Tech Executive Alignment

In another effort to open the kimono, here is another key part of effective executive coaching. Many tech leaders find it hard to decide what behaviors they should be working on personally. One diagnostic measure that is effective in helping them realize what their “defaults” are and what to focus on to grow as leaders is this focus/autonomy. Where are you placed here, and what does that suggest for your personal growth goals?

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The above figure, taken from my book Capitalizing Your Technology, considers two aspects of leadership. One is the leader’s focus. I’m not talking about how good you are at holding off on checking Twitter and finishing that task. This is about a high-level focus on achieving business goals, things that move that needle and that your CEO cares about. We’ve all seen people who were focused on the wrong things, and this misalignment means whatever you do, even well, is just not likely to be the right thing.

The second aspect is your autonomy. Consider whether you need to be told what to do (lowest autonomy), you come up with your own ideas and kickstart company shifts (highest autonomy), or something in between (like taking the initiative on different projects based on the company’s strategy). You might need to improve in one or both. Let’s see how you can find out.

Low Everything

You’re probably there if…

  • You don’t think about the company’s goals often.
  • You are unsure how different projects connect to the company’s strategy.
  • You haven’t initiated any important projects recently.
  • You tend to do as you’re told.
  • You focus on the path of least resistance as a tech leader, pushing things such as “lowering tech debt,” “refactoring legacy code,” etc., without being able to explain why those really matter.

The good news is that you have more options to improve and likely some low-hanging fruit. Don’t take it too badly. I’ve seen many first-timers operate in this quadrant for a long time and even some who had over a hundred people reporting to them. You can make rapid improvements if you choose to.

I’d suggest starting by checking the water in both directions of improvement and seeing which is easier for you to begin with. Check out the recommendations below for more. However, you can start by considering what’s needed for you to have more visibility into the business’s focus to help your alignment and decide to be more proactive (say, start by tracking a proactive decision or initiative once a week and work your way from there).

Tech Busywork

You’re probably there if…

  • You are constantly initiating things, but not because of clear business needs.
  • Your peers or CEO are unclear about the reason your initiatives matter.
  • You’re creating a “tech strategy” but don’t know the company’s strategy.

This quadrant, which has high autonomy and low focus, is about engineering leaders pushing it and wanting to maximize their potential but lacking the connection to the business. This was very common during the ZIRP days when raising VC money was extremely easy. Thus, tech executives had a lot of leeway and could do this sort of “performative leadership” without having to justify their actions. I’m not blaming them—most leadership teams didn’t have any concrete strategies, so these leaders tried to create something local, which I agree is better than nothing.

Thus we got the deluge of articles and talks about creating your “tech strategy” in your organization and too much focus on essentially establishing engineering as a standalone silo in a way that makes little sense. This results from going down the path of least resistance with the momentum of good intentions but without guidance. That path rarely coincides with the most effective path.

To improve things, you want to start shifting more toward the high-focus quadrant, which requires injecting yourself into the business side of the company. As a senior leader, that usually means you can start by attending the right meetings and making it a personal goal to understand the strategy and the logic behind it. Sit with your peers and stakeholders until you understand what their roadmaps mean and what success is for them. Gain product mastery.

That will allow you to start aligning your team on the things that matter. From there, you can also start being an active leadership team member by participating in discussions to form the strategy, reviewing yearly goals, etc.

Glorified Managers and Order-Takers

You’re probably there if…

  • You’re highly focused on getting business results but mainly in charge of execution.
  • Your roadmap is entirely determined by external factors.
  • You are very reluctant to push back, ask ‘why,’ or suggest alternatives.

For a few years, I’ve been calling these senior leaders “glorified managers” because they don’t really have executive leverage, regardless of their title. Instead, they focus on ensuring things are humming along smoothly and pushing the work forward. That, of course, has its value and is important, but it should not be your holy grail.

When your default reaction is to jerk your team to move faster when new requests emerge, you should stop and adjust your autonomy and how you view yourself as a peer in the executive team. Your role is not just to be an order-taker and ensure no one wants fries with that order. Your responsibility is also to provide the right amount of pushback and expertise.

To improve here, consider what you can do to be less reactive as a leader and also to ensure that you do not take things for granted. For example, a good CEO won’t brand you as someone who’s not a team player if you don’t say “yes” to any request, as long as you learn how to do it. Realize that things aren’t in binary at this level. Rather than go for yes or no, you have an infinite continuum to choose from. Suggest different deadlines, gradual work, and workarounds, and inquire about the actual needs to find the right amount of work actually needed.

Impact Galore

Last but not least, we’re dealing with executives who are already quite effective and autonomous.

You’re probably there if…

  • You’re a regular and active participant in strategy and board meetings.
  • You can articulate to your team the ‘why’ behind different initiatives.
  • You can point out your impact on the business’s success, projects, and changes you’ve initiated.

I’ll be frank: if you’re at this level, you probably don’t feel like you’ve got a lot of things to aspire to. I’ve worked with many leaders who thought they’d outgrown the organization when they felt they’d got the hang of it at this stage. However, more often than not, much more is within your reach. You just need to learn to reach out to it. For example, once you’re running an organization doing pretty well, you can finally allow yourself to step things up.

How much is innovation a habitual endeavor for your organization? Have you moved past hackathons and considered intermissions? Are you leveraging tech capital to provide superpowers internally instead of utilizing your engineering capabilities just to churn out features? The sky is the limit, and even ‘just’ a tech executive can be pivotal in the growth of the business. Decide that you want to go to this next phase, reach out to me, and let’s have a diagnostic call to lay out what your path forward should be.

Special offer: VPE/CTO? Life’s too short to lead an average team. Be the leader your team deserves! Live sessions to provide you with the experience boost you need.