“Coaching isn’t therapy – it’s product development with you as the product”
I started my career as many of us did, messing around at home with a PC, Mac or phone (my youth pre-dates the smartphone!) trying to understand how the operating systems worked and whether they could be tweaked. I experimented with the technologies of the day, learning simple programming languages and it was BASIC, whereas kids today are starting with Scratch (or Lego equivalent) and moving into Python. This tech thing became my passion and a career springboard as the teenage enthusiast became a programmer and before you know it, a senior developer grappling with management duties and junior developers who needed my guidance. Nowadays there are forums, online courses, examples, tutorials, competitions and a myriad of different ways and channels for learning and building language and framework skills so my early days of learning on the job feel like ancient history today, an era when we had to buy books and subscribe to MSDN for their monthly CDs. Ultimately though, the process retains at least one common thread that it’s only by doing that you really learn. The skill of the developer is not the building of an application per se, but knowing what parts of the development framework actually work and what is the best to implement in reality. But that technical learning process felt natural. It was what I had trained for since I was a kid and even if I didn’t immediately understand something, it felt relatively straightforward for me to join up the dots.
But All That Changed …
… when I encountered the more uncomfortable step change of moving from the technical into managerial and leadership roles where I was no longer dealing with something that came naturally to me. Now I was managing a team, running stand-ups, dealing with their performance issues and having to tolerate other people’s mistakes (and code!). In those senior roles I was now the leader, visionary, strategist and tech poster boy for the company which meant breaking out of my comfort zone of language, norms and foibles. Now I had to communicate effectively to the wider business and outside world and to people who didn’t really speak my language, literally. As I stepped into the CTO hot seat and my role significantly shifted away from day-to-day tech issues and towards strategy and leadership, I sometimes found myself feeling isolated and vulnerable, particularly when needing to make big ticket decisions and it was noticeable that most training remained fixed on the technical, rather than the managerial. I certainly made some mistakes and they essentially turned into my training course. But one outlet that did help me feel less isolated was by working with mentors and coaches, people whom I could have confidential conversations with insight but without judgment. Those I worked with made such an impact on my career that it became a key pillar of CTO Academy for us to provide tech leaders around the world with a highly personalised and structured leadership coaching programmes. With me, the CTO Academy project is personal.
What Is The Essence Of A Strong Coaching Relationship?
Coaches are not generally available for skill top ups or hands on input, but should be there to listen, guide and help you iron out career, operational and management challenges. What is important to recognise is that you are the tech leader and you need to avoid looking to them for making decisions for your organisation. They won’t have the in-depth knowledge of your business and team so there is a limit to what they can provide but high-value results can sometimes be as simple as bouncing ideas and memorable shared experiences that helps provide reassurance, support and fresh eyes onto a challenging problem. Another valuable learning experience is the art of coaching itself. Your leadership role should not be all about top down instruction, it should be focused on how you can inspire your own team and enable them to grow into the most effective version of themselves. That will require you to apply your own coaching and mentoring skills whether in technical, project management, business or soft skills as you will start to become a coach for the next generation coming through. “Technology leadership comes with responsibility and isolation. It’s why I strongly believe in the need and importance of executive coaching for tech leaders” You need to keep an open mind about how much or little they can add and whilst I’ve not always agreed with the advice given, building a relationship of trust with coaches creates the confidence that it’s given with the best intentions. I certainly reflect that the times I didn’t have a coach to help bounce ideas off were the moments in my career when it took me significantly longer to get to the right and sometimes the wrong decision. Another small but useful advantage of having a coach on your side is that their network is likely to be larger than yours and they may know someone who can help step in and solve a specific problem. I’ve always viewed my coaches and mentors as part of an extended support system.
What Do Tech Leaders Want From Their Coaching?
These days with every company being a tech company the role of tech leader has become ever more prominent and with so much disruption in the world, digital and political, the challenges and strategic responsibility of leadership ever more intense and stressful. So with the business environment in flux it means that adaptability and coaching is more important than ever to becoming an effective leader. Research also indicates that senior executives who rate high on interpersonal effectiveness (Emotional Intelligence) significantly outperform peers who don’t and it’s in those soft skills where the differences emerge. In this dynamic and highly competitive business environment, the value of capitalising on that kind of edge is obvious. Coaching can help you create that edge and market difference in your performance and impact. It needs to be individually tailored to suit your skill set, challenge and target outcomes. “In times of change and uncertainty, the most effective leadership model is based on coaching” – Forbes The team here at CTO Academy have spent much of the last 18 months in direct conversation with technology leaders around the world, understanding how and where coaching has the biggest impact. I’ve personally spoken with >200 people across every continent, often in time zones that required an alarm clock for me here in London. I’ve loved every conversation because whilst each individual and situation is different, many of their challenges (personal and corporate) are consistent and the ultimate challenge they’re looking to solve comes down to 3 key areas namely; (1) accelerating their career and income; (2) providing them with more confidence in their current role; (3) providing them with more confidence to go for future roles; We wanted to drill into a more granular level of understanding about what benefits they received so we asked >100 of our clients around the world to detail the 2-3 things they found most effective from their coaching programme …
- Enhanced effectiveness at work by working smarter, not harder;
“I can finally see the wood for the trees. Out of the weeds so to speak”
- Greater reflectivity about own strengths, weaknesses and purpose;
“It was amazing to find a coach who walked straight up to a key point of stress, my own mindset. I was sure the problem was external, it turned out to be very much about my own confidence and believing in myself again. That the decisions I was making were good ones”
- Helping us cement the process, hiring strategies and culture needed to support fast growth”
“From blind fire fighting to implementation of a process that have given us the foundation for growth, as an early or accidental CTO this was invaluable input”
- Better understanding of how to communicate with other stakeholders and in particular key executives including the CEO;
“The relationship with my CEO was extremely stressful but as my coaching drew out, it was as much my failure to understand his pressures and communicate more clearly what I was trying to deliver. I look back now and question how we ever survived”
- How to achieve a better career impact (without doubt the main area of coaching we provide):
“Greater clarity about my career roadmap and better direction about how to promote my personal brand and increase my market value”
My Own Learning Journey Never Stops
Part of my own learning curve in leadership has been the importance of being nice to sales and marketing – the former pay your wages, the latter are close to the customer. My marketing team tells me I have to complete a quick bio for this week’s newsletter and I’ve been asked to submit a sentence based around “What I Love About CTO Academy”. Whilst I’m not normally a marketing type of guy, the answer to this question was simple and captured (I hope) in this article. What I love about CTO Academy? That we’re helping global tech leaders negotiate some of the challenges that frustrated my own career by providing high quality coaching programmes focused on target outcomes.