What are the characteristics of the top tech CEOs that make them admired and supported by over 90 percent of their staff? At an ever-increasing rate, it is their ability to communicate a clear vision, to focus relentlessly on execution, and to remain calm and cleared-headed while working through the constant bombardment of pressures and challenges.
Apple’s Tim Cook, Adobe’s Shantanu Narayan, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, and Google’s Sundar Pichai have become permanent fixtures on the lists of the world’s most effective and respected CEOs. So, what do they have in common? While they are tough on the inside and full of conviction, they have also learned to be effective leaders through active listening, interpreting data accurately, utilizing their strong instincts, and communicating effectively with an assured confidence and a calm voice. There is rarely a need for them to yell, pound their fists, or to act tough on the outside.
Warren Buffett shared a lesson he learned from Thomas Murphy, the former Chairman and CEO of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), who Buffet refers to as one of his heroes. Murphy was known to be extremely even-tempered and rarely if ever raised his voice. His advice to Buffett was, “you can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow.” The point is that you don’t lose the opportunity to tell someone how you really feel by giving yourself another day. If it turns out you feel the same way, tell them then, but don’t say things in a moment of anger that you might ultimately regret. Wise words for all of us to live by.
In my book, Decoding Your STEM Career, I describe my own personal experiences, sometimes finding it difficult to control my emotions at work. As a senior manager at IBM, I was responsible for product management of our object-oriented compilers. A peer of mine was responsible for strategy. Our jobs overlapped, which complicated an already strained relationship. I remember him coming after me in a public meeting. I was taken aback at first and tried to stay calm, but ultimately lost my composure. It was the only time in my career that I recall getting into a public shouting match with a colleague. Like kindergarteners, we were called into the lab director’s office who scolded us for acting this way in a public meeting, on full display in front of more junior managers.
Fast forward several years to RIM. I was leading a large organization developing our enterprise products. One of my colleagues headed up product management. Even on the best of days, we found it difficult to work together. His team disagreed with many of my team’s design decisions and our joint boss decided to call a meeting in an effort to broker a solution. The meeting didn’t start out well as the product team’s presentation was littered with subtle insults and I noticed my team getting visibly upset as they listened. Faces got redder as the meeting progressed, and it became clear we were headed in a very dangerous direction. I requested we pause the meeting so that my peer and I could have a private discussion. We used the opportunity to air our differences, releasing what felt like months of bottled-up frustration. We were experienced enough to know that direct altercations of this nature should only happen behind closed doors. We also knew it was both our jobs to manage the rapidly deteriorating situation.
We ended up agreeing to certain concessions and to a revised working model between our teams. We also agreed to two compromise decisions, with each of us getting our way on one of them. We returned to the meeting together, committed to the go-forward plan. We were aligned in our communications, we set clear expectations, and we asked our teams to follow suit by turning a new chapter. Our teams began working better together immediately afterward and we ended up delivering a strong product to market. When I compare how I handled the situation to my performance at the IBM meeting a decade earlier, I felt a true sense of personal growth.
I learned from my mistakes and also by watching others in action. Studying the leadership styles of the world’s best technology CEO’s can be enormously helpful, so long as you commit to staying true to yourself and to adapting a leadership style that is consistent with who you are as a person. Tim Cook has a reputation for being open and for listening carefully to other people’s ideas. He is known to ask many questions and for taking whatever time he needs to process answers before making a decision. Shantanu Narayan believes it is critical to lead in a way that harnesses the power of his organization to solve problems that others avoid, or find too difficult. Satya Nadella takes an empathetic and gentle approach, valuing each employee, encouraging them to be their best and to drive a culture of innovation and collaboration. Sundar Pichai is known for his listening skills, for helping others to understand difficult concepts, for caring about people, and for avoiding making enemies.
These great leaders understand that that it is their job to set strategy, to ask tough questions, to keep everyone honest, and to regularly demonstrate trust and support in their teams. Technologists tend to be proud of their skills and it is important for them to be treated with the respect that they deserve. For most leaders, an excessive use of authority or aggressiveness doesn’t work in the long term. The greatest leaders of our generation have figured this out and they set a shining example for the rest of us. They realize that it is the job of a technology leader to be the best coach they can be, not to be the team’s goon or their best player. In the ultra-competitive world of technology, it’s nice to know that nice guys really can finish first.
Written by Pete Devenyi.
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