R. Michael Anderson reveals the key to (tech) leadership

Ahead of Information Age’s Tech Leaders Summit, our keynote R. Michael Anderson — founder, best-selling leadership author, speaker and trainer — explains the key to tech leadership success.

But first, a little history.

R. Michael Anderson is originally from the United States, but moved to the UK following his marriage to a Brit in December 2019. He started out as programmer in California and climbed his way up the corporate ladder. Following the acquisition of the company, he then moved to London, then Copenhagen and then Singapore with various outfits, before moving back to California where he founded his first company. And that was when he realised: “I wasn’t a good leader”.

He was a good technical person, very analytical, hard working and driven — and that brought him some success. But, when he started his first company, everything was on his shoulders — “I didn’t know how to delegate, motivate people or create an efficient and free-flowing culture. I really didn’t understand leadership,” he told Information Age. As a result of these failings, the company started to have problems with customers and employees. “I realised if I didn’t learn how to become a leader, I was going to lose everything.”

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Apply principles in your personal life to your business life

Following this realisation, Anderson decided to begin learning about leadership via coaches and training courses. To help his leadership and general personal development he even completed a master’s degree in spiritual psychology. “It was nothing about religion, but taught a very compassionate view of psychology,” he said. “And it changed my life — it shifted my perspective in my personal life.

“When I started applying those principles to my business life, it transformed it — my business started to thrive.”

How? Well, first off, his new attitude made him connect to his employees — he started listening and empowering them, because he was more secure with himself. He then brought people in that were aligned to what the company was doing.  This lead to the formation of great customer relationships. “We also started giving back to the community,” he said.

Something must have worked, because following this leadership-style u-turn, his company was voted the number one best place to work and he was named social entrepreneur of the year.

“I finally started to have fun at work, by having this positive, humanistic view of leadership,” said Anderson. “And to top it off, we were more successful.”

“Leadership can be learned” — R. Michael Anderson.

“The relationship with ourselves”

Before a person can become a successful leader, in technology or elsewhere, Anderson advocates improving the “relationship with ourselves. You can’t be a strong leader until you’re really strong with a relationship with yourself.”

“People want to be led, and they want to be led by somebody that they respect. If there’s somebody that’s insecure and doesn’t respect themselves, nobody’s going to respect or have loyalty to them.

“The type of people who have a leadership presence are assertive and respect themselves and have confidence in themselves, those are the ones who inspire loyalty and confidence.

“Leaders need bold goals, a purpose or mission and have the guts to be able to stick with it, even when things are getting some resistance — inner resilience is key.”

Bad leadership is micromanagement, not being trusting or transparent — those ‘attributes’ are all ego based and insecure: imposter syndrome. This will lead to a disillusioned workforce

Tech leadership: embrace soft skills

Good programmers are analytical, “sometimes introverted” and hard working.

To be a successful leader these traits (bar being introverted) are alone not enough. Leaders need to embrace soft skills and possess emotional intelligence; be able to connect, build relationships and understand other people’s viewpoints.

Leadership is about managing managing risk, whereas when Anderson was a programmer his role surrounded reducing risk. “It’s about managing multiple stakeholders and lots of different types of chaos,” he said.

Success in tech leadership relies on individuals developing new sets of skills, while being very willing to change. “You must keep evolving.”

External mentors can help current and prospective leaders

Know your limits

It’s quite common that a young entrepreneur will found a tech company, grow it to a certain stage and then take a step back, or bring in someone else to run it — it’s important that they know their limits and act in the best interest of the company.

“Different skill sets are needed at different sizes of a company,” confirmed Anderson. “Starting a business from scratch, building it to a team of ten or even 100 takes a lot of creativity and self-motivation. But, when you grow to 1,000 or 10,000 it’s more about processes; how do you borrow money, for example. A totally different set of skills are required.”

Enabling your employees

Listening to your employees is an obvious way to engage them. But, it is really important to hear them. “The only thing worse than not listening to your employees is listening to them and not doing anything about it — what I call lip service and leadership” continued Anderson.

“To be a great leader, you really have to care and follow through on your policies — you can then get great loyalty and great engagement from people
when you do that.

Set the vision

People want to be led. So any successful leader must provide a direction, a purpose and vision. “It’s up for you to shape the future of the company,” summed up Anderson.

“You then need to get everybody on board with the direction and collaboratively figure out how the company is going to get there. But, as a leader, it’s up to you to put the put your flag in the sand and say, ‘this is what we’re about’.”

What does it take to be a successful tech leader: Information Age’s guide to tech leadership roles.

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is the editor for Information Age. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and cyber security.