Leading technology teams in a digitally connected age

Leadership Unplugged

After stints at Google and Microsoft, Natasha Jethanandani set up base in Chennai to head the technology team at BankBazaar. Later she switched to Kaleidofin, a fintech company that helps under-banked segments of the society to meet their financial goals. Drawing on her experience of working with these fintech companies and heading their website, mobile apps and analytics platforms, Jethanandani illustrates on “The art of leading technology-based projects and teams” through highlighting the common problems she faces at work.

 

The three common problems

According to her, she encounters three common, inter-connected problems at work. The first issue being employee engagement. Quoting a Gallop poll which revealed that 87 per cent of the worldwide workforce isn’t truly engaged at work, she outlined how alarming this is especially for technology teams which required innovative thinking.
The second problem is when employees rely on top authorities to approve day-to-day decisions. While relying on the top management may work well in factory floors, this becomes problematic in technology-driven organisations where speed of delivery and ability to innovate matters. This can be solved if the top management is transparent and not selective in sharing key information, thus enabling middle and lower level research and development employees to make decisions.

The third predicament, according to Jethanandani, is that of employee motivation. She emphasised that while monetary perks are important, organisations need to get creative in offering non-monetary motivators as well. Studies have shown that a pure carrot-stick reward system may not always be the only motivators. To illustrate, she quoted the findings from “Large stakes and big mistakes”, a paper authored by professors from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and University of Chicago, which examined the relationship between performance and rewards through a series of activities involving motor, mechanical and cognitive skills. The major finding of the study being – As long as the task involved only mechanical skills, the larger the reward, the better the performance, however, if the task involved cognitive skills, the larger the reward the poorer the performance.


The breakthrough comes when companies start explaining their goals, rather than just describing their products, notes Jethanandani.


Solutions and suggestions Building the right motivators:

“The first step is to build the right motivators,” she says. For an organisation to be self-driven, everyone truly needs to buy into what they do and the reason why they are doing the daily tasks. The breakthrough comes when companies start explaining their goals, rather than just describing their products. A great example would be that of the technology giant, Apple, which says “everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently,”- with no mention of computers yet the message resonates with both the employees and customers of the firm.

One exercise that Kaleidofin does to promote this connection is encouraging new employees to meet and talk with customers to understand their situation and mindset.

Clear direction from the leaders:

The second step is providing clear direction from the leadership and creating a culture of sharing. For this, she quotes an anecdote from her company. The company website’s visitor’s growth had increased 10-fold requiring them to make feature enhancements to capitalise on the traffic. For this, they needed to make investments in technology infrastructure. To cope with the changes, the then CTO had called for a townhall format meeting where every member of the team shared the challenges they were facing.
After doing this exercise, engineers started talking about their short-term and long-term goals and mid-level managers no longer faced a barrage of questions as the employees saw for themselves what was working and what wasn’t.

Bias to action: The Amazon way:

The third step is what she calls bias to action which helps employees not only visualise where they ought to be but also make better decisions. This requires giving employees freedom to make mistakes and learn from them through innovating. By looking into speed of delivery, it is important to make decisions and retreat from them if they don’t work well beyond the proof of concept. An example here is e-commerce giant Amazon. Before working on a new feature, the company encourages the product manager to write an internal press release as if the product has already reached the market and has blown out the competition by a certain metric. “This helps the team set measurability metrics upfront and make decisions accordingly,” she adds.

A good way to create decision-making autonomy is to encourage employees to come up with their own ideas through hackathons, which has excited her employees to the extent that they stay-up at nights and work on weekends to come up with interesting solutions.

“These changes however don’t happen overnight. It takes months to gradually let go of control and enable each and every single employee to be passionate and empowered to be creative” she signs off.


Speaker Profile

Natasha Jethanandani started her career at Microsoft Corp where she led teams on the Net Web Services platform. She went on to work at Google Inc where she led design for DFP Video, a new product to manage video advertising that was approved by AdSense management and the company founders.

She worked with Bank Bazaar heading the technology team prior to her current stint as CTO of Kaleidofin. As CTO, she aims to pursue a vision to create true financial inclusion by building a fintech platform that enables under-banked customers to use mass market financial solutions in a paperless efficient manner.


Best Takeaway

Frequent Town halls helps employees become more focused on short term and long term goals on the company owing to interactions between different departments.

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