Leadership as Craft – MIT Sloan

Leading With Impact

Mike Fisher, CTO at Etsy, discusses developing as a leader, fostering a strong engineering culture, and embracing empathy in decision-making.

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Leading With Impact

In this series, author and organizational coach Chris Clearfield talks with leaders who manage technology-driven teams at innovative organizations across the world. The series will examine universal big-picture challenges as well as specific lessons on sparking ideas and accelerating innovation.

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Mike Fisher

The craft of leadership requires a broad range of abilities, particularly at the executive level. Executives must be both strategic and tactical — able to see the big picture and attend to details where appropriate. They must be assertive but humble — able to deliver bold ideas but hold them lightly. And they must be strategic and relational — able to make tough decisions while attending to the human side of the people they lead.

There is perhaps no role where these requirements are more evident than that of the chief technology officer. While CTOs have existed at some companies since the 1980s, the scope and scale of the role have grown alongside technology’s importance. Charged with leading organizations’ long-term technology strategies, CTOs are critical players in keeping both legacy and digital-native companies ready for the road ahead.

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Mike Fisher, chief technology officer at Etsy, is no stranger to the challenges of developing technology strategy and scaling solutions at a global platform company. For this edition of MIT Sloan Management Review’s Leading With Impact series, I spoke with Fisher about leading the technology team at Etsy, a company known for its engineering culture. Disclosure: In my coaching and consulting work, I have worked with Etsy in the past but had no active work with Fisher or Etsy at the time of this interview.

MIT Sloan Management Review: You’ve said that you practice leadership. To me, the word practice implies reflecting and asking for feedback. How do you incorporate reflection and feedback into your position as CTO?

Mike Fisher: Leadership is a craft. By that, I mean that there is no right answer. I developed this understanding from my time in the military, where your teacher or your boss is supposed to be your mentor. They watch you lead a group of students or do a job, and then they give you feedback. It can’t be taught in the classroom. In the Army, they can’t say, “OK, when X happens, you do Y.” Instead, they put you in situations, see how you react, and then guide you. To this day, I try to mentor in the same way.

One of my first jobs in my career was in inventory management for a supply chain. I developed software, solved problems, and built algorithms. I loved this job.

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Topics

Leading With Impact

In this series, author and organizational coach Chris Clearfield talks with leaders who manage technology-driven teams at innovative organizations across the world. The series will examine universal big-picture challenges as well as specific lessons on sparking ideas and accelerating innovation.

More in this series

About the Author

Mike Fisher is chief technology officer at Etsy. Before joining Etsy, he was cofounder and managing partner of consulting firm AKF Partners. Chris Clearfield is a coach and consultant who works with engineers, software developers, and C-suite executives to solve complex problems. He is also coauthor of Meltdown: What Plane Crashes, Oil Spills, and Dumb Business Decisions Can Teach Us About How to Succeed at Work and at Home (Penguin Press, 2018).