on completing a specific request for their requestor by a date and not on the business outcome.  When the date is missed, the team is seen poorly. When the date is made, but the implementation is rushed, the desired business outcome is not achieved due to poor implementation.  Finger pointing and blame often result, further harming the team’s effectiveness.

Engineers are smart.  They have high IQs!  They are trained as problem solvers.  Seeing the technical team as a team that can positively improve business outcomes opens the door to their achieving that potential.  Use this view of their potential to raise expectations to become business problem solvers. 

You are likely to uncover weakness in confidence as the team shifts from “order-taking” to problem solvers, but that’s normal and something you are expert at fixing.  Build their confidence and watch them take off toward their potential.

Young adults that go into engineering are also hard workers.  If you see your engineering team as apathetic, disconnected and not loyal to the company, it is a misperception.  Engineers are typically extremely hard working and loyal.  They will work around the clock on things they find interesting and valuable.  If they are coming to work late, first find out if they are working late.  Chances are, they were up all night trying to solve a problem, but rarely will they talk about it.  This does not mean lazy engineers do not exist.  Experience has shown this is usually not the rule, but the exception.  Viewing your team as hard-working, dedicated members of the company who are inherently problem solvers and who will work around the clock until a problem is resolved will help them achieve that potential. 

Conversely, if you see them as poor engineers because they miss their delivery date estimate, or because they always have bugs, or because they cost too much and do not add enough business value then you are missing their potential.  When you see potential, you have opportunities to leverage it.  Therefore, try to see your technical team as some of the brightest minds in the company with potential to solve some of the hardest problems the company faces.  Doing this will change your outcomes significantly.

Improving your view of the team, seeing them in a positive light, learning how to recognize their wins and recognizing them as exceptionally bright and dedicated problem solvers is a good foundation for leading the technical function.  However, this positive, optimistic leadership is not all that you need.  You will also need to know how to express your desires for them in language that will make sense to them and motivate them to find solutions that will drive business value.  I will discuss how to accomplish this in part 2 of this series