When I was first asked to interview my boss, Sean Burns, about his leadership style and experiences for the latest edition of the maniF3sto, I was a little sceptical. I’ve worked closely with Sean for the last two years, I thought, I know all about his leadership style and how he guides us as a team at Burns Sheehan. But as he talked about his younger years playing rugby for London Irish, and the mentors, coaches, and friends he looks up to, it all became much clearer as to how he came to be the leader he is.
‘I’m going to state the bleeding obvious, but leadership is all about people.” Coming from someone who has built an extremely successful 17-year-old technology recruitment business, this was hardly surprising to hear. “All great businesses fundamentally believe they can be the best at what they do, and if you’re that passionate about something, then you can be the best at it”. But from a leadership point of view, you need to create an environment where the people in your team are bought into that mission and believe that they can be the best at what they do. “You want to create a culture that allows people to thrive, create a framework that allows people to have self-improvement, to be inspired and take things on, so that they can progress individually”.
Today’s workforce is very different to that of 20 years ago. Millennials and Gen Z’s now make up around 50% of the global workforce and the modern leader needs to display a number of management styles, with different people or situations requiring different approaches. So, how do you develop and establish your own leadership style? For Sean, a lot of it came from previous sports coaches, picking the ‘best bits’ from people he has met and looks up to, and learning from books and podcasts – Good to Great by Jim Collins being a personal favourite.
“You’ve got leaders who are incredibly creative, curious, innovative. They’re challenging the boundaries and pushing the ceiling constantly”, Sean explains, referring to Clive Woodward, one of his first professional rugby coaches. “There are other leaders that are just relentless. They have rigour and discipline, focus and drive”, the Alex Fergusons of the world. And “there are others who are incredibly authentic, honest and people you just want to follow and really look up to”, this time referring to Brendan Venter, a former rugby teammate. “And if you can get that blend, where you’ve got somebody who is curious and creative, relentless about what they want to achieve, and an authentic figure that people look up to, you’ve got a perfect melting pot to be a great leader. I’m a long way off being any of those individuals, but that’s what I aspire to be.”
So, how do you curate that ‘melting pot culture’ that encourages diversity of thought and self-improvement? It often requires learning from previous mistakes and listening to other perspectives. “There’s no doubt about it. I’ve had to evolve and change my mindset and thought-processes. In the very early days of our business, we created a white male rugby changing room culture, which was my background and it’s what I knew. But that only gets you so far. If you want to develop and grow as an organisation, you need people with different thought processes, people who can challenge you. Whether it be gender, race, different socio-economic backgrounds, you’ve got to have people who think differently within an organisation.”
It’s a challenge we are facing a lot in the technology industry, with a huge diversity gap in the tech workforce. “We’ve got to go on a journey of 10 to 15 years here, as the tech workforce of the future are now at school. It starts with education, with school teachers inspiring people from different backgrounds to get into STEM and computer science, and then we will begin to see more diversity filtering through. Until that education catches up with us, particularly now, we must take a proactive approach to address that imbalance” and have more representation and visibility of leaders from marginalised groups, to help inspire the next generation of technologists.
So, what do you need to look for when hiring tech leaders for some of the most innovative and pioneering businesses in the world? “You’re ultimately looking for people who’ve made a genuine impact. They need to be able to give evidence and demonstrate where they’ve created or set a vision, and then delivered that vision. But the key thing is being able to explain all that with clarity. A leader needs to have clarity around what their vision is, how they’re going to deliver it, and be able to communicate it effectively with their business.
“10/20, maybe 30 years ago, technology was a support to the business which enabled organisations to function better. In the world that we live in today, technology has moved to the front and centre of businesses. And if you look at that from a tech leadership perspective, the profile of individual who was a senior tech leader 10/20/30 years ago, compared to a senior tech leader now, they are worlds apart.”
And what about the biggest challenge tech leaders are facing these days? “Genuinely one of the big, big challenges for tech leaders is hiring great people. There is a real dearth of talent with the necessary skill sets, and the pace of growth within the industry means demand far outweighs supply, so tech leaders have to be creative in the way they can build teams”.
So, with a long way still to go to make the tech industry a truly diverse and inclusive place to work, and the technology landscape continuing to evolve at an unparalleled pace, the need for impactful leaders at the helm to help businesses navigate the aftermath of the last 12 months has never been greater. But times of uncertainty are often followed by great creativity, forward thinking and transformation, and the innovation we can expect to see from the technology world over the coming months and years will be truly exciting to watch.