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Scaling a high-performance culture: 3 tips for tech CEOs

This article is a guest post by Richard Medcalf, Founder of Xquadrant. Richard is an executive coach to top tech-sector CEOs, and specialises in helping leaders and teams go from “good to great” and achieve their next level of impact. He is also host of the Impact Multiplier CEO podcast.

Tech firms differ from many other businesses in two key ways: the sheer rate of growth and the difficulty of attracting top talent. Together, these factors present a striking difficulty for tech CEOs: how do I scale the people-side of my business to keep pace with the market opportunity?

Because culture is “what happens when you’re not looking”, it’s incredibly important to scale a consistent and high-performance culture as you bring on new employees in new regions and grow the overall team. It creates a shared sense of belonging, captures what best practice behaviours look like, and it reduces the risk of silos and divergent decision-making.

In my work with some of the world’s top tech CEOs and management teams to scale high-performance cultures, some recurring best practices have emerged. Taken together, they provide the basis of an actionable strategy for any leader of a fast-growth business.

1. End the superstar culture

In my article, “Scaling a company: Why leaders in tech fail to capture the market”, I critique the tech-sector “superstar culture” in depth and explain how it’s a real liability and limiting factor.

The problem is, many tech CEOs themselves fall for the “superstar” mentality themselves and are busy stamping their willpower all over the organisation in the name of “getting things done fast” and on the basis that “nobody else can see all the different factors as well as me”.

There’s another name for this: disempowerment. As McKinsey puts it, “whilst the CEO is the most powerful person in the organisation, you will pay a great price if you use it to unilaterally issue orders or summarily reject proposals that have come up through the business. Ironically, by exercising his power to give orders, the CEO actually reduces his real power, saps his energy and that of his employees, and slows down progress.”

What the CEO models, the rest of the leadership will start to imitate. So commit to asking better questions of your team, instead of providing them with better answers.

2. Start with the #1 team

The other issue with “superstar culture” is the focus that is placed on the operational competence of key leaders instead of their ability to actually develop their team.

The result? Bottlenecks emerge throughout the organisation, with the “superstars” hitting the ceiling of complexity and unable to free themselves up for strategic activity.

Once again, you need to model this yourself – because no team in your business will be healthier than your #1 team. The challenge facing most tech CEOs is to turn your direct reports from “a bunch of high-performers” into a high-performing and cohesive leadership team.

Very often we observe that superstar leaders feel very comfortable in their own functional areas, but you need to build shared goals and cross-functional ownership.

There are many ways of taking your leadership team up a level, but I’d start by asking the team some key questions about what the team can do together that it can’t do apart and what the key stakeholders would be asking of the team if they were in the room. I’d also regularly ask the team to prioritise which linkages between functional areas it would be most beneficial to improve, and what the team plans to do about that.

3. Define and multiply

Once your leadership team is modelling the key elements of a strong value-creating team, then there’s actually something valuable to multiply. Culture is made real in teams, and so you have to be 100% sure you have it in your leadership team before you can turn your attention to “bottling it” and scaling it across the organisation.

How do you “bottle culture”? I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere, but at its simplest it involves at least two elements.

Firstly, you need to establish an objective language to describe desired mindsets and successful leadership behaviours. And secondly, you need to create vehicles (such as various training or coaching environments) that help people turn that language from a passive idea to an active toolset.

Conclusion: transmission not roll-out

In conclusion, to build and scale a high-performance culture that can support the expansion of the business, tech CEOs need to focus on three things:

Firstly, they must step away from ‘superstar mentality’ and operational decision-making and invest their time in the indirect levers governing the business.

Secondly, they must ensure the #1 team operates collaboratively and with real strategic focus.

Finally, they must focus on transmission instead of programmatic roll-out of leadership culture. This means truly embedding the culture level by level, and requires the development of language and vehicles that help each leader model and articulate the desired leadership culture to their own teams.