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The case for Tech Leadership community - Part 2 - building a community

In part 1, we talked about why employees stay at companies, and how recent societal changes have fundamentally changed this.  In part 2, we continue to explore how companies can build a technology leadership community to create a positive pressure to retain employees.

Historically, one of the risks of having a company headquarters in a busy city like New York or San Francisco was that people who loved their house, school district, and their favorite lunch spot could quit and join another company, but still stay in the same house, take the same train into the city, walk into the same building, and just get off at a different floor.  Essentially, everywhere has become the big city. It is easier than ever to move back to the suburb where you grew up, but work with a silicon valley company on cutting edge technology that will shape the future.

The snow banks that used to keep technology leaders in their spaces are melting.  So in a world where it is easier than ever to move, how do you retain the best people?  You have to build up new and better environmental pressure that is adjusted for the reality that we are growing into. 

So now that physical location, fancy coffee machines and ping pong tables don’t matter as much, what kinds of environmental pressures are people still concerned with?  Our definition of environment needs to expand to focus more on the communities that our employees are in.  While historically, those communities were often physical, they are becoming increasingly virtual. I think of community in three general levels, one-on-one, small group, and company wide.  

An example of the one-on-one level is between one of the other senior leaders and myself in San Francisco. We were both principle consultants working at the same client and owned substantial, and mostly non-overlapping, areas of delivery.  When things were getting complicated for one of us, or sometimes for no reason at all, we would grab coffee from the local fancy coffee shop and walk up and down the path by the bay while we talked through the issue and everything else that was going on outside of work.  

Image of a coffee

In our remote first world, this intentional connection is more difficult.  It looks very different with us being thousands of miles aways, but is just as valuable.  Now it looks more like a bi-weekly virtual coffee break.  We have a standing meeting where we catch up on how things are going in our projects and our lives.  While the meetings are frequently rescheduled, we intentionally make sure they still happen, just like we would when we were in person.

The second level of community is what I would talk about as a small group.  This is a targeted group that you have something in common with.  It could be geographically based, like all the senior leaders in the west market, or it could be based on technology like experts in transforming a UI to a Microfrontend architecture, or common goals like minimizing our carbon footprint by optimizing how we use cloud resources. Because our careers are multi-faceted, we will belong to multiple small groups at the same time.

An example of a small group community that I was involved in was the West Market tech leaders meetups.  Once a month, senior leaders for the accounts in this region would get together in the office and over video conference.  We talked through problems we were working through on our accounts and shared strategies on how to deal with them.  These discussions helped reinforce that we are not in this alone and let us build upon the learnings of our peers.

In the post-covid world, this type of meetup might look more like the tech lead cultivation program that we run for continuing the growth of our senior technical leaders.  We blend “Mastermind” style video meetings and an active group chat between meetings with intentional learning and teaching sessions.  While it is not strictly structured, it is substantially more so than the West Market tech leaders meetups.  It requires more advanced planning than just having a standing meeting, but the payoff is more intentional focus and a different style of communication.

The final level of community is company wide.  This is where you have shared experience across the entire group.  This could be as simple as a shared chat channel for important announcements or discussions.  It can also look like a whole company retreat.  In pre-covid times, this looked like a long weekend at a conference facility in the middle of nowhere.  It was a collection of diverse workshops, fun team building, dinner conversations catching up with co-workers from previous teams, and keynotes from interesting external speakers.  There is a reason we have off-sites.   It creates a sense of focus on just one shared goal.  It gives everyone the expectation that they will be completely present.  All the other issues can wait.  There is a reason why conference centers in the middle of the woods with spotty wifi are actually better than running meetings in our office, 30 feet away from the teams we normally support.

How do you create that experience in a remote and multi-tasking heavy world, where your team slack is still active on your phone, where you have 27 other tabs still active containing all the open threads in your mind, where you will take that 15 minute break to catch up on the really important meeting your teammates just had while you were gone.  You have to create that same sense of focus, blocking out all the distractions for long enough to really connect.

Building a strong community company wide, one-on-one and in small groups, creates a positive environmental pressure that helps people know that they are not alone and feel like they are part of something greater.  If you want to improve retention of senior technologists, help them see that they belong here.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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