Managing Technology Talent In Tough Times

CTO of Pipedrive with expertise in scaling technology and organizations. Experienced as an innovator, founder and C-level manager.

Over the past year—or maybe a decade—it seems like economies, societies and the geopolitical landscape are often in a state of unsettling disorder. Those who train to excel in the most challenging situations, like athletes, firefighters and paramedics, know that they can only affect the outcome if they master what’s in their control, and they don’t attempt to affect the factors outside of this.

This is the task in front of technologists in business, just as much as it is for business leaders, developers and software engineers, salespeople and frontline staff offering customer care. When it comes to a SaaS company, the continuation of quality service is the ultimate line that must not be crossed to keep customers happy and revenue secure.

Working with developers and engineers across the world, I’ve come across some important lessons for keeping technologists’ focus on track—as well as keeping leaders who may not be as technically astute focused on their achievable goals.

Stay On Target: Recapitulating Goals And Achieving Them

Take both milestones and any moments of change as times to reassess your goals. If needed, tweak both the target to hit and your recommended approach to better fit the skills, capabilities and resources at hand. Throughout the year, staff members come and go, changing the skill makeup of the business along with more intangible measures, like the cohesiveness or inventiveness of teams.

Understanding the capabilities of your colleagues is more important than ever. Just like an athlete looking for the 2% gain that would push them to the podium, in tough times, organizations look to create efficiencies and increase their effectiveness. But note that this must not come at the expense of encouraging and offering autonomy to the skilled workers who drive business value. It doesn’t matter how stressful the times are, clamping down and creating an uninviting environment won’t lead to happy, sustainable productivity. It will only offer the illusion of control and short-term gains covering long-term pains.

It’s said that a former head of research at General Motors once shared that “a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” In the same way, good goals, KPIs and OKRs should point the way to their achievement. Those elements should be the aspects of the business environment within the team’s control. Everything else may need to be monitored and accounted for but shouldn’t be directing the business, the team or an individual engineer’s performance. Monitor more, but measure what matters.

And although this advice is applicable to all business leaders, it tends to be technical talent who really responds well to methodical, clear guidance and can be much less comfortable with ambiguity and wiggle room than their peers in other departments. So, tailor guidance and delivery for each team. Taking account of ways of working and communication styles helps get the most out of top talent. Keeping essential staff motivated should be a primary concern for the foreseeable, uncertain future.

Don’t Be Afraid To Invest To Accelerate Out Of The Downturn

Automation, process efficiencies and extending the reach and capabilities of your team—all these are potential effects of the right technology choices picked to strengthen a business’ ability to innovate, react and thrive. But investment shouldn’t be narrowly defined in terms of technology alone, of course. Key areas to consider include:

• Employee Experience And Talent Management: Losing colleagues from preventable negative or restrictive practices is a real waste to the business. Keep an eye on the culture, work models, acquisition and retention.

• Talent Gaps: Take the time to understand and enhance talent. McKinsey analysts found that many companies underestimate their talent gaps by not knowing the skills their employees have across business roles. Reskilling, educating and, of course, hiring is key. But hiring isn’t always the best—let alone the easiest—thing to do in a recession. And as McKinsey analysts illustrate, hiring isn’t always the quickest route to success.

• Automation: Reduce the grind. Routine administrative toil or repetitive tasks that can be offloaded to a software solution should be. This can help reach an outcome more quickly, increase reliability and save the sanity and energy of employees who can instead devote more time to valuable activities. For the sales team, this might include automation to increase the speed of the workflow and ensure more time spent courting customers. For the engineering team, this might be automated testing tools that mean less time twiddling thumbs between cycles.

• Diversity: Boost successful outcomes and creativity through one method statistically shown to work: Enhance diversity, equity and inclusion. Highly diverse firms are more likely to beat less diverse peers, and talent looks hard at great places to work that demonstrate real employee care.

• Prioritization: It’s always good advice to follow but very easy to forget during better times: Stop starting and start finishing. Every company has a number of initiatives running in parallel. During more demanding times, you must carefully order your initiatives so that the most profitable ones will be completed as quickly as possible.

Setting the right goals, then taking a microscope to the technology, processes, roles and skills that underpin them is key to boosting every chance for high performance. But there’s another lesson that goes hand-in-hand with this one: Leave some slack in the system. Total efficiency doesn’t leave room for the unexpected or for error. Without some slack and room for maneuvering, it’s far too easy for people to become and to feel like mere cogs in an impersonal machine. Never forget that empathy and collaboration should be woven throughout every plan and goal.

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