Developing Research/Technology Leaders II

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Vol. 50, No. 4 July-August 2007 pp. 75-76.

In my previous “Human Side” column, I proposed basic research/technology leadership training under the headings of four Ps: Purpose, Process, People, Presentation.(1) I asked readers to let me know what they thought about this and what they would add or change. There were a number of responses, some by e-mail and others on a conference call organized by Michele Taussig of the Industrial Research Institute. Here’s what some of you think.

First, readers overall agreed with my assumptions about leadership in technology companies: that unlike management, leadership is a relationship, that technology managers don’t want to be followers but rather collaborators in achieving meaningful goals, that different types of leaders are needed, and that while 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.

Readers also affirmed the value of the four Ps, but they offered suggestions to expand them.

Concerning Purpose, a reader suggested that leaders needed to learn visioning. Good visioning demonstrate the qualities I’ve termed Strategic Intelligence.(2) These include foresight, scanning for the trends in technology, business, demographics, politics and the environment that can change markets; systems thinking, creating a vision that integrates purpose, processes and people.

Visioning can be taught in workshops of the sort that have been led by Russ Ackoff with my help, wherein managers learn about the elements of Strategic Intelligence and then have the challenge to design a new business for their company.

Running Productive Meetings

On process, there were some useful suggestions on guidelines young leaders should follow to run productive meetings.

Gale Cutler, IRI Emeritus and Honorary Fellow wrote, “If meetings are not planned, organized and conducted well, they turn into a waste of time and a drain on the company’s productivity.” Cutler suggests these guidelines:

  • Have a clear-cut reason for the meeting.
  • Make sure that the invited attendees have a stake in the subject to be discussed.
  • Distribute an agenda ahead of time and stick to that agenda.
  • Make sure participants know what’s expected of them and what they need to read or prepare.
  • Foster debate and brainstorming while respecting each person’s opinion. (I would probe to make sure opinions are based on facts and clear logic.)
  • Have a specific ending time and stick to it.
  • Follow up—let participants know any outcome from the meetings.

Network Leaders

Readers recognized the need for strategic, operational, and network leaders who, ideally, would partner to build a strong leadership function for a company.

The newest leadership type is the network leader who builds collaborative relationships across boundaries. Network leaders may have to facilitate virtual teams made up of techs from different cultures, working in different time zones. One participant on the conference call who led such a team for almost two yars said it was a disorienting environment and she had to be extremely flexible. Soft skills were even more important than technical competence.

According to research on successful global product development teams, leaders need good training in both Processes and People, particularly to understand different cultural approaches to dealing with relationships and decision-making. Barczak, McDonough and Athanassiou emphasize processes that facilitate communication and foster relationships.(3) Given problems of language, they recommend that leaders work with team members to create common terminology with clear definitions and to assure that relevant project information is shared with all team members, even if they are not directly affected. They describe variations among cultures in the need for open and frequent communication. It’s best to err on the side of more information, and, I would add, to make sure the meaning of the information is clear. Information isn’t the same as understanding.

To build productive global virtual teams, Barczak et al. recommend that leaders get to know all team members, their skills and attributes (I’d call it their brains and personality) in order to put people in roles where they’ll be most effective. They advise an initial face-to-face meeting of the whole team to begin the process of building relationships. Beyond this, they suggest that without periodic progress meetings, relationships will decay.

Face-to- face meetings are better, but they’re costly, so leaders should learn how to run progress meetings via teleconference, the web, or videoconference, to address technological and interpersonal issues and make sure that everyone has a say.

In a four-year study, Montoya-Weiss and Massey studied 100 global virtual teams.(4) Although they agree about the importance of good process, they differ from the other researchers on the importance of face-to-face meetings, at least after the essential kick-off. They present a counter-intuitive finding that a distributed team makes better decisions than people sitting together; even brain-storming sessions tend to be more productive when “the social-relational side has been stripped away.” If that’s the case, the reason could be that when participants are unseen and anonymous, the flow of ideas isn’t blocked by quizzical or disapproving looks from the boss. Hierarchy does not facilitate innovation.

One teleconference participant stated that although effective cross-disciplinary teams need some structure and agreed-on processes, they should not be confined by bureaucratic boundaries. The best network leaders have no formal authority, but they are respected and trusted because of their personality and soft skills. They should be encouraged to break boundaries in their thinking, to free their thoughts and to see a larger picture that includes the project they lead and communicate this to the team. That brings in the fourth P, Presentation, the ability to inspire with authentic enthusiasm.

Coaching the CEO

Teleconference participants also agreed that leaders should learn to be coaches and mentors. One participant related that she had been chosen as a special assistant to mentor an alpha male CEO, to bring him up to date on technology and “what’s going on in the company.” Is this kind of coaching upward happening in other technology companies where people at the top need to be educated about the latest discoveries?

Finally, in the section on People, I wrote that everyone wants a trustworthy leader, and leadership training should include case discussions of ethical and moral issues. At a recent lecture I gave at the Tepper School of Business and Carnegie-Mellon-University on “Can Companies Be Moral?” Sam Calian, former president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, suggested a fifth P, Principles, to emphasize the importance of ethical and moral reasoning and decision-making for leaders. In the discussion following the lecture, a student questioned why companies should be moral in the sense of doing more than obeying laws.

I had described higher-level moral reasoning as concern about the well-being of customers, employees, and communities as well as owners. An example is the attempt by GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt to not only succeed in business but also improve the environment with clean energy. I asked the audience of MBA students for a show of hands of those who would be more likely to join a company with a moral as well as economic purpose. Almost every hand was raised, strongly suggesting that developing principled leaders is good, not only for society, but also for attracting the best talent for your business. This conclusion is consitent with the message of N. Mourkogiannis’ recent book, Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies (5): companies with lasting competitive advantage are those with Purpose, ”doing what’s right and what’s worthwhile.”

References

  1. M. Maccoby, 2007. Developing Research/Technology Leaders. Research- Technology Management, March-April 2007, pp 65-67.
  2. M. Maccoby, 2003 (2007). Narcissistic Leaders, Who Succeeds and Who  Fails, chapter 4, Harvard Business School Press.
  3. Barczak, G., McDonough, E.F., Athanassiou, N. So You Want To Be A Global Project Leader. Research-Technology Management, May-June 2006,  pp 28-35.
  4. Research by Mitzi Montoya-Weiss of NC State and Anne P. Massey of  Indiana University was reported in the CIMS Technology Management  Report, Winter 2006-2007 (Center for Innovation Management Studies, NC State University, Raleigh, NC).
  5. Mourkogiannis, N. 2006 Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies. Palgrave MacMillan.


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