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Could Rules for Managing Tech Workers Translate to Your Industry?

By Adrienne Burke | Small Business

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Even if you don’t consider your business a tech company, there’s a lot you can learn from the most successful tech cultures. Competition for talent in the industry is fierce, and businesses that create the best work environments succeed in winning and keeping great hires.

Through extensive interviews and surveys with managers and their employees, a recent study aimed to uncover the most common cultural challenges those companies face. To identify challenges that are unique to tech, the training and consulting company VitalSmarts surveyed 827 people at companies whose primary purpose is to create technology and 2,800 people from other industries. Their report, Managing Tech Teams: Four Unique Rules to Success, was released this month.

Aabaco Small Business spoke with VitalSmarts VP of Research David Maxfield about the top four culture challenges tech managers need to master in order to effect change in their organizations. Maxfield, who has 30 years’ experience conducting social science research to help corporations improve performance, says the survey found 4 patterns that were common among tech companies, unique to tech companies, and had a big impact on their performance. In a nutshell, companies that perform best:

  • Are seen by their employees and potential hires to be at the cutting edge of tech;
  • Enable their employees to achieve a sense of accomplishment in spite of relentless pressure to perform and deliver;
  • Provide their workforce more clarity and less ambiguity about their work;
  • Deal with the fact that the tech industry is a network where people cross paths often in their careers.

Aabaco Small Business: What makes a tech company cool enough to attract and keep a talented tech worker?

David Maxfield: Tech employees are drawn to elite companies and path-breaking projects and to the elite jobs within those companies. What makes them cool is not ping-pong or free snacks, but that they are advancing the edge of the profession or that you’re able to contribute to some new piece of tech that others are excited about.

A different way a job can be naturally cool is that the work answers a critical question for the company. For instance, when Facebook decided it had to be mobile, then creating mobile apps became the cool job within Facebook, because it was essential for the survival of the company. People want to be involved in cool companies and work on cool stuff that contributes to the success of the company or to society.

Even when a company itself doesn’t do that, some managers can [use that knowledge to] motivate and inspire their people. We’re working with a leader managing data centers who was able to convince his team that, within his company, these data centers were doing something at a scope and a scale that none had ever done. They were at a unique tipping point. People want to be part of the future.

Aabaco Small Business: Instead of alleviating the relentless pressure on tech workers, your study found that companies that make it bearable do best?

Maxfield: Tech employees 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. We tend to work our guts out thinking there will be a valley before next mountain, but often in tech there’s not. When you go home, you’re going to be physically and mentally exhausted. But are you emotionally exhilarated by what you worked on or do you work your tail off and go home feeling like you didn’t accomplish a thing?

People need to be able to see their accomplishments and not constantly be yanked from one project to another. It’s a huge leadership issue. Leaders are different in their ability to keep people working at peak performance while feeling like they’re accomplishing something. You get burnout otherwise. It’s around emotional exhaustion that people feel cynical and that their work is fruitless.

Aabaco Small Business: How do you recommend business leaders eradicate ambiguity for workers?

Maxfield: Tech employees must navigate unclear and overlapping accountabilities that are constantly shifting and create confusion, misalignment, and competition. Part of that is the nature of the rapid change in tech. We’re embarking on projects where we don’t know what they’ll look like when they’re done. Many times leaders will put competing and overlapping projects in place on purpose because they don’t know which group will succeed.

Groups that can check in a level or two above themselves for clarity do better. You don’t want clarity to appear at higher levels and work groups not know about it for months. The more often your people can check in, the better relationship you can have with those people and drive out ambiguity.

Aabaco: And what about the tech network you mentioned? Your report suggests that the attitude in the industry is, “Always assume a guy on your team today will be your boss in another company tomorrow.”

Maxfield: We say it’s deja vu all over again. People who are peers today become managers, peers, or direct reports in another company tomorrow. This results in a kind of collusion where people avoid tough conversations that might be crucial to project success for fear of creating bad blood with a future boss or colleague.

In Silicon Valley, tech workers can be recruited for their next job at the sideline of their kids’ soccer game. It’s a big network, and it especially comes into play the more specialized you are within tech firms. As the number of specialists diminishes, you may know half the people in that community. Leaders who master the challenge presented by this question can boost their team’s performance: “To what extent does the desire to maintain positive relationships (knowing that you’re likely to work with each other again in another company or in another role) prevent your department from being as successful as it would otherwise be?”

Aabaco: What is the takeaway of your research for small business owners?

Maxfield: If you work in tech, these issues are not optional for you. They’re part of the landscape. You’ve got to figure out your own solution whether you’re a leader or an employee. But if you’re not in tech, look out. As every company becomes a tech company, these four issues become more prevalent and important to deal with and master.

Read VitalSmarts’ Manage Tech Teams report here.

Image: WOCinTech via flickr

Follow Adrienne Jane Burke at @adajane
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