How to Become a Tech Leader People Can’t Leave

December 15, 2020

Jon Santee, who is VP of Technology and has a 100% retention rate of the employees he brought to his team, talks about the fundamental aspects of leadership and career development.

Welcome to The Tech Show, and we’re here today with Jon Santee, VP of Technology. I am Aziza from Focus GTS, an IT staffing agency. Welcome Jon, it’s so nice to have you.

First off, thank you very much for having me this morning. Before starting, I have to do a little disclaimer that we all have to do. Everything I’m saying here it’s my thought, and it doesn’t represent my employer in any way. 

I know that it’s right in your headline on LinkedIn, you love Disney. What’s your favorite Disney movie? 

Asking somebody who is a Disney fanatic what their favorite Disney movie is, it’s kind of like asking a parent who their favorite kid is. Well, that’s a difficult one to do. Let’s break it into their segments. Starting from the classic Disney World, it’s Beauty And The Beast. From the Pixar World, it’s going to have to be Coco. I loved the visuals on that one. In their Star Wars Arena, I’m an empire guy – “Empire Strikes Back”. And the Marvel Universe is probably the best written and best acted one from that would have been Black Panther for me. So that’s segments each one of them and keeps me from committing to one answer. 

That’s awesome, with the technology and everything they can do today. Even as a kid growing up, I was never able to see anything like it. So it’s moving on pretty quickly. Technology and all of that has made them just unbelievable movies now. 

I still have a soft spot for the classics. 

Always, I love Beauty And The Beast too. It’s very classic. 

Listen & Understand

Alright, Jon, I know that you’re in a good position right now. VP of Technology is a great title. And I know there are a lot of people looking to grow in their career and want to expand. How does somebody get to become a tech leader, and what are the skills that one person would need to get to where you are? 

Great question. Early in my career, I would have been hyper-focused on the technical skills that a career in IT requires. You know, it would have been all about pursuing that alphabet soup of certifications that are out there. Once I decided to cross over to the other side of the desk, I quickly realized that even though I had a pretty solid foundation of technical skills, there was one area that I was lacking, and that was effective communication. I could hold a technical conversation, and I can do the writing that the business required.

Communication is so much more than that. It’s the ability to listen. And not just listen to respond, but listen to understand. That’s a fundamental piece of it. It’s also understanding how to ask questions and when is the proper time to ask questions. And speaking versus listening to each one of those pieces forms this whole communication skill, that if you’re looking to become a tech leader, is one skill that you must-have.

I’ve been very fortunate that I have been mentors and good leaders that helped me with that. And don’t get me wrong. The technical piece was key because I am a tech leader. You need to understand that the technical knowledge must be there, but to move over to a leadership role, communication is probably the number one skill that you need to work on. Because it’s what allows you to bridge the gap between the technical world that you live in and the business world.

I can agree with that. As you know, we have a lot of recruiters in-house. We look for technology people, and we staff technology people. And what happens is that a tech candidate has all the technical skills, but at the end of the day, a lot of our clients do look for those soft skills and communication being number one, because it’s extremely important in the field. 

Keep Your Team Engaged And Motivated

I also know that in IT, it’s difficult to keep the team motivated and make them feel like they’re moving a business forward. As we know, a lot of the companies have strong sales teams, strong sales culture, and they feel like they’re moving the business forward. This is because they’re doing business development or sales. Versus someone and IT, they’re just kind of locked up in a dark room.

And how do you make your team feel like they are moving the business forward? How do you make them feel like they’re making progress? 

You’re going to notice a theme in my answers, and that again really has a root in communication. To take a step back, I often say that my role as a Tech Leader is to hire smart people and then get out of their way. Let them do what they’re brilliant at doing.

The key to that comes in by giving them a “why”. Giving a purpose to your team will help them focus their way on the direction and the goals of not only the department but also the company as a whole. The easiest way, and most effective way, that I’ve found to be able to do that and to provide that “why” for their work is transparency. 

There needs to be transparency up and down the company leadership stack. From the vision at the very top through the strategy, down to the people who are making the magic happen. When people understand what that driving vision is, they don’t just have a task, they have something to do with a purpose. And they understand they’re not just being asked to create a widget or to close a ticket. They’re being asked to help somebody achieve a bigger goal. 

Be Transparent and Drive Your Team to Success

To achieve that goal, there has to be that understanding of why it’s a goal, to begin with. And that’s all about the transparency of communication. On the flip side of that, there has to be transparency in the other direction. From the front line, back up to the tech leader groups. 

Trust comes from that transparent communication. Knowing that they can give you the good, the bad, the ugly, the great news, and that you’re going to stand beside them when they need it. You’re going to give them that hand up when they need it.

When you’ve got that transparency going up and down from your very frontline people, the newest ones in the door, through the most senior leadership, it makes it so much easier for everybody to become engaged in what this vision is. 

The Secret Behind the 100% Retention Rate as a Tech Leader

I agree with you. I think communication is a big part of success. Having people understand that they’re not just doing a task, that everything connects to a bigger vision. And their work is going to impact someone else’s work, and so forth down the line. So that’s a good point. 

Rumor has it that you have a 100% retention rate on your team. So, how do you do that? As a tech leader, what’s your secret sauce?

That is something that I wear as a huge badge of honor. But I need to put an asterisk on it and then dig into the fine print before I give myself too much of a pat on the back. I have a 100% retention rate of people that my teams and I have interviewed and hired. So that’s the little asterisk on that. 

There’s no one key to making that happen. There’s a lot of little bits and pieces. The foundation of it, it’s the communication and the transparency, and the trust that all of that brings. They’ve got to know that you’ll be honest with them and that they can be honest with you.

And you’re fostering this environment where everybody’s going to be working together. It doesn’t necessarily mean everybody’s going to be agreeing, but everybody can still work together and get something and focus on getting things done. Beyond that, as a tech leader, it’s my job to reward talent and effort.

Advocate For Your Team and Create Amazing Performance 

And that can be through ensuring that they’re getting paid fairly. That can be through kudos and recognition. That can be through making sure that they’ve got a good, steady supply of technical challenges to work on. That they’re not getting stale. That their skills aren’t being left kind off to the wayside.

It’s my job to go and fight for those. And to get those opportunities for them. I have been very fortunate in my career to have people who have come in during their early professional journey, and have gained experience, education, and skills. And through that process, they’ve realized that there’s this area, that area, that they enjoy, that they wanted to focus on more.

If that’s not being part of my team, it’s my responsibility to then advocate for them to get that new opportunity where their interest lies. And I’ve been very fortunate to help several team members in the past stay within our company, but being able to move into a role that fits their experience and their skills the most.

And for me, that’s not a loss. When you can help somebody make that next step, that’s a win. Keep that knowledge set and that experience within your company, rather than them taking it somewhere else, is a huge win. 

Create a Loyal And Cohesive Team 

The last piece of it is to think about all the chaos that we have going on in our lives right now.

Yeah, a lot going on right now.

These people are not immune to what’s going on around the world. They are humans like the rest of us. They need to know that I’m going to be standing there beside them. That as a tech leader, I’m going to be helping them. Allowing the flexibility that these times require so that they can take care of the things that they need to do in addition to being a fantastic professional. 

When you put all of those things together, you end up with a group of people who are ready to walk the path with you. And I used the word “with” very specifically because I’m not standing off to the side watching them walk. I’ve got to be there along the path with them clearing the obstacles. 

When we come to a fork, helping to guide them down, which fork we take. You join all those pieces, and you end up with a team that wants to stay and work together. It becomes this, almost a feedback loop of their success begets more success, which gets more success.

And as you get more success, you get more engaged, which we spoke about before. And it drives this desire to stay together as a team. 

Take The Six Human Needs Into Consideration

I see where you’re going with that. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this, Tony Robbins – Six Human Needs? Each human being has six needs. And his philosophy is that everyone has two top ones that are the most important. These are Certainty, Uncertainty, Love and Connection, Significance, Contribution, and Growth. There are two that are the driving factors of each human being.

So interesting what you’ve said because it’s something that we practice in-house as well. And that’s something that we talk about a lot. Just defining and identifying these two drivers that each member of your team has is going to make a huge difference in the overall success. So it’s interesting how you said it, but you said it in different words.

Empathy is an underrated skill every tech leader should have

I want to finish off with the final question. If you were 18 years old, and you went back to your past self right now, what would be the advice you would give yourself? 

Oh, my goodness. Well, let’s get the obvious joke out of the way first. And that is “don’t go on that date”. I think that applies to every 18 years old. So a little bit more seriousness.

I would go back, and I would tell my younger self, probably one very specific thing. I would explain the feeling that you get when you’re watching a movie, and you connect with the character that’s in the movie. When they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re sad, you’re sad. When you’re sitting across the table from somebody who’s talking to you about a great experience they’ve had, or a bad experience they’ve had, and you are feeling the same emotions that they are feeling, that is empathy.

Empathy is a Skill You Should Have as a Tech Leader

Empathy is probably one of the most underrated skills for a tech leader to have. That ability to connect with not just the words that you’re hearing but the meaning and the emotion behind them. Don’t spend so many years of your life fighting that connection with other people and fighting that emotion that you have whenever you’re sitting with somebody or with a group. 

Learn to use that. Learn to connect and communicate better with people. And you’ll save yourself a lot of personal and professional grief down the road. 

That’s deep. I feel like I’m about to tear. That’s the best advice I’ve ever heard. Those were beautiful words.

Thank you so much for joining us today. And we’re so excited that you were able to make it and make some time for us to share your wisdom and knowledge on not only the leadership side but also on a personal side as well with Disney and everything. 

I appreciate the time. And you know, thank you for giving me a few minutes to sit down and chat with you this morning.

Yeah, of course. Thanks for coming.

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