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Silicon Valley CTO’s and CIO’s Advice to Technologists and Engineers Pursuing Leadership Roles

By Cheryl Warner, ACC, Executive Coach and Leadership Advisor, Vox Tua Consulting

Engineering and Technology Leadership

Silicon Valley CTOs and CIOs have some helpful advice for technologists and engineers who want to climb the leadership ladder. I uncovered this while interviewing prominent technology leaders about their leadership journeys.

Here are some of the questions we discussed:

  • How did they navigate their career path, starting from technical education or early immersion in technology?
  • Why did they pursue leadership roles?
  • Were there gaps from their technical education that inhibited their ability to excel as a leader? How did they fill them?
  • What advice would they give to technically educated people wanting to advance into and up leadership career paths?

As you can imagine, much of what they shared reinforced conventional wisdom regarding advancement within your profession:

  • They cultivate their relationship with a mentor who is willing not only to listen and advise, but is willing to actively support and advocate for them. Typically many mentors during their career.  
  • Their desire for influence motivated them to lead.
  • They had to let go of being the smartest person in the room. They learned to be smart about technology and people.

So what advice did they have for those of you climbing the leadership ladder, especially engineers and technologists?

I proposed a situation where they had to decide on a promotion within their team. What one or two attributes did the successful candidate have over his/her colleagues? How would they make their decision?

One answer stood out in particular.

This very successful CTO was very quick to say, “Feedback”. The candidate needs to demonstrate they have developed the necessary muscle to not only hear, but act on feedback constructively. Sounds easy, right? Not so much.

Most technologists and engineers receive their education in a very competitive, fairly individualized environment. Test scores, grades, degrees, and awards showcase achievement or lack thereof. Naturally there is great pressure to be smart and innovative as an individual.

Successful leaders need to shift from a highly individualized competitive mindset to one that includes a people focus, featuring teamwork and collaboration, to achieve the desired influence and impact in a competitive industry. Teamwork hinges on people’s ability to give and receive feedback with each other, their leadership team, and their customers.

Not all feedback is positive, nor is all feedback is constructive. How you and your teammates share and navigate feedback impacts your team dynamics, positively or negatively.

How do you react to feedback?

Consider these scenarios:

  • You are surprised by a lukewarm performance appraisal.
  • Your customer writes a glowing product review.
  • Your colleague rolls their eyes at your idea in staff meeting.
  • Your boss told you to stop micromanaging.
  • Your customer writes a scathing comment about a product bug.
  • You are publicly complimented on your innovative idea.
  • Your colleagues label you as ‘always late’, ‘grouchy’, or ‘impossible to please’.
  • You are rarely picked for the important projects.

In all these scenarios, you are receiving feedback. If the feedback is positive, congratulations! Thank your team, celebrate, but don’t overly delay getting back to performing.

Many of the above scenarios sound like criticism. You could choose to ignore them, hope they go away, or were an aberration. You could choose to attack the credibility of the source. Or you could choose to embrace feedback, even imperfectly delivered, for the gift it can be.

Feedback as a learning experience

Go ahead and privately feel your feelings when the seemingly negative feedback sting first hits. Take a moment or a day to compose yourself. Suspend judgment of the provider and the situation, and then go about the process of learning from the feedback, constructively.

For example, your boss tells you, for the second time, ‘You provide too much detail in your status report’. The first time you heard, but decided your boss was just cranky that day, besides you like all the detail. However, this time you shift, looking for the learning experience gift that feedback can be.

You might start with one or two of these types of questions. Your goal is to understand more about the comment and your boss’s thoughts on the remedy.

  • “Please help me understand your comment more fully.”
  • “Could you be more specific about which details are needed and which aren’t?”
  • “How much of a redesign would you prefer?”
  • “Are there particular metrics that matter I should be including? Would these replace large sections of text? Or voluminous tables?”
  • “Do you have examples of what you prefer?”
  • “Has my audience for the report changed? If so, what are their preferences?”

Your boss might reply with one of these comments.

  • “Actually, I trust you to lead this project, I no longer need all these details to know that you have it well in hand. Let’s go with a couple of summary metrics, pick ones that matter.”
  • “I now have to relay this status to my leadership team. I spend too much of Sunday afternoon reading and condensing your report and the five other detailed reports. Perhaps you could include a ½ page summary for me?”
  • “Let’s talk about how to relay status without giving me all the details of each person’s efforts. As you lead larger groups, the art of relaying meaningful status is important. I have a white paper on the power of metrics I would like to share with you.”

Strengthen your feedback muscle

You may find yourself thanking people for taking the brave step of providing you feedback, even if it wasn’t delivered gracefully or when you were expecting it. Consider recalibrating your reactions to “feedback” so you hear “learning experience gift”. Eventually your feedback muscle will be so strong you will welcome feedback, seeing it as a path to improving yourself, your skills, and your innovations. 


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