High-tech firms are scrambling to find talented leaders to drive growing teams; an arduous process often rewarded with disloyalty and employee churn. It begs the question: have we become overly-dependent on leadership itself? If so then perhaps some aspects of management can be automated to lessen our reliance on these hot-spot leadership roles.
High-Tech’s Revolving Door
The high-tech industry’s struggle with talent is well publicized. When demand for talent surpases supply, the recruiting landscape turns into a veritable battleground for sought after skills such as information security, DevOps, and data science. Yet the focus of this article is not about sourcing individual contributors. It’s about sourcing leadership positions and considering if some degree of leadership itself can be automated in order to minimize the collateral damage typically incurred from leadership turnover.
The Leadership Sourcing Paradox
Imagine an organization as a ship. It may be a small vessel at first but it still needs motor, a captain, and so on. Early on, the captain will presumably wear multiple hats. She’ll serve as mechanic and perhaps as the boat’s radio technician. But when the ship increases in size, so too does the complexity of the mechanical operations. Therefore the captain inevitably needs to hire a chief engineer. Of course it’ll take a while to find that person, and if the role ever “goes away” for some reason then the captain temporarily becomes the chief engineer once again. Not a great situation, especially when 2,000 miles out at sea.
The high-tech industry is similar to the boat-and-crew scenario. C-level executives instinctively seek out leaders to manage the numerous functional areas they oversee. Execs will hire a director of this, a senior manager of that, and each of these newly-hired leaders has the epic responsibility of rapidly assimilating into the corporate culture and driving results!
The paradox executives face is that they need “do-ers” and strategists at the same time. Using our ship scenario: when the ship (your organization) is on the smaller side, there’s a desire to hire the chief mechanical engineer role, but more often than not, a more tactical multi-hat-wearing mechanic is brought on board instead. Why? Because the ship isn’t big enough for a that prestigious “chief” role and the captain needs sailors who can roll up their sleeves and get stuff done.
Getting “stuff” done is fine from an operational standpoint. But eventually the teams need to see beyond tasks and understand the ultimate enterprise goals in order to be self-sufficient. These goals are aligned to strategy, and strategy is set forth by executives and the team’s leadership. Unfortunately, the team leader has become a fragile component in this volatile economy.
Ramping up Faster
Waiting to find the right leader puts departmental initiatives on hold, which of course equates to decreased productivity. When the right leader is eventually onboarded, it takes even more time to “ramp up” given the time the new boss needs to observe and plan.
From the start of the recruitment cycle to the point of productivity can easily take six months. According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, the median tenure for a millennial-aged employee in 2016 was 2.8 years. So, shave off that initial six month ramp up time, and at best you’ve got about two good years of productivity for this newly onboarded leader. That’s assuming a competitor doesn’t snatch him or her up sooner.
Leadership roles are important. But they’re also fragile and highly disruptive when the position is dislodged. Similar to the way we’re automating other business operations of today, perhaps it’s time we at least considered doing the same for management itself. That is, bolstering the stability of management by not putting so much responsibility on it to begin with. It’s pretty logical when you think about it, and there are many analogies here to draw upon in the engineering world. A bridge may need additional support columns to sustain heavier loads, or in software engineering environments a monolithic service may need to be broken down into smaller microservices. The point is, the leadership role has become a critical bottleneck which is especially vulnerable to turnover. The challenge is figuring out how to strengthen leadership itself and/or lessening our dependence on it as to ensure continuity of business operations.
Automation of Strategy May Be the Key
Strategy and automation may be overused buzzwords today, but “automation of strategy” is something else entirely. If the goal is continuity of business and leadership presents a single point of failure, then we have to re-balance responsibility from the single leader of a given area to something a bit more fail-safe. I like to think of four balanced domains:
Full time employees are the anchor component and thus the most important part of the equation. Employees make decisions and are ultimately accountable for success.
Automated strategy is the muscle memory that perseveres through turbulent times such as leadership loss or re-orgs. It requires outside help from sources like consultants, peer forums, or even parent company resources. Regardless of where it comes from, automated strategy is the institutionalization of strategy into the day-to-day workforce by way of establishing clear goals that cascade from the top-down. Likewise, there’s a bottom-up dimension which clearly identifies the breadth of decisions local teams are allowed to make in order to retain some degree of autonomy.
The managed services component actually has a multipurpose role. First, managed services yield business continuity that’s relatively shielded from FTE changes. Secondly, managed services enable rapid workforce elasticity. Finally, the outsourcing of certain transactional workloads aides in decreasing the tactical scope of a manager.
Last but certainly not least, program management and metrics are the “glue” that hold everything together by governing and measuring the day-to-day execution of strategy. Having supported multiple mergers and acquisitions, I can say that having standardized practices and metrics is one of the fastest ways to onboard new employees; regardless of whether they were acquired or recruited.
I’m not advocating we eliminate leadership, nor am I espousing to turn existing human leaders into robots that follow cold, impersonal algorithmic axioms all day long. However, I encourage leaders to think about their organizational structure with an architectural lens; one that incorporates stability and longevity. One of the structural fractures we see in fast-moving companies today is the productivity hit we take when managers leave. Perhaps by automating strategic vision and goals, we may be able to kill two birds with one stone: ramp up our new leaders faster whilst lending team members greater autonomy.