Top 5 Toxic Flavors of Tech Execs

By Kendra Little on April 11, 2024

I’ve been an employee at small, medium, and large companies, and I’ve also been a short-term consultant working with a new company in any given week. I’ve worked with hundreds of tech companies remotely and have visited companies onsite on multiple continents.

Air-dropping into company cultures to work through problems with teams and present recommendations to their leadership reveals common anti-patterns in leadership – plus some patterns that make teams raving fans of their management.

Here’s the top 5 Toxic Flavors of Tech Execs I’ve encountered over 20 years, plus the Top 5 Team Building Tech Execs I’ve found, too.

Five Toxic Flavors of Tech Execs

As a consultant, teams have sometimes brought me in to help them make headway with these styles of leaders. It’s not that I have magical powers, it’s simply that when you bring in an outside expert on a topic, often a leader will listen to their voice differently. And short term consultants have an easier time speaking truth to power– they’ve got much less at risk than long term employees.

5. The Clumsy Penny Pincher

These execs are highly focused on reducing cost and increasing efficiency, but they’re also short sighted. They may not carefully consider the contracts they sign, so they get the worst end of the deal. Their teams struggle with a pile of perverse incentives – like having a service desk whose success metrics are based on closing tickets, but not actually resolving problems. Cost reduction can go well, but it can also bring productivity to a grinding halt. It’s tricky to make recommendations that anyone will have time to carry out: scope, scope, scope.

4. The Auto-Responder

These leaders have an established way of handling difficult conversations: they shut it down with a favorite catch phrase. They use the catch phrase enough to start a meme. Catch phrases are risky when they replace exploring problems: they communicate that the leader isn’t willing or able to listen. It is what it is. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s just move forward. We need to think more positively. Let’s put a pin in this and move on.

3. Unlimited Waffles

“We had too many Priority 1’s so we created Priority 0. Now we have too many Priority 0’s.” Every day is a new adventure with these leaders, either chasing a new rainbow or running from yesterday’s nightmare. Just like Groundhog Day, you don’t make it far before starting over. It’s tricky to make improvements in this org because you can only plan for incredibly short cycles, as few things get momentum to last longer than a few weeks. If you’re in this team, you’ve gotta always think small.

2. The Hero Worshipper

These leaders invented the 10x developer. They celebrate employees who sacrifice their personal lives. But they only celebrate a hero briefly, then they’re on to their next best friend. This leader creates teams who are willing to (or need to) suffer loss of sleep and be absent from their families and friends for the sake of visa support or salary. Collaboration isn’t really a thing around the hero worshipper. Most people are stressed, all the time. Short term consultants can be temporarily effective here as they can break up the established dynamic, but it’s hard to create lasting change.

1. The Really Angry One

We still have folks in tech who lead with overt displays of power. These senior leaders humiliate and dress down employees in medium and large meetings, and often don’t allow the employee to respond or speak further. That employee sometimes disappears in a few days; no announcement is made for their departure. At other times, these execs may be warm and effusive, but they’re mercurial. Few leaders intend to be perceived this way; most agree it’s better to be loved than feared. But some gamble that it’s better to be feared than hated. Some panic often and express that in displays of power. This is the environment which is toughest to make a positive impact in: a command-and-control culture laced with fear is quite resistant to change.

My Top 5 Team Building Tech Execs

Leading organizations is a big challenge, I’m not saying otherwise. I am in awe of people who are great managers and executives in tech. They do exist, in both large and small companies.

Here are my favorite Talented Leader Types:

5. The Agile Nerd

Some of y’all will read this title and think “no no no, that’s an anti-pattern! The Agile-Will-Fix-Everything-Type goes on the other list!”

The leader I’m talking about here isn’t the Quick-Fix type. This is the leader who is deeply interested in finding ways of working that are flexible and which empower teams to do their best work with a customer-centric approach. They are open to criticism, love iterative improvement, and they find joy in learning from everyone. This is often a leader who has a lot of humility, but rarely speaks about humility. They are simply mostly interested in learning, growing, and improving their teams and themselves.

4. The Curious Pragmatist

This leader brings a genuine curiosity to work. They are curious about technical problems and they are also curious about people. This curiosity is paired with pragmatism: they are curious and open to change, but they also focus on how to carry through important projects and maintain “stable-enough” priorities and room for employees to grow and change over time. This leader has the ability to share the larger organizational context with their teams in a way that encourages innovation, and they are also excellent at advocating upwards for their teams.

3. The Deep Listener

Some leaders have a strong willingness and desire to practice listening. They practice this with both senior and junior employees. They don’t always try to offer solutions to problems, but they don’t brush off problems, either. They have a way of connecting to people and building bonds and trust. They think a lot before they ask questions or make suggestions, and they listen and pay attention to how those questions are answered, and if they create discomfort. When these leaders find the right organization and team that matches their skills, employees express themselves more openly in both small and large groups, and people enjoy problem-solving together. Thoughtfulness has a way of spreading, and these are fun teams to work in.

2. The One Who’s Been There

Some leaders have strong empathy through years of experience working in the same roles in which their employees work. These folks often don’t have a fancy degree, or a college degree at all. They started small, and they still empathize and identify with the employees in the company who have the least amount of power. These leaders are effective at getting things done and are good at finding a middle ground without alienating people. They are often not a “big name” at work, but they are broadly respected. They have a calming presence, they are very easy for a wide variety of people to feel comfortable talking with, and they often have minimal turnover in their teams. When they move roles, their employees want to follow them.

1. The Force Multiplier

My favorite leadership style is the leader whose superpower is finding the superpower in their own employees and teams. This leader isn’t afraid of giving feedback, but they don’t focus on finding criticism. Instead, they reframe situations and identify how the strengths in their teams can be used to their best advantage. They are talented at thinking of ways to maximize those strengths and leverage uniqueness. These execs recognize potential where others don’t. These folks change lives.

I’m generalizing here

Leaders are people, too. I’m not going to go full “won’t someone sympathize with the CEO who laid thousands of people off,” but being a good leader takes practice, thoughtfulness, and dedication over time. Nobody is 100% a “bad” or “good” leader. Great leaders have made plenty of mistakes, learned from them, and improved, just like great individual contributors. I’m no expert at this– it’s easier said than done– but I am inspired by the great leaders I’ve worked with and I learn more every day. The anti-pattern archetypes that we all know well make good leadership even more important.