Four Leadership Rules for Success in Utah’s Silicon Slopes

In the past two years, more than $1 billion has been invested in tech companies across the Wasatch Front—an area now known as Silicon Slopes. The technology storm that blew into the state just under a decade ago, has only just begun as big-name players like Adobe and eBay set up shop along Utah’s I-15 corridor. What’s more, Utah has been named the top location for tech start-ups rivaling other tech-dominated geographies like Silicon Valley, Boston, and Seattle.

It’s safe to say tech is here to stay.

So, what exactly does that mean for the state of business culture in Utah? We wanted to find out.

While every industry swears it is unique—that its business environment requires a distinct set of leadership skills and practices—no sector can make the case for uniqueness better than tech. Tech’s combination of high-velocity competition, complexity, global talent, dense geographic concentrations, and interdependence among rivals is unmatched.

While exotic anecdotes about tech culture make for fun social commentary, we at VitalSmarts wondered a) are they real? and b) do they matter?

Specifically, we set out to uncover whether differences between the cultures of tech and non-tech companies are simply a matter of degree or of kind. And second, we wondered if the differences change the physics of management. Are there unique competencies required of managers to thrive in Utah’s tech companies?

We began our research by conducting in-depth interviews with senior and mid-level managers in large to medium-sized tech companies—companies that create technology as a product or service.

We asked leaders to discuss challenges they felt were most important and unique to tech. Seven challenges emerged as trends and after surveying 827 tech employees, four challenges did an extraordinary job of predicting performance:

  1. It’s Gotta Be Cool. Tech employees are drawn to elite companies and path-breaking projects. If their current company isn’t seen as the “coolest,” on top of the latest technologies or getting top press coverage, they move to companies that are. And within a company, “cool” problems get all the resources while mundane issues like institution building go begging.
  2. Relentless Pressure. Tech employees work long days, during weekends and holidays and the pace never slows. They must meet demanding expectations and deliver on tight timelines and short project cycles.
  3. Consistent Ambiguity. Tech employees must navigate unclear and overlapping accountabilities that are constantly shifting and create confusion, misalignment and competition. Power gravitates to product problems while those who address organizational dysfunction get ignored.
  4. Déjà Vu All Over Again. Tech employees are one big network. People who are peers today become managers, peers or direct reports in another company tomorrow. This results in a kind of collusion where people avoid tough conversations that might be crucial to project success for fear of creating bad blood with a future boss or colleague.

Discuss the Undiscussable

As we shared this list of cultural idiosyncrasies, few tech leaders were surprised. But what surprised us was that few had been trained or coached on how to deal with them. These challenges are an elephant in the room that everyone sees, but no one confronts. And as a result, the range of manager competence in navigating this complex and turbulent context varies widely.

However, through our interviews and our experience consulting with influential leaders, we’ve found that the best tech leaders approach these human challenges the same way they would approach a technical challenge. They discuss the challenges, set improvement goals, and apply scientific principles to solve them. Below are strategies tech leaders can use to address the four key challenges identified in our research.

Connect to Cool: To attract, engage and retain top talent, the most successful managers are deft at making the work of their teams “cool.” They look beyond the trendy perks and focus on making tight connections between the work their people do and one or more of the following strategic areas:

    • Strategic Advantage. Connect to the organization’s identifying character, secret sauce or competitive edge.
    • Critical Uncertainty. Link to a burning platform or urgent opportunity.
    • Tech Edge. Show how projects push the edge of the technological envelope.
    • Careers. Show how the team or project will further a person’s career.
    • Social Values. Link the team or project to the positive impact it has on customers, society and the world.

Build Rhythm and Flow: The best tech managers actively build a predictable rhythm and flow of work to reduce the relentless pressure of the industry.

    • Build Rhythm. Engineer procrastination out of the workflow by asking employees to track and report daily progress, provide lifelines to help when pressure peaks and allow employees to utilize and define their downtime.
    • Build Flow. People’s engagement peaks when they work in a state of psychological flow. When managers provide challenging work, autonomy, feedback and an interruption-free environment, flow naturally follows.

Overcome Ambiguity through Dialogue: Keeping people on course and on track despite overlapping assignments, unclear ownership and changing priorities is a constant challenge in tech. The best tech leaders manage Consistent Ambiguity with dialogue. They build norms that support those who discover and confront contradictions as soon as they occur—a strategy that minimizes formal and informal divergence, inconsistencies, unrealistic deadlines and scope creep in plans and priorities.

Déjà Vu Accountability: Successful managers know the tendency to prioritize positive relationships over accountability is a false choice. These leaders create a culture where accountability doesn’t come at the price of current and future relationships. To do so, they:

  • Create Safety. Managers approach accountability as an exploration of causes and solutions rather than blame and shame which bolsters trust and improves performance.
  • Build Skills. Managers provide training and practice for holding others accountable without undermining relationships. Unless and until people have the skills, they’ll bite their tongues and problems will persist.
  • Step Out of the Middle. The best managers avoid using position power. In this industry “code wins arguments.” Deference to authority should never win out over deference to expertise.

With the influx of tech companies across Utah, leaders in and out of the industry would be wise to analyze their cultures, identify the challenges, and proactively enable their leaders with skills to manage them. While not every employee in Utah will work for tech, the culture will proliferate and the challenges can spread. And while culture can be hard to shift, what can change and change quickly is a leader’s ability to manage the idiosyncratic challenges that come with the territory. Together, these recommendations will equip managers to excel in a world that outpaces even the best and brightest.

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Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield are New York Times bestselling authors, keynote speakers, and leading social scientists for business performance. They are the cofounders and leading researchers at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company located in Provo. Grenny and Maxfield’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.