4 highly effective ways to lead tech talent

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As I have matured as a businessperson, I have been asked one question again and again: Was I lucky, or have there been specific actions that allow me to succeed where others have failed? In essence, what's the winning difference that has enabled me to lead and grow businesses successfully without the traditional business pedigree?

As a CEO of a tech firm with no technical background, I was desperate to figure out how to better relate to my team. Through my search, I came across a game-changing book called "Leading Geeks" by Paul Glen. This book provided a leadership blueprint and perspective for dealing with "geeks" that allowed me to thrive in spite of my background.

I've learned there are four critical habits and perspectives that can help leaders manage a team that often resists the traditional management approach.

1. You don't need to be fearless; you need to identify the right business risks.

Have you ever known people that seem fearless? They're not. They're strategic. When you are apprehensive, learn to differentiate between true risk to the business and personal lack of confidence. Once you understand that distinction, you can attack, mitigate and adjust.

In 2008 we had several large contracts with firms that were under review. Losing a contract is always tough, but during a recession a seven-figure annual loss of revenue was a death kiss for a small firm. The natural inclination was to reduce prices and win deals at a lower cost. Basically, negotiate from the beggar's manual with a fearful perspective. We decided, boldly, to ask our partner to reduce spend with other suppliers and consolidate more work with us in exchange for reasonable cost concessions and a deeper, longer-term partnership. Our small firm grew 30 percent year-over-year until our exit because we didn't allow an uncertain future to define our business behavior.

2. Is it better to be loved or feared? It's best to be tough and respected.

For me, winning is about high expectation and fast growth. When you find employees and partners that share this DNA, it makes work way more fun. In 2015, I invested in a digital marketing firm with two employees called Walk West. They will close out 2016 with 25 employees and multimillion dollars in revenue. How? We have built an organization from the top down that punches above its weight class and delivers world-class creative services. I believe the personal drive we demonstrate is contagious, and most high achievers gravitate toward firms that expect greatness from them. When you lower the bar, you drive away the game changers and attract the mediocre. Life is more than work, but when we work, it's fuel for the soul to be a part of a winning organization.

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I often find a stumbling block for leaders is wanting to be liked versus being respected. This is a significant challenge, because leaders are people and we all desire to be viewed in a positive light. The reality is that leadership often requires loneliness. The decision to reduce head count, the removal of a well-liked but underperforming executive or the tough annual review is hard, but the truth is, the calculus of being liked creates complexity with little value. My dad, a retired football coach, said it like this: "My players may not like me every day, but when they become a first-round NFL draft pick and financially set for life, they respect the process that helped them win." Many leaders do not have the temperament to do what's right for the business when it costs them happy hour with their direct reports.

3. Got big dreams? Take really small steps to get there.

Most people have big dreams but fail to realize that hope is not a strategy. Many aspiring entrepreneurs and corner-office professionals have their eyes so fixed on their ultimate goal that they fail to take the small daily steps that create wins.

Years ago I hired a leader for one of my firms who spent three months creating an elaborate marketing strategy, yet in that three months, not one step was taken to execute against the first few things on that list. Ultimately, dream big but work small, with deliberate, measurable goals that create incremental success for you and for your organization.

4. The most important leadership moment begins after a big loss.

Progress and pain are the building blocks in my business education. An important attribute of high achievers is the ability to compartmentalize challenges and disappointments both personally and professionally and not let outside issues affect professional performance. Leader's motto: "No bad days."

It doesn't mean you are not human, but it does mean that adjusting to setbacks and delivering the win is the job. If a big deal is lost, what's the plan to regroup and ensure the team meets its numbers next quarter to manage the misstep versus the typical finger-pointing ritual in many firms? Essentially, the winning edge is based on how your leadership encourages your team to overcome obstacles, win under duress, and deliver with excellence in spite of the odds.

These habits and perspectives will help accelerate your next-level growth.

By Donald Thompson, CEO OF Creative Allies, partner at Walk West, chairman of iCiDigital and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

About YPO

CNBC and YPO have formed an exclusive editorial partnership consisting of regional "Chief Executive Networks" in the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. These Chief Executive Networks are made up of a sample of YPO's global network of 24,000 top executives from 120 countries who are on the front lines of the economy and run companies that collectively generate $6 trillion in annual revenue.