Last week I attended the first Digit Leaders conference at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. There were 3 loosely-themed sessions consisting of 3 15 minute talks and a collective Q&A panel with the 3 speakers.
I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s a great venue and it was the first conference I’ve been to with this format, which doubles down on thinking of a conference as a high level overview of a topic, and a networking event for questions. For these topics I think it went well, but it suited the second two topics more than the first, where I think all the speakers would have benefited from more time to explore how they made changes rather than the high level what they did.
I’m going to split the topics up slightly differently in this post as there’s a couple of topics that came up in several places, in talks, questions and the networking event after.
Leadership is sometimes about a steady hand and maintaining course, but sometimes it’s about taking a failing team, or culture, and turning it around.
A great example of the latter was Helen Marshall of Yodel who was brought in to lead an infrastructure transformation by an IT team with a reputation for impeding progress and without faith in their ability to execute the transformation.
She took some well worn leadership techniques : find and communicate a clear common goal; break the work into smaller chunks; move people into roles that play to their strengths, and created a team that won awards internally and externally for their ability to power the business.
Interestingly though, whilst there were goals for the project (complete this part of the migration before the Christmas rush so we can handle x% more parcels), the goals she focused on were cultural: delight the business, inspire others, won awards. And the project got a new name to keep things fresh. Westinghouse theory can be useful.
There was also an interesting take from Gordon Craig of Craneware, looking at transformation outside the digital part of the business. They sell software but their sales process was misfiring, partly down to long lead times that meant the feedback loop was slack.
Again, rather than focus on sales goals, he started tracking team behaviours, which can be monitored and corrected on a much shorter timescale. He didn’t go into much detail on what behaviours he monitored except to say there was daily dashboard monitoring that could be done locally in the US and at home in the UK, and that data quality in the CRM was an issue so he tied commission to having the correct data in the CRM. If it wasn’t there, no commission was paid.
He also spoke about rethinking the company as a sales company rather than a software company, aligning the rest of the business, and the strategy, to the goal of more sales, pushing the rest of the business to support that pipeline.
Cultures, sub-cultures and co-existing
There’s always been a stereotype of IT as socially awkward, 20-stone, socially awkward men who work in windowless basements. That’s less true than it was, but there’s still cultural differences between IT and other parts of the business, but one thing we can easily forget it’s that there can just as big differences between Sales culture and Marketing culture, between the US organisation and the UK organisation, or between verticals within the organisation who target different markets.
Liza Horan discussed the later in the context of Disney, a very hierarchical organisation with a culture of asking for permission, with their child organisation ESPN, which is individual driven and a culture more about do it and all for forgiveness. Which very much reminded me of the behind the scenes stories of how Pixar works and how they fit in.
Chris Rivinus had some great data quantifying this cultural difference, between departments and between countries, based on surveys and Hofstede’s law. He also spoke about how he’d used this to aid communication. In one large organisation, they needed to update their cybersecurity. This was communicated as an agreed document, and everyone git the same content, but the highlights of the message were adapted to whether the department in question was, for example, hierarchy focused (do this for your boss), financially driven (do this or here are the penalties) or various other axes.
We know, as IT, we need to tailor our message to the audience, but it was fascinating to see numbers and here more techniques about how to put that into practice.
Diversity and the skills gap
A recurring theme throughout the day was that the white male stereotype was very much the norm at the conference. 7% were women, and no numbers on other aspects of diversity.
It’s hard to blame the conference for that though as it was still far more balanced than the pure technology and architecture conferences I’ve attended.
I think on the core question of whether it’s a lack of diversity in technology or in leadership, I see marginally better balance higher up in organisations, but I don’t know why.
The big challenge, as it has been throughout STEM for a while, is how to get and keep them interested in technology throughout school and university and into work. Find the right inspiration and role models? I’m not the expert here, but I see the problem constantly.
Good leadership is full of apparent contradictions. You need to be strong to inspire others to the bigger goals, and to make the tough decisions; but you have to be vulnerable enough to ask for help when you don’t have options to make decisions on, to rely on others to tell you what the coalface is really like. You need to understand numbers and empathise with people. You need a strong unifying culture where individuals thrive.
I’m no expert on soft skills. I’m still learning. In that, I’m not alone in the technical sphere. Other teams succeed on skills that overlap more with leadership skills, so it can be harder for technical people to succeed as leaders without a willingness to learn. That’s why we need conferences like this, to help us learn.
For those of you who can read it, here’s my notes from the conference.