Stressed Out, Burned Out: Underrepresented Leaders of Ed-Tech Companies Are Lacking Support

Staff Writer

Leaders at ed-tech companies are facing steep challenges, including a looming fiscal cliff, economic and political pressures, and a retrenchment in investments in the space. At the same time, many executives and mid-level managers that are new to their roles are grappling with a lack of experience and professional development, making it even more difficult to clear the hurdles ahead.

The result? Many managers, executives, and individual contributors are dealing with stress, anxiety, isolation, and face a high risk of burnout. Those risks are even higher for those from historically marginalized populations.

A new report from the Ed-Tech Leadership Collective dug into those concerns. It draws from a survey of 157 people at U.S. K-12 ed-tech companies about gaps in their organization’s leadership capabilities and their experiences in the workplace. The majority of respondents, 85 percent, manage people, lead functions, head departments, or sit in the C-suite, while 15 percent reported being individual contributors.

According to the survey, which is now in its second year, 37 percent of respondents said that the pressure and expectation of their jobs are a source of frequent or constant stress, anxiety, or isolation, which can often lead to burnout, as a result, nearly half of all survey respondents are at a high risk of burnout.

Support for Leaders from Marginalized Populations is Weak

The Collective’s report also found that that these gaps can especially affect leaders from historically marginalized backgrounds, who made up about a quarter of survey respondents. Out of those leaders, 70 percent are at a high risk of burnout. To measure it, respondents were asked several questions on regarding the risk of burnout within their company, relying on a scale of 1-10, with scores between 7-10 considered a “high risk” of burnout. Scores between 4-6 meant a respondent was considered “moderate risk,” and a score between 0-3 equated to a “low risk.”

Respondents from underrepresented backgrounds also report being under-supported, adding to their higher rates of stress, anxiety, and burnout. Only a third of respondents from historically marginalized backgrounds found their company’s talent development practices effectively supported their needs, a slight bump up from the 25 percent who said the same in last year’s survey.

However, the data also show executives are not as focused on improving that support as they should be, said Collin Earnst, founder and managing partner of the Leadership Collective. C-level respondents were 50 percent more likely to say they plan to invest in things like retaining talent than they were to invest in supporting leaders from historically marginalized populations.

Investing in diverse talent shouldn’t be a goal that is “50 percent less likely to get that level of attention,” he said. “That’s a message I want to be sure is brought to the forefront.”

Having so many employees on the brink of burning out is a major risk to the organization as a whole, Earnst said, and can mean missed goals, disruptions to service, and the business consequences that come with them.

“You’re going to miss on your company goals, and you’re going to impact your customers,” he said.

In the survey, 75 percent of respondents said disruption to company strategic goals was their top concern when it came to non-executives leaders’ struggles, followed by 60 percent who said they were concerned about the impact on customers, including product quality, customer satisfaction, and missed sales opportunities.

Can They Find Executive-Level Talent?

As with last year’s results, this year’s survey also showed that roughly two-thirds of C-suite executives and department heads said at least half of their non-executive leaders are in the “biggest job of their life.” And a third of the C-level executives said that the same is true of at least 75 percent of their non-executive leaders.

As those leaders work to rise to the challenge of taking on new roles, an increasing number of executives are worried about what it means for the organization as it looks to fill openings in its executive ranks. In last year’s survey, 18 percent of C-level leaders said they were confident they could hire from within to fill vacancies in their executive team. This year, that number dropped to 9 percent.

Executive presence is about the underlying, learned skills. It’s about how you communicate, how you manage expectations, it’s managerial skills. Those are pretty concrete skills that you can cultivate.Collin EarnstFounder, Managing Partner, Ed-Tech Leadership Collective

Earnst sees a strong connection between that figure on finding internal, executive-level talent and another in the survey — that only 15 percent of respondents said their managers provided clear guidance to help support them and reach the next level of their careers.

Companies will be reluctant to find and promote internal staff to executives roles if “we’re not giving guidance and support. We’re going to see that lack of depth,” Ernst said, adding that the survey also showed only 28 percent of C-level executives felt their high-potential employees are receiving the mentoring and support they need in order to reach their full potential.

One issue Earnst has seen when working with ed-tech companies is that organizations see value in investing in professional development, and provide it to aspiring leaders, but too often that training is based on functional skills, such as learning specific marketing tools or sales strategies.

Part of the reason is that those functional skills are easier to measure, while leadership and managerial skills are more nebulous and often classified as “executive presence.” That characteristic isn’t a personality trait, Earnst said — it’s a combination of skills executives build over time.

“Executive presence is about the underlying, learned skills. It’s about how you communicate, how you manage expectations, it’s managerial skills. Those are pretty concrete skills that you can cultivate,” he said.

Building a deep bench of leadership within an ed-tech organization can also help it weather staff reductions that have hit many companies in the space in the past year.

More than half of respondents, 54 percent, said their organization has experienced layoffs in the past 12 months, and two-thirds of those who dealt with layoffs are now being asked to take on a larger workload.

At the same time, organizations’ goals largely haven’t changed. Only 19 percent of respondents said their teams were asked to scale back work to meet available resources because of layoffs, while 70 percent said their teams were asked to maintain the same level of productivity.

When managers that are already working to adjust to a new role are given a broader scope of responsibilities, Earnst said, it can turn can exacerbate existing weaknesses in their leadership skills.

“That’s where you’re going to see some struggles and those people stretched more thinly,” he said.

Image by Getty

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