It's essential that the technical experts in an organisation are encouraged to step into leadership roles, otherwise we risk restricting diversity in the leadership pool, warns Chris Atkinson.
You are most likely familiar with the concept of the dual career ladders offered in many organisations, where employees decide whether to pursue a technical or managerial career ladder. The model has been a huge success over the last 15 years.
A 2009 survey by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, of 2,799 professionals over 35 years-old, found 60% were on technical career paths and 40% in management positions. One of the surprising conclusions of the survey was that “respondents working in both technical and managerial positions indicate that technical success can be extremely satisfying and enjoyable, as well as often more stable and less stressful than dealing with the administration of people and organisational bureaucracy.”
Could it be that by offering the dual ladder, some people with great potential are tempted towards the ‘easier option’ of staying on the technical side of the ladder?
Don’t write off your technical experts so quickly!
It is easy to get judgemental about the technically skilled, writing off leadership as a challenging route for them. A Hay Group report states: “Alongside the evolution in work came a growing awareness that the technical specialists/experts were often not effective in leadership roles…. It was increasingly clear that many of the best technical contributors were not made of the same ‘stuff’ that was required for superior leaders”.
Seemingly, the use of a dual ladder provides an excellent way to support and retain key talent in our organisations but perhaps it also causes us to lose an important element of diversity in our leadership pool which, as we will see later on, could be a huge mistake.
There are books for leaders explaining how to lead technical teams such as “Technical Minds: Leading and Getting the Best Work from Your Technically-Minded Team” by Ara Nazarian, but when it comes to growing the leadership skills of our technical experts, surprising little helpful advice exists.
We could be in danger of failing to challenge people to have the courage to step into a different role and possibly even more alarmingly, failing to value diversity of leadership styles in organisations. We must remember there is a responsibility both on leaders and their followers to take the time to learn and understand each other in order to gain the rewards of effective collaboration.
A technical leadership perspective
People who are technically skilled often come at things from a process, or systems, point of view. They learn patterns and work out efficiencies to achieve the results they need. Sadly, what often happens when working with people is they find there are few repeatable consistent patterns for success, which can often make leadership intimidating. If you are technically minded, don’t give up too quickly. And if you have technical experts in your teams be patient, there are fantastic opportunities hidden right in front of you.
Articles such as “The evidence is growing – there really is a business case for diversity” By Tim Smedley in The Financial Times, and “Is there a payoff from top-team diversity?” published by McKinsey, have shown overwhelming evidence that we need diversity in senior teams. The McKinsey study found that companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity had ROEs that were 53% higher. They had EBIT margins that were 14% higher, on average, than they were for those in the bottom quartile.
We need to be careful that our competency frameworks for leadership don’t restrict diversity by favouring the traditional traits of social extroversion. In fact many powerful and compelling articles have been written along the lines of “Why Introverts Can Make the Best Leaders” as featured in Forbes magazine, but perhaps we haven’t really taken these messages to heart. Good people skills ARE NOT purely the domain of the extrovert.
Practical strategies for success
The key to lasting leadership success for technical people is to make leadership a process. There are a huge number of consistent and repeatable things we can encourage technically-minded people to do to ensure their leadership succeeds. Here are some simple and effective leadership processes that will work in most situations:
1. Regularly schedule 1:1 conversations with team members
Technically-minded people can overlook the need to simply speak and connect. Many technical experts feel comfortable and in control by following data or monitoring processes, thereby neglecting the personal time that many team members need. Leaders should therefore turn 1:1 conversations into a diarised commitment that is consistent and repeatable. This is then a process; a technical expert can even create a structure for the conversation that focuses on adopting a coaching approach, i.e. a series of questions to ask – for example “what are you most enjoying? Finding most challenging? What do you need from me?”. To put it simply, making time for people is one of the key things many leaders simply don’t do enough of – with the disciplined mind of a technical person you will see how well this can be applied!
2. Create an agenda and hand over running team meetings
Great leadership is about letting go of control. Encourage your technical expert to create a clear agenda for their team meetings, then delegate responsibility for leading the meeting to different team members each time they meet. This covers many aspects of leadership in one single act by creating a sense of team engagement, giving autonomy and allowing all team members to develop their own leadership. As a bonus, the technical expert becomes a great ‘participant’ in the meeting, they can observe and contribute, free from the stress of managing the process. Finally, by not acting as the boss they create a feeling of equality in the team.
3. Giving daily recognition
Recognition is a cornerstone of leadership that can also be made a process. This is essentially the idea of catching someone doing something right each day and telling that person directly. Many leaders mistake saying ‘thank you’ as being the same as giving recognition but it is not the same thing. Saying thank you is indeed polite but giving recognition is about identifying and speaking the strength or trait we see in our team member. The structure for recognition is STRENGTH + EVIDENCE (when & where) + WHY THIS IS USEFUL or VALUABLE TO THE TEAM. This simple daily act should take less than 20 seconds, and becomes a challenge to achieve each day and therefore is something that can be turned into a process.
4. Create experts within teams
Technically-minded people relate strongly to the concept of expertise and, in particular, the pleasure that can be found in mastering skills. Technical leaders should find out what each team member can be an expert in and how to best use that expertise. The idea will come naturally to them, once they realise they can find team members who can be experts in ‘people’, ‘listening’ or ‘persuading’ as well as technical skills. Then you will see them developing their team as well as any inspirational leader. The leader can then go to their ‘experts’ for guidance and input, which not only engages the team but builds trust and a sense of responsibility.
5. Be natural problem solvers
One function of leadership is to remove things that prevent the team from performing at their highest possible level. Set this belief in your technical leaders, and explain they are there to solve any problems their team are finding. Remove any blocks, any inefficient or outdated processes and thinking. Quickly you will see a hugely dynamic leader in action. Ask the leader to go and find out what frustrates their team, what slows them down and so on, then challenge them to find ways past, round or though the problem. The team will love the proactive approach and the leader will feel useful.
Dual ladder systems are certainly a positive step for organisations and there is very little more valuable than letting employees be true to their characters… but let’s not step away from the challenge of leadership too quickly when it doesn’t come naturally.
Regardless of the career options available, we should encourage and support diversity in our leadership populations. Technical people, introverts, extroverts and so on, all have something different to add to the richness of your leadership culture.
As an article in Talent Management magazine reminds us: “While there is a stereotype of the technical genius who locks himself in a laboratory or cubicle and never interacts with other people, the fact is everyone must learn to work with others. As a person rises to higher levels on the technical ladder, there is often a requirement that the employee, even if not moving into a management role, acts as a team leader and as a mentor or coach to more junior staff.”
Chris Atkinson is founder of Elysian Training.
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