Today’s software and technology industry is huge, and many of the companies within it were launched by technology professionals who were tired of working for others and had some ideas of their own. But should technologists also start taking the helms of non-tech companies as well? After all, digital is the be-all future of business, right?
Marc Andreessen, storied Silicon Valley venture capitalist and, as founder of Netscape, was one of the first to put the World Wide Web on the map, says many companies would be better off with technologists at the helm. “Find the smartest technologist in the company and make them CEO,” he advises in a recent McKinsey interview.
The problem is, the most technology-proficient people usually don’t hold top leadership positions — they’re usually working behind the scenes. And “there’s only a finite number of super-smart engineers,” he elaborates. “That problem is that the true technologists inside so many big companies are not the primary people at the company. They’re not treated as first-class citizens.”
Witness Tesla, which “is run by the technologist who envisioned the entire thing and knows every aspect of how a self-driving electric car works,” Andreessen illustrates. “The big car companies are run by people who have more classical business training, who are not inherently technologists.”
At Tesla, “the engineers working on self-driving cars are the most important people,” he continued. “Elon talks about them all the time, he talks to them all the time, and they’re basically the leaders in the company. The people working on that stuff at traditional auto OEMs are not. They’re still in this kind of back-room thing. The people who have led the business for 40 years are the same kind of people who are now in charge.”
Should the technologists take the reins of mainstream companies as Andreessen suggests, or should things stay in the hands of business-focused individuals that at least understand the power of technology? Industry leaders I have approached over the past several months on this question concur that tech savvy is now part of leadership roles, but business savvy is also just as important.
“You don’t need to know how to code — although it’s a plus — but tech literacy is now a required management skill,” says Linda Dupree, entrepreneur and former CEO of NCSolutions. “Keeping pace with emerging technologies and applications is absolutely necessary. Start by acquiring the tech skills necessary to excel within your current role. Then commit to learning about machine learning, artificial intelligence and visualization, as well as the innovative ways you can deploy these capabilities for organizational growth and competitive advantage.”
Digital transformation “is changing the technological needs of enterprises, and leaders have to keep up or risk falling behind,” says Borya Shahknovich, CEO and cofounder of airSlate. “This doesn’t mean that enterprise leaders now need to also be IT wizards, but it does mean that they need to harness the potential of their employees to become citizen developers. Enterprises have the opportunity to work faster and smarter, led by the non-IT employees they already have.
These times of disruption and turbulence “require leaders to be more dynamic, responsive, and digitally savvy than in any previous period,” says Dustin Grosse, chief marketing and strategy officer for Nintex. “Competition is driving companies to digitally transform how they operate with more efficiency, less mundane, repetitive, busy work. Deep business insight on how to streamline work is the key to accomplishing real digital transformations and avoiding the all-too-common issue of merely changing manual garbage-in processes to digital garbage-out processes.”
Aspiring and current leaders “need to be savvy about how they guide their companies through this era of intense digital transformation,” says Shahknovich. “Cutting-edge software solutions, data and analytics, AI—these are all tools leaders should be capitalizing on to expand their company’s business potential.”
Still, along with tech savvy, those aspiring to lead need to be “highly collaborative and interested in feedback,” says Shahknovich. This is a role that can be assumed by business professionals, or by technology professionals who are ready to help lead their businesses from a strategic sense. “Strong leaders are committed to breaking down silos and emphasizing cross-functional efforts, which are especially important priorities as remote work and distributed teams become more standard. Leaders should also be interested in hearing from a range of voices — employees, managers, peers, board members, customers — and in establishing a culture where success comes from strategies informed by the feedback and perspectives of a variety of people.”
People who aspire to leadership roles, regardless of background, “need to be ready,” Andreessen pointed out in his McKinsey interview. “I do sessions all the time with big companies where I go through my whole spiel [about crypto and blockchain and Web3]. I see everybody around the conference room with their increasingly skeptical looks. They’re all trying to calibrate each other. Are they going to feel like a fool if they’re the one who expresses excitement when everybody else thinks it’s stupid? I assumed that by now more big companies would be more open to these new ideas. But there’s something in their culture, something in the structure of how these companies are constituted.”
The key is to maintain “a learner’s mindset, even when you are winning,” says Grosse. It is not easy and successful companies must fight against complacency that often accompanies success. There is no time to rest on laurels which will be quickly copied and improved upon by competitors. Learn to be a constructive and authentic change leader within your own team and across your group and company.”