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Developing a Technical Expert to be an Effective Leader

Picture the scenario: the technical expert is appointed to lead the technical team and expectations are high on both sides. However, six months later and the appointment has turned sour; the team feel they are being micromanaged in every direction; the new manager is struggling with the transition from manager of projects to leader of people. Furthermore, the manager feels loss of status accorded to the previous role and the talent management issues are now overwhelming. Team performance suffers.
As the western world moves from manufacturing economies towards knowledge economies, organisations now require their technical experts to develop a range of leadership skills such as strategic thinking, people development and change management abilities. Technical experts come with both an internal and external credibility so importing leaders to run technical teams is less of a satisfactory option than developing technical experts to become effective leaders.
This short paper addresses two issues: firstly, how to ensure that technical experts are fully aware of both the personal and career implications of such a job move; and secondly, how best to support them on the transition between roles to ensure that the scenario described above does not occur.

Motivations to change

From an organisational perspective, such development is both an expensive investment and a commercial risk and it is critical that the technical expert has the required motivations to execute a leadership role.
One way of addressing this issue is through a career counselling session to unpack the motivations to want to move to a leadership role and the expectations of how that role will be delivered. Thus, how realistic is the proposed move to a leadership role in relation to own knowledge, skills and abilities? Leadership is not for everyone and to what extent has the technical expert considered other career options? Finally, to what degree has the technical expert thought through the practical steps towards this new career goal?
The quality of motivations to move role are a key predictor of eventual success. These need to be unpacked and understood by both the technical expert and the organisation. For example, is (s)he fleeing from an unsatisfactory state of affairs in current role or is (s)he genuinely flying to a senior leader role as an output of a well-thought-through career transition? Positive indicators include the beliefs that the new role will involve greater variety; responsibility for a task or project from start to finish and a notion that undertaking the new role will lead to making a significant contribution to the organisation thus fostering a real sense of purpose and meaning. In short, the technical expert has high level motivations. Weaker motivations to move include access to higher compensation or the notion that the role offers elevated personal status without any due consideration of the key behaviours required to be effective in executing it.

Expectations of behavioural change

The technical expert will certainly benefit from a candid reality check of the behavioural expectations of the new role. Put simply, what behaviours does the new leader need to shed, retain or acquire to execute the new role effectively? This is an important dialogue. The leader may be regarded very highly within the organisation for technical ability and will thus face a likely loss of status should (s)he move to a more generalist leadership role. To what extent has this been thought through? Furthermore, the role of technical expert, that has been so much a part of their personal identity, is no longer appropriate. Indeed, (s)he should make a conscious decision to stay away from technical work. This is because effective leaders facilitate team development through encouraging team members to problem solve for themselves. Furthermore, constant recourse to giving technical advice and problem solving is the first warning sign that the technical leader is struggling with transitioning into role. In short, the leader is retreating towards a comfort zone of technical expertise rather than the stretch of acquiring a new set of leadership skills. Such a stretch usually involves the acquisition of key elements of effective talent management – becoming both responsible and accountable for the attraction, selection, development and retention of great people.

Learning and development interventions

There is no single unifying theory about leadership. Furthermore, the world of learning and development is replete with examples of managers who have been unable to transfer their learnings to their roles. Research is clear that those leaders following the 70:20:10 model (70 per cent of learning acquired on the job, 20 per cent comes from observing others, and only 10 per cent comes from formal training classes) were four times more likely to demonstrate a faster response to business change. The pedagogy of this model is much less about using it in a formulaic manner and more about weighting the balance of learning styles to the perceived learning needs of both the leader and business. Coaching underpins this model and exists to support the expert leader as (s)he experiments with new and different behaviours outside of their existing comfort zone. Coaching is not a panacea for all development initiatives but it does add substantial value for those who are undertaking soft skills development and who need to think in more strategic terms than they might have done in prior roles.
To develop this further, the move to a senior leader role sets out a requirement to see the business world from a wider perspective. Here, conceptual rather than technical skills are paramount with the accompanying requirement to view the organisation from a macro rather than micro level. Attempting to do technical and managerial tasks simultaneously, with the inherent incompatibility between the two roles, is a recipe for failure.
Within a wider developmental context, first base is to recognise that development is the joint responsibility of both the technical expert, the new line manager and the human resources team. The expert takes ownership for his/her development but time to do this is facilitated by the line manager who sets out expectations for the development, makes time to ensure it is accessed and then monitors transfer of skills to the role. This three-way technique, known as ‘expectation, application and inspection’, allows managers to guarantee that what they receive is what they are expecting to see. Reward and recognition are key here. Some skills will be outside of the technical expert’s comfort zone and thus well-deserved and appropriate affirmation for the display of new and different behaviours will enhance the probability that these will be repeated.

In summary

Some technical experts inhabit ordered and structured work environments with a reassuring certainty in fact and formulae. However, this is not the currency of senior leaders’ work environments some of whom struggle with the fast paced nature of product development and technological change and the requirement to work with data and scenarios that are ambiguous or chaotic in some way.
For the technical manager, this presents a number of conflicting requirements. (S)he must provide exact answers from incomplete or inexact data; elevate self from a natural attention to detail to look across data to inform on a way ahead; and maintain competence in the operational and tactical but also develop a strategic and external focus. (S)he may feel the need to adhere to process but not to the extent that (s)he becomes mired in it at the expense of action. All this is within compass for the technical expert to achieve. The new leader needs, however, to receive timely and relevant development to scaffold him/her through the process predicated on high levels of intrinsic motivation and a thorough debriefing on the behavioural expectations of the future role. To ignore these issues is an invitation to fail. To address these issues is to give technical experts the best chance of success to the ultimate benefit of themselves, their team members and the organisation.

Ten top tips for developing a technical expert to an effective leader:

  • Ensure that the behavioural expectations of the new role are clearly understood
  • Ensure that the technical expert is intrinsically motivated (e.g. internally driven for job satisfaction or personal fulfilment) rather than extrinsically motivated (by payment or reward)
  • Keep an eye out for distress in role (e.g. resorting to old behaviours rather than engaging with the new)
  • Scaffold the technical expert with appropriate development (e.g. coaching) to ensure the best outcomes for the transfer of learning
  • Ensure that line managers use the techniques of ‘expectation, application and inspection’ to measure performance standards
  • Encourage technical experts to connect team contributions to business outcomes
  • Ensure that development is the joint responsibility of line manager, the technical manager and HR team member
  • Recognise that individual developmental action will falter without an enabling and sustaining organisational environment
  • Focus development on wider, strategic and more conceptual subjects (e.g. empowerment) that are the province of senior leader responsibility
  • Recognise and reward appropriately when the desired new and different behaviours are shown

Selected references

Badawy, M. (1995). Developing Managerial Skills in Engineers and Scientists. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Gifford, J and Finney, E. (2011). The Expert as Leader. Roffey Park Research.
Leading Technical People Research report (2013) retrieved from http://blessingwhite.com/research-report/leading-technical-people-research-report/

Schein, E (1987) Process Consultation: Lessons for Managers and Consultants. Vol. 2 Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Woodruff, D. (2010) Numbers to People: Making the Leap from Technical Expert to Successful Leader. Management Methods.

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