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Corporate / Create Movement

People get hired because of their specific expertise, in this case a CTO was brought on board to revamp the system architecture. An online retailer had gone from proof of concept and early stage customers to full blown e-commerce. It was clear that a strong CTO needed to lead the company to a 24/7 uptime fully scalable platform. Private Ryan was the man although at the time he did not call himself that. He loved the challenge of leaving the ivory tower of cool coding amongst peers to lead a production team of engineers.

What was not ever discussed in the hiring process were the things that would be the real challenge:

  • Lead a team as a newcomer, in a foreign country and foreign work culture.
  • High expectations based on his track record in an environment of peers – like most brilliant engineers he had moved around companies fluidly following personal connections and thus continued to work with like-minded people.
  • No mentorship or other resources available to grow into this new role.

In short time on the job, the CTO understood what needed to be done with the platform, move people to agile programming as well as installing a rigorous QA system. That was the easy part – where he got stuck was changing the mindset of a dysfunctional team.  Milestones were routinely missed and the focus on quality was absent, the program felt like a giant boat anchor around his neck. The CTO engaged our help, not sure what was wrong but knowing he needed a fresh perspective.

We identified his key issue – coming from an ivory tower environment he had no idea people could be different, or more precisely that people could be wrong for the team and needed to be managed closely or else. This went completely against his personality and any work experience until then. He was a believer if you guide people gently towards their own greatness things will work out. Faced with a couple of team leaders who needed a firm and unyielding hand, he was afraid they would quit on him.

Relating it back to his mission – to take the company to the next level – he understood he had to act tough and take no prisoners which meant setting clear delivery objectives and enforce them rapidly. As coaches we know that you have to build an everyday bridge to your rational intentions to be able to deploy them in times of stress, so we asked him to come up with a metaphor for who he was in that role. He instantly recalled Private Ryan as an alias for doing something bad for the sake of the greater good.

The mid term result of Private Ryan managing his team was a vastly improved team morale as the trouble makers got moved sideways and eventually decided to leave. The team was proud to be instrumental in turning the company’s tech product around which meant moving into the next phase of business expansion.

Long term, he has accepted that true leadership shows up on the battle field and that a team has to be coherent around the Why – the common goal that allows you to pull together in adversity. Relentless focus on communication and spotting early trouble is now his leadership style.