Mentorship in Tech: Effective Leadership Development
How mentoring can enhance leadership development and help overcome tech sector challenges to building a high-performing leadership team.
By: Leadership Dynamics team
This article is part of our series on leadership development.
In any industry, how a company makes use of its leadership capital can be the difference between success and failure; having the right people on the senior leadership team is the cornerstone for organisational performance. But there is a particular pressure in the tech industry, where survival means scaling, and scaling quickly, to stay in line with technological advancements and ahead of competitors.
So, it’s essential to have a team of operators with the experience, and behaviours to take a tech company from a single product or offering to a profitable platform of solutions. Finding high performing leaders for this sector, however, can be tricky. There is aggressive demand for leadership talent in the tech industry and historic wage inflation for technical and sales roles coupled with a job-hopping culture mean that the top talent is constantly lured away from the pool by those offering the highest salaries and the best incentives.
Central to overcoming this issue is to make the most out of existing talent. By identifying those with high leadership potential, understanding their optimal career paths and using those learnings to personalise a leadership development programme, companies can provide themselves with an endless pipeline of leadership talent ready to step up in the future.
The question is how. This article aims to explain why mentoring is key to an effective leadership development programme and laying out the benefits and best practices for implementation.
The challenges of leadership development in tech
Why is tech different? Since the need to grow is more immediate than in most other sectors, and if holding onto the right people is more difficult, growing tech companies must make the best of their available human capital, and that means developing high-potential employees. This is a key part of good succession planning but also of instilling a culture of continuous learning and development.
However, before any company can develop new leaders, they need to be able to identify people with high potential. There are a few reasons why this is so hard in tech:
A constantly changing market. There is a lot of change happening at all times in the tech sector. Whether it’s an evolving regulatory environment – for example, financial regulations for fintech and privacy for tech companies holding customer data – constant technological advances or new product developments, this is a fast moving ecosystem that impacts both customers and partners. This means leaders need to be highly curious and able to keep abreast of happenings in the market.
Outdated hiring methods. The normalised style of hiring large numbers of people hoping a few will perform well enough to stay on long term is an inefficient way of identifying talent and attracting future leaders. Skills can be taught, but behaviours are harder to change. Understanding the exact behavioural profile needed for each role, adjusting the hiring brief to suit it makes the retention rate of new hires far more efficient.
Lack of diversity. In our work, we have found that diversity is a key ingredient for high-performing leadership teams. Tech is generally poor on physical diversity – in age, race and gender – because hiring by the CV skews towards young white men. Many companies are myopically focused on hiring from domain (market) experience only, prioritising people who have worked for big names in tech or within the same niche – such as fintech – for a few years. This has locked out people from different backgrounds, but also those with different ways of thinking. Instead, companies should approach hiring briefs by looking at a holistic profile of each individual – their skills, market and situational experience, and behaviours. Only then can they acquire future leaders with both physical and cognitive diversity.
Prerequisites for leadership development programmes
To overcome these challenges, companies need to have the right tools and methods to identify desired leadership profiles and to understand where the gaps are in their current leadership teams.
Building a high-performing leadership team requires two things: high-performing individuals; and a high-performing team dynamic. Unfortunately the first does not necessarily lead to the other. It requires thinking of a team as a functional entity rather than a chance group of individuals.
Knowing the functional balance and individual positioning of the leadership team will show where there will be gaps in skills, knowledge and experience as the company scales.
Screenshots of a Functional Balance chart and Individual Positioning chart from the Leadership Dynamics platform
Data-driven behavioural assessment tools (such as PACE) will not only show the behavioural patterns most likely to lead to high performance in each role, they will also show how each individual behavioural profile complements another, so that the team can function together well.
Only when the gaps are understood can a company build a leadership development programme that is personalised to the individual, and optimised for the needs of the business. Relationship-based development methods like mentoring offers candidates the opportunity for personalised training not offered by traditional leadership development, such as classroom courses and e-learning which are often one-size-fits-all.
Why mentorship matters to leadership development
Effective leadership is no longer simply about competence and authority; leaders are expected to be able to lead through trusted relationships, which requires emotionally intelligent traits such as empathy and self-awareness, which in turn requires relationship-based learning, such as through mentoring sessions, coaching and job rotations.
Learning must be relevant and practical. We now know that a generic class by itself is no longer enough; learning needs to be personalised in a way that is specific to the requirements of the job. And that's why mentorship works so well.
Mentorship is so powerful in the leadership development mix because future leaders can gain valuable insight and practical advice that is specific to the real challenges they are facing, from someone currently working in the role they may someday take on. Learning one-on-one can also help individuals build confidence, improve their communication skills, and develop a stronger sense of self-awareness – all essential qualities for effective leadership.
It is already a proven method. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that 54% of respondents rated mentoring sessions as very or extremely effective compared to 35% for traditional skills training.
Mentorship enhances other forms of training
Research shows that 75% of students forget what they've learned within six days if they don't apply it in the flow of work. And since adults only retain 10% of what they hear in the classroom, it's essential to prepare and approach learning from several angles to maintain an effective leadership development programme.
When put together with traditional leadership development, mentoring is a powerful enhancement. Anything from a class or book that is not immediately relevant or clear to the learner can be clarified by a mentor.
Benefits of mentoring in leadership development
While important in the tech industry, there are benefits to mentorship that reach across all sectors and organisations. You can read our full article on the role of mentorship in leadership development for a full list of benefits, but here are some of the most important:
Up-to-date leadership tips: Practical advice from someone who is actually putting what they say into practice is highly valuable. While classes can offer foundational basics, their content can be interpreted and enriched by someone who can honestly say what has worked for them and what has not.
Improved self-awareness: Self-awareness is essential for effective leadership, as it allows leaders to not only identify areas for improvement and make informed decisions, but understand how their behaviours impact others around them. If a leader is self aware enough to know what behaviours they need in order to complement the rest of their team, then they can personalise their learning and development. Self analysis with data-backed people analytics can help learners gain an objective view of themselves and inform their future leadership path.
Increased confidence: Mentorship can help future leaders to build their confidence and self-esteem, which is essential for effective leadership. When leaders feel confident in their abilities, they are more likely to take risks, make bold decisions, and inspire their teams to achieve organisational effectiveness.
Expanded networks: Well-established leaders acting as mentors can help future leaders to expand their networks and build relationships with other professionals in their field. These connections can be invaluable for career growth and development, as well as for accessing new opportunities and resources.
Best practices for mentorship in leadership development
Here are some of the key steps to creating a successful mentor-mentee relationship:
Set clear goals: Before starting a relationship, establish clear goals and expectations to ensure focus and effectiveness.
Provide regular feedback: Feedback is crucial for self-awareness, growth and development. Regular feedback helps leaders identify areas for improvement.
Encourage self-reflection: Self-reflection is a powerful tool for personal growth and self-awareness. Coupling mentoring with self-assessment tools can help mentees visualise where they are on their leadership development journey.
Offer support and resources: Mentors should provide support and offer resources such as training programmes, networking opportunities, or access to other experts in the field.
Be a role model: Mentors should lead by example and demonstrate the behaviours and skills they are teaching.
Mentoring as part of your leadership development strategy
For tech companies, making the most of your most valuable assets (your people) is key to unlocking growth, especially for potential leaders. Mentoring is a powerful part of the process, but first companies need to be laser focused on identifying the right candidates for a leadership development programme.
People analytics tools that use relevant data to assess existing leadership teams, identify the gaps in skills, experience and behaviours, can help unveil and offer companies a roadmap to high-performing leadership. With a completely objective assessment of leadership abilities, future leaders, managers and teams can pinpoint the gaps in their skills, behaviours or experience and work with mentors to develop strategies to plug those gaps.