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Leading people who know more than you do

Leading people who know more than you do

A study by BlessingWhite Inc. in 2006 entitled Leading Technical Professionals remains relevant today and has informed our work around supporting technical professionals in their transition to leadership. Although the paper focuses on the leadership of technical professionals, it also provides evidence of the challenge that leaders face when transitioning from technical expertise to leadership.


In countries such as Japan, employees are generally employed for life and finding the right fit between the individual and the role is critical. As a relocation trainer in the automotive industry in Japan, I was often struck by the lack of polish and technical competence of engineering managers. How were these individuals promoted when their peers has so much polish and perseverance? The answer was quite simple. Unlike in North America, leaders were selected on their ability to support the uniquely Japanese consensus-building processes and project management approaches that make them successful.


In North America, we often promote technical experts because it is the natural progression. The reality, however, is that the skills required of an effective leader are distinct from the technical skills necessary to earn the promotion in the first place. In fact, it becomes doubly restricting as leaders come to believe that they are valued for their technical expertise and are extremely reluctant to abandon those skills to take up the necessary skills of leadership.


The primary challenges outlined in the BlessingWhite paper for technical leaders are not surprising. The top 5 challenges are identified as:


  • delivering on projects with fewer resources
  • balancing my team's coaching needs with my own project responsibilities
  • keeping up-to-date on industry advances
  • developing the skills of the technical professionals I lead
  • developing myself personally and professionally


Although each of these is not surprising in isolation, seeing all five is quite striking. This appears to be evidence of an inability to balance the responsibilities of a new role with new accountabilities. Time and time again we have seen new leaders continue to do the things that got them promoted while supporting a team, maintaining the primacy of their experience, providing technical mentoring and looking after their own development. Of course they become exhausted and engagement suffers.


The simple fact is that leading others requires the courage to relinquish the things that got you into the role and trusting that the distributed efforts of the team will deal with some of the challenges above. Specifically, micro-managing of project members can lead to challenges in delivery. Feeling a need to always be on the forefront of new knowledge requires significant effort which is likely being duplicated by others on the team without leadership responsibilities. Technical mentoring may be a useful attribute but there certainly exists others on the team with technical competence but without an accountability to general coaching needs.


The fact that encouraging risk taking and innovation within the team is the least important leadership activity listed is also telling. Leaders lead through service. Releasing the capacity of the team would contribute to making the five challenges listed less severe. As BlessingWhite summarizes, leaders of technical professionals need to:


  • be leaders of people, not managers of projects
  • understand what makes technical professionals tick
  • be just enough of an expert to lead, not do
  • increase their influence outside of their team or department


None of these can be effectively achieved without developing competency in other areas. Specifically, the 'soft skills' of effective communication and self awareness are central to naturally building the capacity to inspire, motivate and surrender to the emergent leadership needs of the team.



More articles on leadership by Jerrold McGrath: 

> How to provide leadership to creative people

How vulnerability drives innovation

Looking for leaders in all the wrong place

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