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How to Get the Best from Technical Workers

When John Rouda interviewed me for Geek Leaders, a podcast geared toward IT and tech people, we chatted about a generally under-discussed topic: leadership’s responsibility to integrate tech people into the larger organization, not just “onboard” them to the tech team.

Many leaders assume they can plug-and-play tech people, as if they’ll fit anywhere and work perfectly because they’re proficient coders, designers, or engineers. But there isn’t a perfect correspondence between tech jobs, because each industry and each organization is different. So, no matter how technically skilled employees are, if they lack sufficient understanding of the business, their work can go off course.

Context Is Clarifying

Company history and cultural guidelines aren’t necessarily self-explanatory to new employees, no matter how intelligent or gifted they are. And people who don’t know how the money’s being made often propose solutions that seasoned leaders dismiss out of hand. Standard onboarding usually explains functional details, yet rarely the conceptual ones that may determine success. New tech employees need to learn a business’s fundamentals so they can make accurate decisions in context and understand their coworkers’ requests and critiques.

I’ve seen too many skilled employees become stymied and confused about why no one agrees with their views, they’re left out of crucial decision-making, or their decisions are actually countermanded. These employees may throw their weight around, demanding or forcing solutions and approaches that worked for them elsewhere but don’t fit their current employer’s business model or culture — just because no one taught them the necessary basics in the beginning.

Dynamics Can Be Determinative

Here’s another potential downfall of lack of integration: Users believe their needs are understood, but tech staff is more familiar with how to do things than with what needs to be done. Just “getting the work done” is never as successful a strategy as trying to create relationships with respectful, curious give-and-take. There are crucial differences between the work and the people, and it’s hard to be terrific at the former when you’re bombing with the latter.

The impact of social dynamics — not who goes out drinking with whom, but how we get our work done together — can lead to projects that come in on time, on budget, and to rave reviews. Or it can result in work that’s badly botched, time and cost overruns, and even a loss of reputation.

When tech employees don’t understand their clients’ needs, constraints, and styles, they can perceive these non-tech users to be behaving irrationally, and ignore clients’ input. Once the relationships break down, it’s almost impossible to ensure good work on anyone’s part.

Fast Feedback

To prevent this kind of failure, leaders need to check in frequently and provide more detailed feedback than might feel natural. Everyone misreads situational dynamics from time to time, but you never want to let a difficult situation with a new tech employee reach a point where the leader hears from multiple team members, “Xerxes just doesn’t get it.”

In the normal course (or immediately if something’s going badly), a leader can have a conversation with Xerxes: “You’ve been with us now for 10/30/45 days, and it’s time for us to look at how things are going.” This normalizes the idea of feedback, because it’s about how length of time on the job rather than any particular thing Xerxes did or didn’t do.

If Xerxes doesn’t raise the concerns the leader has heard about, the leader can ask specifically about the relevant projects or relationships. It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s much more supportive and less threatening than telling Xerxes, “I hear your colleagues are having problems with you.”

Smooth the Path and the Edges

When leaders hold these conversations sooner rather than later, it’s both easier and more compelling to explain to new employees the established facts: They might be structural, like cost factors, or stylistic, like “Our daily standups are casual, but we dress and behave more formally in meetings with clients and project owners.”

Being in touch frequently and providing information about organizational norms helps leaders explain why it works this way here, be on the lookout to help nudge new employees when necessary, and uncover gaps in their expectations based on the way things worked at their old company.  

The outcome is a more successful experience for the employees, and helps ensure the operation gets the best of the employees’ talents. And if you’re a new team member, and your leaders haven’t explained the ways of the business or given you feedback, ask for it!

Onward and upward —


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