Bikram Gupta Sarma
There is a common saying that has been echoed by many CEOs that “it is lonely at the top”. In an interview in 2016, five years after taking over as CEO from Steve Jobs, Tim Cook clarified that the problems that leaders face is not loneliness, but isolation.
Technology CEOs experience this isolation in their roles as they go about their daily work. All of them are extremely successful and got to this position because they were better than others, but do they still feel anxieties that they are isolated in their roles?
There are common anxieties that I have witnessed working with technology leaders in my career both in technology companies and now as an executive and leadership coach. Many solutions and advises have been given to overcome these, however since technology itself changes rapidly, these anxieties get amplified, and the feeling continues to stay.
The 5 anxieties of a tech CEO
A technology CEO constantly faces these five anxieties or challenges. The first is dealing with increasing individual and team performance. Technology moves at such a rapid pace that it is difficult to keep up with evolving new concepts. The second is with doing more with less – either with resources (people and budgets) or time to meet the company goals. Most technology organizations have developed specializations over the years and the CEO experiences the third anxiety of leveraging with partner organizations as specializations are all over. Often, either the organization, the investors or the board has a new vision, and the CEO now needs to deal with a fourth anxiety of how to synchronize one’s execution with a new vision. Finally, the technology world has grown global and technology teams take the job to where the talent is. This now means managing and leading global workforce, the fifth anxiety.
“Into the unknown” is a popular song from Disney’s movie – Frozen 2. The following lines from the song resonate with all these anxieties and challenges that a tech leader faces as they climb the corporate ladder.
Every day’s a little harder
As I feel my power grow
Don’t you know there’s part of me
That longs to go
More about these anxieties
Being a CEO in technology is a mixed blessing. One loves technology as it involves creation, design and execution of a new product. However, for customers to adopt a product, it is not just dependent on generating ideas of what is possible, but successful execution and delivery. As the leader starts to bring visions to reality, they start to encounter the various challenges and anxieties. Let us examine each in detail.
Anxiety 1: Increasing Performance
We all know technology moves at a fast pace. Technology companies pivot their technology strategy every 2 to 3 years due to rate of change. In this environment a CEO could be a hero today and not be the cool leader tomorrow. As they try to keep up with the new shiny object it causes great anxiety and challenges.
A CEO who understands a few concepts in one and some or none in the other will have trouble if his team starts to think that he is a dinosaur. This causes anxieties like “Does the team respect me?” The leader is now challenged with continually increasing their personal performance. Where is the time to do this while running a company?
Anxiety 2: Doing more with less
As we know, technology is an evolving field. How does this translate to what one does and execution of regular programs and projects? Let us put ourselves in the shoes of a CEO. The leader has developed a state-of-the-art product or service using today’s technology. In a couple of years, this technology will be obsolete. In two to three years, the company will need to build another product or service using the prevalent technology of that time. But they will also need to sustain the existing technology due to customers who may not be ready to switch to a new paradigm or may have users who use that. The CEO now needs to manage two streams – one sustaining and one innovating. This is the innovative leader’s dilemma. The investors are not ready to invest in the sustaining technology as it will not bring any new customers. This will plateau the company as opposed to the growth plan that was agreed on with investors and communicated to the employees. The CEO now needs to deliver more with almost the same or lessor amount of investment.
Another dimension of this challenge is that employees move onto other technologies as they want to stay ahead of new things. This implies that the sustaining team get smaller. Investors decide that there is no business growth in this area, so this magically becomes the budget for next year.
In both cases, the CEO is now challenged to do more with less – either with budgets or people resources.
Anxiety 3: Partner management
As technology evolved, it also continued to specialize. A great example is of banking software. 25 years ago, almost all banking data was in mainframe computers. If one needed a statement, one went to a bank’s branch which would print out the statement. Around this time, personal computers and internet started to emerge, and banking technologists built software to allow access using web connection technologies. Soon smart mobile phones and tablets emerged, and our data was accessible as applications (Apps) on these devices. Just this use case alone has five specializations in a broad category. In addition, each has sub specializations in user interface, data management, device and data security, data integration, etc.
In the example above, let us assume that the technology CEO needs to provide a complete solution to a customer. The CEO’s company has a piece of the puzzle that will help form the bigger picture. How does the CEO now find the other pieces and effectively partner with other companies to provide a complete solution to the customer?
Anxiety 4: Change in vision
There can be two reasons of vision change. First is in the direction of the company and second is change in a board or investors.
The company’s new vision needs change in skills, and the existing teams could become redundant all together. This is the cause of the first type of anxiety that CEO face due to vision change.
The second is when the composition of the board or the investors changes and they want the company to go a different way than what the CEO would like or envisages.
This is a conundrum that the CEO faces while they would like to stay with the original goal.
Anxiety 5: Effective Global workforce
This has been a competency in some industries like manufacturing, however it is a different kind of challenge for technology CEOs. I have written an article on this topic entitled ‘The world is potholed’. The tech CEO is posed with cultural issues, gauging productivity, managing multiple time zones, establishing local leadership, management of global workforce, project portfolio distribution, resource and skill availability, juggling budgets, and various administrative challenges. These can easily overwhelm a CEO in addition to the other anxieties that they already have.
Getting to Successful outcomes
I first came across the term thinking partner in a book by Marcia Reynolds. This was an ‘aha’ moment for me. Somewhere in my mid-career, I was fortunate to have an executive coach who was my thinking partner when similar anxieties and challenges started.
A technology CEO is the one who understands their organization and its behaviors the best. A ‘trusted advisor, executive coach and thinking partner’ works with the successful CEO – leader to make them even more successful. In his book, Marshall Goldsmith, the world’s #1 leadership coach talks about 20 habits that hold leaders back.
A thinking partner helps engage in a productive dialog in a safe environment to remove anxieties and discuss these habits. The executive coach provides a confidential environment for thoughts and ideas and helps examine them. The trusted advisor discusses prizes (pros) for doing or not doing something, and punishment (cons) for doing or not doing something. This approach leads to successful outcomes.
Outcome 1: Impactful leadership
Technology CEOs continue to get better in their areas using a structured process so that their leadership has a major impact. This works both for a CEO who has been in a role for a time and when these anxieties emerge, or someone who recently got into this new role and is suddenly faced with questions like “how much is my work is related to technology and how much is leading the extended leadership team?”
Outcome 2: Business direction
Most CEOs start out in technology with either a skill or knowledge in a particular area as an individual contributor. Soon technology leadership takes them into roles of managing and leading successful teams. They need to balance the direction their company’s business is going, even as the excitement of the technology stays. CEOs need to escape the present trap.
Outcome 3: Successful Global teams
Creating, managing and leading global teams is not an easy task. The CEO needs to find the right person who understands the strategy then establish these teams and investigate models that work. CEOs know their organizations best and team dynamics could negatively or positively impact the outcome.
Outcome 4: Solve Conundrums
A lot of decisions made by tech CEOs is impacted by knowledge, assumptions and beliefs. Another decision factor is determined by the consequences the leader fears. A thinking partner helps the leader understand, analyze and look at them objectively to get to an informed decision.
Outcome 5: Streamline workflows
Leaders could possibly streamline plans if they think about the workflows that they want to create. A thinking partner expands awareness of all these outcomes.
Figure 2: Transformation of the Technology CEO to move forward and leaving anxieties behind
The author Bikram Gupta Sarma is a Principal at IBTA GLOBAL. He pivoted from being a Technology Leader to an Advisor, Thinking partner and Executive Coach. He has over three and a half decades of experience, from building startups to mid-sized businesses to working in a large Fortune 100 company. He has held executive leadership positions in software engineering, product management and engineering operations working with customers across multiple disciplines. Bikram drove and managed platform and systems engineering at Oracle as Vice President for multiple products. He also worked in a General Management role of Global Operations leading teams in 6 countries across multiple business units.
Recently, as technology continues to evolve, Bikram helped create cloud based systems and transform business models from traditional software licensing to recurring revenue subscriptions. He also managed engineering teams developing for embedded, Internet of Things (IoT) and Data Integration solutions.