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A Different Kind of CTO: Guiding With Trust

Changing company
New Manager of Manager
Leadership

25 June, 2020

Julien Plee, CTO at Synthesio, explains how as a newly appointed CTO he championed a new approach that rested on trust and developing a consultative process with all stakeholders.

Problem

I joined my current company as a CTO two years ago. Soon after my arrival, I learned that the employees are highly concerned about my future actions, particularly those regarding R&D. They worried about how my appointment would affect their daily operations and if my appointment would entail a major discontinuity in how they did things before. Instead of showing up and instructing them to do things my way I decided to go for another approach -- to engage and involve them in the whole process and encourage them to join me on our common journey.
 

Actions taken

First off, I was genuinely keen to learn about their problems. They were troubled that I would change the technology and architecture which is often the case and what a new CTO is entitled to do. Instead, I tried to establish relationships of trust, get to know them personally, and build a rapport. I borrowed this approach from the book I was reading at that time -- The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change by Camille Fournier who explained how to manage different types of technical teams and build rapport with people on your team.
 

Secondly, I didn’t want to steer things in any direction without first obtaining solid information from all stakeholders. I was very attentive to multiple perspectives I was introduced to through one-on-ones or small group discussions. Not only I was keen to learn about their problems but I was also keen to learn how I could help. For example, on one occasion we discussed the end-user product performance and after learning about all the issues as well as proposals on how to solve them, I was able to help them define a project and assign the team to deal with it.
 

Thirdly, my end goal was to develop a strategy and complete a framework for prospective strategic decisions. I went through all the information I acquired from multiple stakeholders as I wanted all of them to have a sense of ownership. I used different communication tools to ensure that each and every voice would be heard and that the strategy would be a result of a consultative and collaborative process. One of the methods I used to ensure the engagement and participation of my employees was to either use voting on certain issues or reach a consensus when I wanted to secure everyone’s involvement in the implementation of that decision. I used interchangeably consultations, voting, and consensus depending on the effect I wanted to achieve. After the draft of the strategy was finalized, we convened separate meetings presenting different content tailored to address different aspects of various actors within the R&D department -- data science team, back-end team, etc.
 

Lessons learned

  • In the past, I was more of a command-and-control type of manager. When I was promoted to a manager for the first time that was because I was the most accomplished technical engineer on the team and my main responsibility was to instruct other people on technical issues. When I joined my new company I was eager to try this new approach I was reading about and my new role was a perfect opportunity for me to do so. I was trying not only to engage and involve my employees but to show them that I was also vulnerable. I understood their concerns and was willing to learn -- that made me more human in their eyes.
  • I like explaining how and why I reached a certain decision. I think it is important to share with your employees your way of thinking and how their inputs shaped the final decision. That includes elaborating on their role in the decision-making process and the significance of their contributions. I am glad that this approach makes my employees feel valued and appreciated.
  • The Executive Board was pleased that I managed to instill a sense of ownership across different teams. It motivated people and encourage them to be more involved in future projects.

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