Too often Technical Experts are dismissed as ‘geeks’ and are stereotyped as being unsuitable for leadership roles – and this view may be limiting the competitiveness of our technical businesses. In the words of Steve Jobs:
‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do’
The reasons why Technical Experts should lead are simple, compelling and obvious.
Technical Experts have an excellent understanding of what is possible through technical innovation in their field. They are best placed to see opportunities as well as threats and lead the company through the fast-paced development of products and services required in the market. They can be evangelists – passionate about their technical expertise, with a deep belief in its possibilities. They have the credibility to inspire staff and clients alike to invest and have confidence in the business. If they say it’s possible that this new area of innovation will produce a quantum leap, you believe it!
Knowledge is currency in the technical industries, and a leader with a strong technical background gains the respect of colleagues. The technical leader talks the ‘right language’, understands the jargon and uses it to enhance communication with colleagues. There are no awkward moments when a new concept is proposed and the leader has to ask to have it explained to them…..
Technical Experts will have the inside track on what motivates other Technical Experts – it takes one to know one! If given the opportunity, they will be able to use their insight to help steer improved performance and motivation. For example, they understand that giving someone the opportunity to attend a scientific conference or contribute a chapter to a book may sometimes be more motivating than a financial bonus.
Technical Experts have a great ability to handle and interpret complex data and have an excellent skill set for contributing to strategic analysis. Their technical knowledge and understanding of the big picture is also valuable for making strategic decisions around when to invest in resources. In addition, they have the technical background to push back on investment requests and challenge their assumptions – it’s not so easy to pull the wool over their eyes!
How do we get Technical Experts to lead?
If we accept that we need more Technical Experts in leadership roles then, logically, a winning strategy is to focus on supporting the transition from Technical Expert to Leader. Easier said than done? Although there may be many ways to tackle this, a bespoke approach that actually fits those with a technical background makes sense. For example, leadership training designed to pique curiosity and capture interest to achieve some buy-in could be effective. Why not challenge these smart thinkers with something that is fast-paced and that encourages debate around the ‘evidence’ (think MBA style and level). Also, consider coaching, which is longer term and therefore more likely to bring about development of business and management skills and be a great investment. Coaching also encourages Technical Experts to have the confidence to develop their own ‘technical leadership management style’ – something that ‘fits’ with technical teams.
Above all, if it’s a winning strategy, then it’s worth the investment!
Dr Caroline Walker is an Aziz executive coach, experienced business leader and scientist who offers specialist executive coaching for technical experts – those that are combining business and technical roles.