I like to take stock of what I did as a new year begins, and as part of it, I try to think back on examples I saw of tech teams making a difference. I’m not talking about the average we’ve gotten used to: delivering the roadmap. What I look for are cases where the team did something nonobvious.
I realized that sharing such a list might help others spot similar areas where they can leverage their team, so here it is. These are all based on teams I helped in 2021, though some examples were modified a bit or “combined” with others in order to avoid sharing too much about specific companies. Below, I also listed some examples of issues that I noticed too much.
Examples of Winning
Note that some of these are almost trivial and not exciting. That’s great! It’s clear that a team is impactful if someone comes up with a groundbreaking algorithm that allows the company to do something that was before impossible. But if that is the bar we set for ourselves for excellence, it is easy to resign to never trying. The examples below consist of some small wins, but these accumulate. If you regularly do this several times a year, you can dominate your market and dramatically improve the company’s bottom line.
The unicorn that finally executed a reorg that made the different groups end-to-end and business goal-oriented in order to better support the scale-up needs they had and reduce management overhead. It’s a change initiative that no one was asking for and that required political capital and trust to execute, but it was the right thing to do in the long term.
The CTO that decided to let go of the highly talented employee who turned out to be a bad fit culturally. It felt unnatural, especially in today’s market, and since the team was under great pressure to deliver, but the CTO realized that that person was suffering and also affecting the rest of the team. Yes, admitting your mistakes in hiring and telling the CEO you’re cutting working hands is tough—but it needed to be done.
My love goes out to the R&D leadership team that originated a company-wide push to establish a SaaS offering when everyone else in the executive team thought it was irrelevant. The executives realized it was up to them to translate the benefits this approach has to business impact and “sell” it to others in the company. It’s not every day that a VP of Engineering essentially helps the company realize a mini-pivot is on order.
The team that saw a Goliath enter their market and become a direct competitor and, rather than becoming dejected and demotivated, used it to their benefit. They decided to view this as a positive sign—the market will only grow—and started thinking of ways to leverage this opportunity. The product teams pinpointed areas where they had a clear advantage and doubled down on it, using the Goliath’s marketing efforts to fuel their own. They got great at reverse engineering what the Goliath was doing and its impact on saving themselves futile experiments and initiatives.
The countless companies that I saw generate tech capital and create internal tools that enabled others in the company to do their jobs better, such as sales, marketing, customer success, and more. Rather than thinking they should focus solely on new features, they saw opportunities to make their peers force-multipliers and invested in that.
The engineering team that realized its backlog was being filled because “you have to be given work” even though the work wasn’t impactful. They spoke up and found better ways to spend the time. This is very common for companies that are still before product-market fit: Product needs more time to think stuff over, but “the beast has to be fed.” So R&D is given low-priority tasks, and features get developed even though no one needs them—not being afraid to ask “why” and suggest other options can save companies a fortune.
My kudos go out to the VPs that took over organizations this year, spotted underperformers that have never received proper feedback in the previous years, and didn’t shy away from but coached those people. It’s amazing to see a person that was below average for literally years turn a 180 after a single sincere and constructive conversation. That is the power of coaching.
The cofounders who realized how having an empowered team doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility to lead and provide a clear vision and objectives.
The VPs that stood up to the CEO that was giving them different directions every week and insisted on forming a strategy that made sense and didn’t involve micro-management.
I loved seeing all the teams worldwide that worked with me or read about intermissions, implemented them, and saw significant benefits in team creativity, innovation, and a regular rate of improvement.
The teams that embraced remote working in a way that allowed them to achieve more than ever before. Seeing the benefits of hiring globally, work flexibility, and learning how to make decisions asynchronously has helped some teams get to the next level faster than otherwise possible.
Lastly, the CEO that realized a beloved CTO had to be replaced because the company had outgrown him. It’s never easy but sometimes necessary. The executives needed someone who viewed the challenges ahead as a positive thing and believed it was possible, not a constantly negative and pessimistic person.
Opportunities to Fix This Year
Unfortunately, not everyone improved. Here are some common types of problems that I repeatedly noticed this year:
- Those who constantly complain about every single thing, even as executives, externalizing their locus of control and effectively changing nothing for the better.
- The leaders who played political games rather than focus on value and their goals.
- Managers that keep shying away from providing honest feedback and making hard decisions, opting to feel “nice” in the short-term at the cost of actually helping and winning.
- Teams that rushed to focus on “how” rather than “why.” I saw this with CEOs who accepted bad OKRs through teams that implemented costly features without asking and realizing no one needed those expensive edge cases.
- Lastly, the teams who keep missing the fact that life is short—why waste them doing work that doesn’t matter?
I hope you make the most out of 2022. Let me know if you need help!
Get a sample chapter
Get the best newsletter for tech executives online, along with a free sample chapter of The Tech Executive Operating System 📖. Tailored for your daily work. Weekly, short, and packed with exclusive insights.