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Find Young Leaders or You Will Lose Them

by Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Volume 42. No. 1. January-February, 1999. pp 58-59.

We are all aware that continual innovation is changing products, processes, organization and relationships. Yet we must recognize that innovation also changes the mix of skills and attitudes valued by the market. Consequently, the most competitive companies will be those that are able to attract and retain people with different skills from those of the past.

Some people feel stimulated by the new environment, as though it were made for them. Others feel threatened and try to resist change. A third group recognizes the need to change, to adapt to the new environment, even though this can be painful for them because it devalues their intellectual capital and even threatens their sense of self.

The changing business environment causes a kind of social selection. The difference from natural selection is that a certain type of individual, as contrasted with a species, prospers in the new environment. For example, the nerdy computer programmers who worked late at night and rejected company dress codes and etiquette were barely tolerated in the bureaucratic industrial workplace. But in today’s new workplace, companies bid for them. Exemplars of the type like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have become role models, and the dress code of many large companies accommodates to their style.

In other words, the new business environment selects some kinds of people and rejects others who would have prospered in the past. It selects daring entrepreneurs who translate inventions into saleable products. It also selects technically competent people with the skills, values and emotional attitudes that fit an innovative organization.

The new environment rejects people whose skills can be programmed into computers -- as well as cautious bureaucratic managers. In the evolving workplace, the skills in demand can be mapped on two dimensions: knowledge and service. Each dimension scales how highly skills are valued by the labor market.

Knowledge Service Workplace Graphic

Some service jobs such as file clerks or security guards at corporate entrances command a lower value in the market because the skills and knowledge are easily acquired, and customers will accept a rather low level of service from these people. The mostly service jobs that produce the highest value are those that require rare talent or performance, like a professional golfer or a fashion model. People are willing to pay a great deal to see these performers demonstrate their skills.

On the knowledge dimension are jobs such as software writers, researchers, analysts who find patterns in masses of data, and inventors of new products. To be competitive, knowledge companies need people with these skills. Since they are in short supply, their value is correspondingly high.

Increasingly, value is being created along the vector between the two dimensions, describing the skills required to adapt and customize knowledge. In the past, there was a large demand for the transactional skills of bank tellers and telephone operators among others. Now that many of these transactions have been automated, the jobs that remain (until they are automated on the internet) require consultative skills.

The bank customer who uses ATMs, telephone or internet for simple transactions needs a salesperson to help decide how to solve financial problems. The telephone operator has become a marketing specialist who takes your needs into account when suggesting the best long-distance calling plan. These consultative sales roles require the ability to use computers to continually learn about new products and customer needs. They also require complex programming that provides them with the information they need.

However, without service skills such as how to listen, understand, and communicate, the programming and product knowledge are useless; with these soft skills, it becomes much easier to learn and to satisfy customers.

Finding Leaders

The highest value on the knowledge-service vector is produced by leadership skills: formulating business strategy, motivating, coaching and creating organizations that win in the marketplace. In the new knowledge-service world, research-technology leaders must understand business as well as technology. They must grasp the logics of their industry, including price, buying behavior, and the speed demanded by the market. They need to be able to communicate effectively, internally with their staff and externally with executives who lack technical knowledge. They should be able to explain their views clearly.

Furthermore, they need to recognize talent, attract, retain, and develop it. Particularly, they should be able to spot rare and valuable leadership ability in young researchers. If they do not, potential lab leaders will leave for greener pastures. Inevitably, they will be selected by more competitive companies.

What should technology leaders do to retain and nurture future leaders?

  • First of all, evaluate technical staff in terms of their management and business skills as well as technical performance. Management skill evaluation should focus on a person’s ability to help a team to succeed. Do not fall in the trap of using peer evaluations to score management skills. Good managers can be tough and pushy. They may also provoke envy. Business evaluation has to do with understanding customer needs and even better, creating them. It also has to do with forming partnerships and networks.
  • Look for people who act rather than those who ask for permission. The future leaders have ideas and carry them out. They take the organization in a new direction. They figure it is generally easier to be forgiven than ask permission. They do not wait to be empowered.
  • Look for people who want tough challenges rather than those who just want to do their thing. Future leaders are also different from the supernerds who solve tough problems quickly but are unable to pose the critical business problems.
  • Look for people who establish peer relations with authority rather than those who need a father-son or father-daughter mentoring relationship. The would-be mentees are seeking approval. The future leaders want results and are willing to argue with authority and risk disapproval. Often, they believe they know more than the boss. However, they will accept coaching when they need it.
  • Look for people who recognize that they cannot succeed without others and think about how best to motivate their colleagues.

According to Barry Horowitz, former CEO of the MITRE Corporation who now heads Concept 5, and innovative software company, potential strategic leaders are the rarest of all technical employees. “They are people who are good at something, but want to know everything about everything relevant to the company. If you find such people, make sure they are not boxed in a department or kept by some manager who doesn’t want to lose them. Give them a chance to move around and learn everything about everything. ”

In a market that rewards innovation and threatens slow and bureaucratic companies with “creative destruction,” human skills become strategic differentiators. Above all, companies need the skills of leaders who can organize and develop the talent. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

This page was last updated Monday, 12-Apr-1999 15:11:39 EDT.