Captain of the Foosball Team vs. the Company Leadership team

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If you wanted to get into the technology industry, say about 20 years ago, you may have sought out companies like Intel, HP and IBM. These companies were not only titans in their fields, but they were known for their cultures and dedication to employee training and development. These types of companies would spend money hiring college grads and grooming them into future leaders. These companies had a culture of promoting from within and giving young starts exposure to corporate best practices and mentorship. A good friend of mine started with Intel as an analyst and 25 years later he was heading-up their procurement for a major product line. My Uncle started with HP in the late 70s as an engineer and left the company almost 30 years later as a VP running a plant. Both mentioned how much they appreciated the time and energy that was spent on their professional development. That was the major reason why they both stayed with their companies as long as they did: they felt supported by senior management and were provided with opportunities to grow professionally – oftentimes into new areas – and round out their skills.

Today, if you wanted a job in technology, would a young college graduate seek out a company because of their management development program? Or more importantly, would a young MIT or Cal grad even consider joining a large organization? Startups and high growth companies are recruiting candidates and attracting talent with the promise to build something. To get these young bright grads, they might lure them with free food, bus service (SF to Silicon Valley), ping pong tables and swanky open work spaces. Some startups really go outside the box and offer surfing lessons as a competitive perk.

While I hear about these and many other employee perks (from the mundane to the far out), what I don’t hear much about is a startup pitching their professional development program. “Join our team and we will give you the hard and soft skills required to be a better leader!” doesn’t seem to sell like it used to. Perhaps it works against the whole “hacker” and “agile” mentality to get stuff done, move fast and shake things up that seems to be the dominate mindset of tech workers now. Instead of settling in for a long ride, the focus is on constant action, breaking glass and having the freedom to innovate. Today’s tech companies are more focused on results and agility than they are on ensuring they have appropriately developed their people so that today’s young engineer is an inspiring manager of a team three to four years from now.

Which begs an important question: as tech companies continue to grow, raise capital and recruit fast, are they at risk of developing cultures that lack leaders? If a company doesn’t promote and groom leaders and managers from within, are they able to not only sustain growth, but build long-term businesses that take market leadership positions? What we’re already seeing is that lacking leaders within and the means to develop promising talent, many companies bring experienced talent in from the outside. Take Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Dan Levin at Box and even Dennis Woodside at DropBox as prime examples. These executives were recruited for their expertise but also to help bring professional management focus to the business. Sheryl was at Google and The Treasury Department prior, Dan at Intuit and Dennis from Google.

As tech companies evolve and the need for leadership becomes more critical to long-term business success, promoting from within might be not be an option if these companies don’t invest in leadership, training and development. While startups and growth companies necessarily have to be concerned about capturing the market, driving innovation and moving fast, investing in people must also be a priority.

So what is the solution then? I believe the answer lies in having great mentors and finding a way to take some time now to invest in the future of your people. Not every company needs a large-scale, GE type of Six Sigma training, but having speakers, seminars and short sessions can help mold rising starts into future leaders. More and more, top candidates (some seasoned, some fresh to the market) will begin looking for these kind of development and leadership opportunities…in addition to the free lunches and ping pong tables.