By JOSEPH GRENNY
In 2015, the New York Times published a damaging exposé on the culture of tech-giant Amazon. The Times reported that among many abuses, employees were encouraged to “Tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late… and [hold] standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high’.”
This unsavoury report left many grateful they hadn’t found themselves on the Amazon payroll.
And yet, interestingly, it also conflicted with other accounts of glorified workplace cultures in similar tech companies.
Just consider the privileged culture at Google, where employee happiness is a top priority and lavish perks include organic, chef-prepared free food, free health and dental, haircuts and dry cleaning, gyms, nap pods, and more.
Driven by data, transparency, recognition, and engagement, employees at Google are known to do their best work and do it with a smile.
While these exotic anecdotes about tech culture make for fun social commentary and are the source of either envy or gratitude for your own workplace, we wondered: “Are they real?”
And do they matter?
Specifically, we set out to uncover whether differences between the cultures of tech and non-tech companies are simply a matter of degree or of kind. And secondly, we wondered if the differences change the physics of management.
Whether you work at an Amazon or a Google, are there unique competencies required of managers to thrive in tech companies?
So, we asked those who would know best – senior and mid-level managers in tech. We then confirmed their feedback by surveying 2,800 employees.
What we found is that the differences people observe between the cultures of tech and non-tech companies are profound enough to require a unique set of leadership competencies.
Specifically, there are four unique challenges that substantially affect a tech organisation’s ability to execute and innovate:
1) It’s gotta be cool
Tech employees are drawn to elite companies and path-breaking projects.
If their current company isn’t seen as the “coolest”, on top of the latest technologies, or getting top press coverage, they move to companies that are.
2) Relentless pressure
Tech employees face relentless pressure. They work long days, during weekends and holidays, and the pace never slows.
They must meet demanding expectations and deliver on tight timelines and short project cycles.
3) Consistent ambiguity
Tech employees have to navigate unclear, overlapping, and shared accountabilities that are constantly shifting and can create confusion, misalignment, and competition.
4) Déjà vu all over again
Tech employees are one big network. People who are their peers today become managers, peers, or direct reports in another company tomorrow.
We also found that tech leaders’ skill at mastering these challenges is a powerful deciding factor of their teams’ overall performance.
However, while most tech leaders are familiar with these challenges, few tech companies offer training or coaching on how to solve them.
4 strategies to face key challenges
By combining our in-depth interviews with our 35 years of research into the best practices of influential leaders, we recommend the following management strategies tech leaders can use to address the four key challenges:
1) Connect to cool
To attract, engage and retain top talent, the most successful managers are deft at making the work of their teams “cool”.
They look beyond the trendy perks characteristic of the industry and focus on making tight connections between the work their people do and one or more of the following strategic areas:
- Strategic advantage. Connect to the organisation’s identifying character, secret sauce or competitive edge.
- Critical uncertainty. Link to a burning platform or urgent opportunity.
- Tech edge. Show how projects push the edge of the technological envelope.
- Careers. Show how the team or project will further a person’s career.
- Social values. Link the team or project to the positive impact it has on customers, society and the world.
2) Build rhythm and flow
The best tech managers actively build a predictable rhythm and flow of work to reduce the relentless pressure of the industry.
- Build rhythm. Engineer procrastination out of the workflow by asking employees to track and report daily progress, provide lifelines to help when pressure peaks and allow employees to utilise and define their downtime.
- Build flow. People’s engagement peaks when they work in a state of psychological flow. When managers provide challenging work, autonomy, feedback and an interruption-free environment, flow naturally follows.
3) Overcome ambiguity through dialogue
Keeping people on track despite overlapping assignments, unclear ownership and changing priorities is a constant challenge in tech.
The best tech leaders handle the problem of consistent ambiguity with dialogue.
They build norms that support those who discover and confront contradictions as soon as they occur – a strategy that minimises formal and informal divergence, inconsistencies, unrealistic deadlines and scope creep in plans and priorities.
4) Déjà vu accountability
Managers who overcome the problem of déjà vu know the tendency to prioritise positive relationships over accountability is a false choice.
These leaders create a culture where accountability doesn’t come at the price of current and future relationships. To do so, they employ the following strategies:
- Create safety. Managers approach accountability as an exploration of causes and solutions rather than blame and shame which bolsters trust and improves performance.
- Build skills. Managers provide training and practice for holding others accountable without undermining relationships. Unless and until people have the skills, they’ll bite their tongues and problems will persist.
- Step out of the middle. The best managers avoid using positional power. In this industry “code wins arguments.” Deference to authority should never win out over deference to expertise.
Bringing it together
The unique nature of the tech industry doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
Tech’s combination of high-velocity competition, complexity, global talent, interdependence among rivals, and dense geographic concentrations foster unique cultural idiosyncrasies as manifested by the cultures of Google and Amazon.
What can change and change quickly is a manager’s ability to manage the idiosyncratic challenges that come with the territory.
These recommendations will equip managers to excel in a world that outpaces even the best and brightest.