Developing Research/Technology Leaders

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Vol. 50, No. 2 March-April 2007 pp. 65-67.

If you’re like most managers, you’ve had some kind of training aimed at making you a more effective leader. And there are many, many kinds. When I googled “leadership training,” I found over 1 1/2 million references, which, if nothing else, testifies that this is a big business. The question I’d like to raise is: what are good ways to select and develop research technology leaders? Although I don’t believe there is any one best leadership training, I’ll share my views based on teaching and coaching research technology managers. I invite my readers to share theirs, which I’ll then report in a later article.

Leadership selection and training should be based on our assumptions about leadership in technology companies. These are my six:

1. Leadership is a relationship between leader and followers. Even if someone is in a leadership role and people don’t follow, that person is not a leader. Your whole self is involved in being a leader. Consequently, if you are someone people want to follow, you can’t give your leadership to someone else. This differs from management, a collection of functions, like budgeting, scheduling, hiring, evaluating, etc, which can be delegated or shared. Although companies need both leadership and management, typically, tech start-ups with visionary leaders are under-managed, while large, mature technology companies are over-managed and under-led.

2. Technology staff want to be collaborators, not just followers. They want to find their work meaningful and to feel they are contributing to the result.

3. Technology companies need different types of leaders. Strategic, operational and networking leaders are all essential.

4. Although people with strategic leadership qualities can be effective at any level, they are essential at the top of the company. However, the success of an organization depends on how well these different types of leaders work together to implement a shared strategy.

5. Leaders are most effective when their personal qualities fit their leadership roles.

6. Although some people are born with exceptional potential, leadership can always be developed, and it’s especially necessary to do so in the new context of global business.

Four Ps of Training

I propose basic research technology leadership training under the headings of four Ps: Purpose, Processes, People, Presentation.

Purpose.

Technology leaders often get stuck in a web of misunderstanding about the purpose of a project. After the break-up of the Bell System in 1984, executives of AT&T were excited about the great opportunities they believed they would gain by building on their strength in “data networking.” I asked Ian Ross, then head of the Bell Labs, what he thought about this enthusiasm. “The problem” he said, “is that everyone has a different definition of data networking.” Now, we can see the same confusion in the telecom industry about the meaning of convergence.

To gain motivated collaborators, leaders must articulate a clear and meaningful business purpose. Technology companies falter when they produce products that engineers may love, but which no one wants to buy, like the Bell Labs' picture phones in the 1980s. Sometimes companies even miss out because they don’t produce the products that people do want to buy, as when the Bell Labs insisted that AT&T’s customers didn’t need digital switches; analog could do the job just as well; or, when they decided that few customers would want mobile phones so it wasn’t worth exploiting their own invention.

Technology managers often argue about whether they should try to meet an expressed customer need or create a need with a great product. The answer, of course, is that they should do both, if they can. Customers didn’t ask for a fax machine before engineers invented it, although once they had one, they did ask for plain paper, but at that time they didn’t know they would prefer e-mail when that arrived.

Technology leaders need to develop foresight. Training should focus not only on promising technologies, but also on how best to scan the world of R&D for clues to what may be coming next. Learning to articulate a clear purpose requires education in understanding customers, not just their stated needs, but how they do business and what offerings could help them to do it better. I have found that even senior managers think they know what their customers want and can be surprised when they are made to test their assumptions with customers.

Leadership training should combine case material with customer visits and reports, evaluated by teachers, fellow managers and the customers. It can be useful for leadership teams to play at designing new businesses. Training in purpose amounts to basic education in business understanding for a world market that calls for continual innovation. However, it’s best to customize this part of the leadership training to focus on the particular challenges to your business.

Process

Managers have traditionally viewed organizations as hierarchical bureaucracies with clear roles and responsibilities. But in the knowledge workplace, bureaucratic hierarchies and silos impede collaboration. There is no one best way to organize knowledge work. At companies such as Google, Apple and 3M people work in small, self-organizing entrepreneurial cells that are flexibly connected. In companies like IBM and Nestlé, solution groups are formed across traditional boundaries. However, you still need to design processes that establish standards for consistency and facilitate collaboration (1). These include processes for sharing knowledge, partnering both within and outside the organization, resolving conflicts and grievances, and organizing concurrent engineering.

Leaders also can make good use of processes for making meetings productive. Processes are leadership instruments. To use them well, you need systems thinking, to understand how these processes interact and serve the organization’s purpose. Furthermore, your organization is a social system so you can’t separate people from the processes.

People

The question continually asked is: are leaders born or made? Potential leaders all benefit from genetically determined qualities like curiosity, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability, but there are different kinds of natural leaders. One kind is like the fictional character Tom Sawyer who got other boys to pay him to whitewash his Aunt Polly’s fence by pretending the work was fun. A different kind is like George Washington whose height, strength, and courage gave him a command presence. As a farmer, general and president, Washington was a great operational leader. While we don’t know what he would have been like grown-up, Tom Sawyer also had the makings of an effective operational leader, a super-motivator.

Strategic visionaries may not show their abilities right away. Some only show their leadership qualities by responding courageously to a difficult challenge, like Martin Luther King who stood up to the injustice of racial discrimination and was able to create a visionary movement. Or Mohandas Gandhi who started out to be a barrister and responded to British discrimination in South Africa and India by creating a revolution. Business leaders with visions of new products that change the way we work and live, and the strategic skills to turn that innovation into a business, may emerge at a young age, like Bill Gates, or when older, like Henry Ford.

Networking leaders are typically less commanding and visionary than the other types. But they are natural facilitators and mediators who build the collaboration that is becoming essential for technology companies. You can recognize them as people who are good at helping to resolve conflicts.(2)

In selecting potential leaders, look for these qualities, but above all find people who respond to real needs and have innovative ideas. In other words, select people who want to lead for the common good, not those who just hunger for personal power.

Most of the leadership training I have observed is all about the leader. It assumes that the leader who communicates clearly, shows passion, has integrity and empathy will gain willing followers. This assumption worked well enough in the bureaucratic industrial age when most employees were raised in traditional families headed by a male wage earner. The company leader with these estimable qualities was seen and admired as a protective father figure. Of course, this image was especially powerful in companies with life-long employment.

Today, both families and companies have changed. The typical family has two wage earners, and more families are headed by a single woman than there are traditional families. And of course, few companies offer the employment security of the past. Employees have become less trusting of authority, less admiring of paternal leaders—and there are now more women leaders who are not necessarily maternal. Emotional ties to colleagues are often stronger than to bosses. Furthermore, you may be leading techs in different cultures with diverse values.(3)

Ideally, like a good novelist, you should know the person behind the persona. Few of us have that valuable skill. In an earlier Human Side, I suggested that leaders should develop their Personality Intelligence, and this involves both intellectual study of personality types and awareness of emotional attitudes—both the head and heart.(4) You need to be able to distinguish personality patterns like the operational obsessive, the narcissistic visionary, and the flexible self-marking type. And you need to develop your ability to recognize and respond to emotions.

You may have chosen technology in part because you wanted to be in a world where logic ruled and you didn’t have to deal with messy emotions, “wetware” as they are sometimes called by software engineers. But you can’t avoid dealing with personalities and emotions. By understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, you take a big step toward self development. By developing your Personality Intelligence, you’ll gain a better understanding of the kinds of people you should partner with, people whose skills and personality complement your own.

Engineers tend to promote people who they think are very much like themselves rather than thinking about how different kinds of personalities fit different leadership roles. The better you understand the people you want to lead, the better you will be able to create a highly motivated team. You will also understand resistance to new ideas and be better equipped to overcome it.

People want a leader they can trust. Leadership training should include case discussion of ethical and moral issues. Research/technology leaders should create a climate of candor, where people can respectfully criticize decisions according to ethical as well as business criteria.(5)

Presentation

Leadership involves communication, and when you describe purpose or take a principled position, you not only communicate words, you also are communicating yourself. Your attitude, emotion, and body language can say more than words about your honesty, conviction, optimism, and feelings about the people you want to lead. Leadership training should include the emphasis on self-presentation that has been pioneered by Martin Best, of the Corporate Theatre, in his work with managers at BP and GSK. It might include the kind of approach to inspirational leadership practiced by Richard Olivier who bases his training on lessons from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

The four Ps summarize my thoughts on basic leadership training for research/technology managers. Of course, the content in each of the Ps can be expanded. Let me know what you think, what you would add or change. We can then build a model of leadership training that makes use of all our experience.

References

  1. M. Maccoby, “Is There a Best Way to Lead Scientists and Engineers?” Research-Technology Management, January-February 2006, pp. 60-61.
  2. M. Maccoby, “Creating Collaboration” Research-Technology Management, November-December 2006, pp. 60-62.
  3. M. Maccoby, “Why People Follow the Leader: The Power of Transference” Harvard Business Review, September 2004, pp. 76-85.
  4. M. Maccoby, “Understanding the People You Manage” Research-Technology Management, May-June 2005, pp. 58-60.
  5. For a discussion of the difference between ethical and moral reasoning, see my article, “To Build Trust, Ethics Are Not Enough” Research-Technology Management September-October 2003, pp. 59-60.


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