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Learning to Let Go: Leadership in Tech

February 10, 2022

Why tech leaders should take a step back from being technical specialists to investing themselves in people

Life in the tech space is one of cycles. “A new programming language comes up and everyone gets excited about the new tech that will solve some problem that maybe doesn't actually exist in the organisation”. Veteran techpreneur and current VP of Technology for Pintek, Manfred Ekblad has gone through countless rounds of development and shares his thoughts on leadership and motivation in the tech industry. 

From Technologist to Tech Leader

“Tech was my passion for 20 years before I even started to think about myself as a leader or a manager.” 

Manfred worked as a developer for a long time, tirelessly honing his technical skills, before dabbling in management. He recalls seeing a leadership gap while working on railway infrastructure years ago and stepping up to make sure that the projects kept moving forward. It turned out to be quite fun so he tried to take on the role in an unofficial capacity. He was given more responsibility and people took notice. From there, things snowballed. 

Architecting Your Team’s Careers 

Trial and error. This was the primary strategy he employed to develop as a leader. He also took cues from people he met who were on similar journeys, but just a few steps ahead. Without a mentor, he read books on psychology, behavioural science and leadership to educate himself. It’s not a path he recommends. The process was long, and at times painful. 

Manfred helps those he leads to architect their careers, no strings attached. He knows the inner workings of developers well, acknowledging that they often are the sort who love puzzles. 

“If you run out of problems that are interesting to solve, then you run out of passion as well”. 

It’s great when staff opt to stay with the company discovering a suitable role where they can thrive. However, they sometimes find themselves on a plateau. Helping them plan their career, even if that means taking training or looking for jobs elsewhere, sometimes will boost their morale and keep them engaged until they’re ready for their next steps. 

Leader’s Playbook: Asking the right questions

Manfred’s leadership style is one of guided exploration. He refrains from providing his team with solutions outright. Expediency takes a backseat to their development. Manfred points out “if you never fall off the bike, you also never learned”. He remembers a time when some team leads looked into a project. They were surprised to find out things weren’t as far along as they’d been led to believe by the engineers’ glowing reports. The scenario’s fairly common in tech development. Instead of walking his team leads through his own strategies, Manfred asks them to come up with a plan to solve the problem: how do we keep the project on track and monitor progress accurately? (read: don’t just blame the engineers)

This approach to rearing leaders requires patience. With the tech industry’s tempo, it’s definitely a change of pace. The long term goal of learning comes into focus. If you’ve recruited the right sort of people, those who are self-motivated and driven, they will figure things out. Thinking of his own evolution, Manfred saw that he needn’t be the guy with all the answers. Rather, he was better served as a leader by becoming the one asking questions informed by his extensive experience and knowledge. 

Leader’s Play Book: Taking Care of Each Layer

Manfred’s experience cuts across different kinds of organisations at different layers of leadership. He’s founded companies and run both small and large teams. His experience, especially in the tech startup space, undoubtedly shines through. In his senior leadership roles, he’s worked with layers of management and built strong foundations (onboarding, SOPs, budgeting) that enables the team to lean into what they set out to do. In the case of Pintek, that’s to make education more accessible through affordable loans using a revolutionary fintech platform. His goal for 2022? “I'd like to feel that if I get replaced by someone else, they should just open a book, and then there's everything…kind of get to the level where anyone could do my job”

Another critical aspect of his role is cultivating the management layers within his team. People need leadership, not just systems. He spends time getting to know each of his developers. He’s cultivated close relationships with his teams in the past but acknowledges this gets more challenging as one’s span of control grows. In his current situation, he’s seen the importance of setting the right tone and culture to keep larger teams knit together. “Everyone should feel that same culture.” The atmosphere encourages teams not to work in silos and more as a whole.

It’s a balancing act - working on structure and taking care of your people. Manfred is conscious to give each of these aspects the right level of attention. The human touch needn’t be sabotaged by time on spreadsheets and budgets. “It still comes down to people performing the best, what they can - day by day - the 1% per day increase in productivity or doing a little bit better every day.”

Meaningful Communication Starts with Why

A common theme emerges in our conversations with tech leaders: communication is critical. Manfred emphasises that this goes far deeper than proactively providing updates or delivering polished presentations. It’s about person to person conversations of substance: “Why are we doing this? What's the purpose of this? Why is it important right now?” Answering these sorts of questions draws out the significance of the work and adds depth to professional relationships. Individuals see themselves as part of a team trying to achieve certain objectives, not as employees struggling to accomplish 500 tasks before Friday. They can see how their work translates to impact. 

Transparency is a dimension of communication that cannot be overlooked. Manfred encourages leaders to share news - whether good or bad. “The only bad way to handle it is to keep it from everyone else.” Problems can usually be mitigated but if there’s a culture of keeping things under wraps, there’s a risk of getting locked in your head with no one to help. Candour from leaders can inspire teams to be more open about both positive and negative developments. Neither a top-down nor bottom-up flow of communication is good. “It has to be a dialogue.”

Reflection Questions

Progression to leadership often involves taking a step back from being a technical specialist and investing yourself in people. If you’re a tech leader, how might you do this?: 

  • Who are some individuals (internal or external to your organisation) whose career paths you can actively consider? 
  • How might you give your people the space to solve interesting problems?
  • How can you inspire your team to be more open and communicate things of significance through constant dialogue, whether good or bad? 

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