Moving Upstream

A common fallacy for tech executives is not accepting their role in the company, at least not in its entirety. Advising, coaching, and talking with dozens of executives, I’ve seen this issue creep up again and again. I don’t care if you’re the CTO or “just” the VP of Engineering, nor whether you’re a cofounder or a hired executive—you should be working your way “upstream.”

The activities with the highest impact on any organization are strategy-setting and the decision-making that it begets. Affecting these allow one to set the course for the whole company, contribute to its long term success, and mold the way the organization operates. And yet, all too often, I help executives that do not actively take part in these. They are involved too late, losing out on a pivotal way to act as force multipliers.

Let’s get a few things straight. First, I believe we can all agree that correcting decisions as “upstream” as possible means you can save time, expenses, and reduce failure work. As Andy Grove wrote, we want to spot and fix issues as early as possible in the “production” process. However, if you are simply handed over the roadmap after it was formalized, you’ve already lost your chance to shape it earlier.

Second, no one wants an R&D organization that operates as an out-sourcing department that happens to be sitting inside the same office—what I call in-sourcing R&D. However, that is exactly what happens when you accept roadmaps and tasks without being a full partner in how they were decided and shaped. This then trickles down the team, creating a mentality of mindless workers instead of bright engineers.

Third, being part of the decisions and planning around them provides you with much-needed insight. By being fully aware of the trade-offs and the future plans, you can set up your organization for success. Knowing a big jump in scale will be coming your way in two quarters means you can start strengthening the weak links now. Discussing ideas around new product possibilities allows you to alter your hiring process right now so that when next year comes, you’ll have the best talent to handle those new avenues.

And, last, you deserve a seat at the table where those decisions are made. I sometimes have to push to make this clear to clients, especially if the CEO doesn’t bring them in the loop without being asked. Once you’ve crossed the lines to an executive role, you are no longer tied simply to the tech and people that you love. Your team is the business team, and to do your role best, you have to take an active part in it. Sit in the right meetings. Speak up—either when you don’t understand something or when you think what is being discussed is wrong.

In a recent talk, I was asked by someone how someone can claim their spot at the big kids’ table if they weren’t invited to it. My answer is that this is when we have to use our executive chutzpah and get there. Do you see on the calendar a meeting you should be in? Tell the organizer you should be there. Discuss with them all the previous points here if needed. If you are not accepted as part of the team that is in charge of these actions, as the person in charge of one of the most expensive and critical parts of the operation, then you are not truly an executive (and I’d reconsider my next steps).

Move upstream. Take your sit. Start leading.

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