A technology leader is anyone that defines and executes the vision and technology goals for one or more individuals, teams, or divisions within a organization.Rob Kennedy
The definition above is a high-level look at what a technology leadership role does within an organization, but the role is much richer and more complex than the definition would initially reveal.
In this series of Technology Leadership articles, we’ll go over the many activities, roles, and expectations one should expect in a technology leadership role.
The series will provide an overview of what duties one should be able to perform as well as a few methods and suggestions for navigating the roll effectively and successfully.
I don’t claim to be an expert but I do have plenty of real-world experience and I plan on revealing those experiences in this series with stories of what did or did-not work in my career.
Top 5 Skills for a Technology Leader
There’s a few key traits that I believe are necessary to be truly successful as a technology leader. You don’t need to be an expert or excel at all of them, but you should strive to improve yourself with each. I’ll cover some of these in more depth in future articles within the series, but here are a few I think are worth mentioning:
- Always learning.
- Excellent communication in speech and writing.
- Excels at listening and comprehending.
- Able to simplify complex subjects or goals and convey them in a clear and concise manor.
- Empathetic toward your peers and subordinates.
A Technology Leader is Always Learning
Technology Leaders need to know a lot. Not only just about the technology that your team and organization are using, but also trends in your industry.
I cannot stress this point enough. Always keep learning. You’re only as useful as the information you know. It’s important to stay current and relevant with the latest technologies and trends. If you get good at this you can even forecast and potentially lead the technology trends within your industry.
It’s also important to “cross-pollinate” your experience and learning across different industries. Sometimes the best innovations can come from combining knowledge from one unrelated industry into your own.
Take at least 30-90 minutes out of your morning each day to read and learn.
Some tips on where to source your knowledge:
Excellent at Communication and Writing
Not everyone is cut out to be a great orator, however you will speak not only to your team but to your peers and upper management. Depending on your leadership level, you may be even expected to communicate directly with the CEO of your company.
Technology leaders are able to communicate clearly and concisely with their peers through excellent writing and speaking skills.
Furthermore, technology leaders communicate in person with the public.
Some are gifted with the ability to memorize and orate a speech flawlessly and have a vibrant and enthusiastic presence that engages a crowd. They can seemingly speak to hundreds without a bead of sweat or disfluencies like “um” or “uh”… then there’s the rest of us.
The technical term is Glossophobia, or speech anxiety, and 75% of us suffer from it. So it’s important to know you are not alone, however, it’s also important to note that you will need to improve these skills over time.
Some tips to help you with public speaking:
- Stay organized, keep your talk simple and time-boxed. Create an outline or script to work with.
- Practice your speech. Not just sitting, but walking around talking aloud. Act as if you’re presenting. Set the environment similar to one you believe you’ll be in.
- The best speeches are where the audience feels engaged. So make eye contact with individuals. Ask them questions, and include the audience in your talk.
- Take a breath. Pause. Keep your speech cadence to a normal conversational speed. If you miss a step, collect and regroup.
Take deep breaths. Doing so slows the heart and can help reduce any anxiety you may feel.
- Rid yourself of note cards and giant PowerPoint slides.
- Eliminate disfluencies like “um” and “uh”… This can be done through experience in friendly environments like a Toast Masters club.
The important part here is you likely are not an expert communicator and like anything in life, the only way you’ll improve is through practice and experience.
Listening and Comprehension
People feel respected when they feel heard. It’s important to foster an environment that allows your team to communicate with you openly and truthfully. To do that, you need to be able to listen and comprehend what is being told to you.
Again, some are naturally better and listening and comprehension than others. It goes back to the audible vs visual learning preferences, but listening and comprehension is a skill that’s necessary for a leader to succeed in managing and coaching others.
Listening comprehension is imperative to your success and is a skill you should continue to hone as you progress in your career and in life in general.
A few tips to help improve your listening skills:
- To Listen is to Learn. Comprehend and empathize with the person talking to you. Understand what it is they’re saying to you. Ask them to explain further or occasionally respond with repeating what they’ve told you to confirm with them you understand.
- Remove distractions during the conversation. No cell phones. No laptops. Maintain eye contact and listen intently.
- Ask Questions. Not only does it show you’re engaged, you are learning and understanding the problem or working toward a solution. Socratic conversations are typically the best because you drill down, through process of elimination, to the root problem or solution to a problem with the continual question “why?”
- Have Patience. Wait until the person is done talking before responding. Sometimes they will talk themselves to the solution you have for them or offer more insight to you for a better solution or response.
A Technology Leader Can Simplify Complex Subjects
As a technology leader can take a complex subject and boil it down to a simple statement or explanation in general laymen’s terms. It’s important to be able have this skill when interacting with upper-management who may not be technically savvy or care to know the technical details of a problem or solution.
It’s a fine balance in determining just how technical you need to get and is primarily based on the audience you intend to explain the subject matter to. If you’re going to be explaining in simplified terms, take a high-level approach of explaining the surface level facts. For example, instead of saying “we’re optimizing our application load times by storing the content in a CDN within the Azure Cloud” you can state “we’re ensuring optimal speed by copying our content to points closer to the customer.” You’ve essentially said the same thing but removed the technical/tooling jargon and simplified it in layman’s terms.
A Technology Leader has Empathy Towards Others
Having empathy for others is a key component of being a good human. It’s important to note that empathy is much different than sympathy. With sympathy you share your own feelings with another. With empathy your own feelings are the same as another. Simply put, with empathy you have an emotional experience as if you are “walking in the shoes” of the person you’re sharing empathy with. This is critically important when listening and communicating with peers, team members, or most importantly customers. “The customer is always right” may be a fallacy but when you’re empathetic to the customer’s plight, you’ll bend over backwards to make things right for them.
This applies to many levels of your role as a technical leader from managing your teams, one-on-one human resource obligations, customer user experience designs and product architecture, to interacting with customers and comprehending customer feedback.
Empathy is a practiced trait and some can implement it better than others but it’s a trait we should all strive to use and improve.
Tips to help improve your empathy:
- Stop Assuming. Ignore your assumptions and stereotypes; listen and learn. Everyone is unique and it’s important to understand an individual’s unique story.
- Be Curious. Assume you know nothing. What can you learn from the person you’re talking to? Ask a lot of questions.
- Be Open. Have boundaries of course, but be willing to ask relevant questions about background and understanding someone’s perspective and their experience. Be open to sharing your perspective and experience in return. Sometimes it’s easier to lead with your own to allow others to share as well.
- Travel. Get out of your own environment and experience other places and cultures. Experience what life has to offer and learn from those experiences.
- Walk the Walk. Use your own products. Experience them as a customer would. Find ways to experience them in the most extreme conditions. Learn and adapt from those experiences. Spend a day in the shoes of your team. Clean the bathrooms. Go hungry for a day. Experience an unpaid leave of absence. Pay for your medications completely out of pocket (even if your insurance covers them). See yourself in your team member’s position and role and find ways to show your appreciation and improve their work experience.
- Find your team members’ “love languages” and use that language to show appreciation to each individually. Everyone is different.
So Are You Ready?
In this article, we walked through a primer on some expectations and duties of a technology leadership role. We covered five traits a technology leader should embrace to help succeed in their role.
You might be wondering if you’re ready to take on the responsibilities of a leadership role. If you’re having any doubts, I can tell you that every successful leader has had those same thoughts and doubts. We all started with no experience, but the important takeaway is that we all started. Learning and growing from our mistakes and insights on the job is part of any job and leadership roles are no different.
The gotcha here is “ready” is a relative term. There’s no perfect moment to start a new leadership role. The five traits I’ve mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg so to speak. In this series I plan to expand on them and more including all facets of a technology leader role.
I look forward to hearing from those of you who are looking to move up into a new leadership role as well as those of you who may have experience in leadership already.