The Evolution of Technical Experts into Strategic Leaders

092315 - Tech to leader blog imageOne of the most difficult transitions that individuals with technical backgrounds or those working in technical organizations experience is moving into leadership positions. These types of positions exist in two forms—as people managers and as high level individual contributors. If instinct alone were to drive this person’s development, the tendency is often to build a broader base of knowledge, experience, and technical know-how. In practice, technical expertise alone does not define leadership success. For organizations to succeed in developing strategic leaders, they must challenge these individuals to acquire additional skill sets and overcome a need to be the smartest person in the room.

Developing organizational leaders requires a major shift in where and how these individuals focus their time and energy. Most importantly, it requires a different mindset, an evolution from hands-on execution to creating the conditions for others to perform successfully. Specifically, it means moving from:

  • Understanding the job to understanding people
  • Knowing everything there is to know to developing people who know more than you
  • Working heads down in the short term to seeing the longer term, bigger picture

Moving From Expertise to Credibility

For an individual to become valuable to an organization, he or she must build a base of credibility. This requires a different type of intelligence—emotional intelligence—that uses one’s self-awareness and understanding of others to develop and manage critical relationships. Adding credibility to expertise is a potent combination, one that builds a solid base of personal competence.

Making the Leap from Personal Competence to Organizational Capacity

At some point in a person’s career there may be the need to accomplish work through others. Given the highly matrixed nature of today’s organizations, the importance of successful project management, and the need to work across functional boundaries, this is rapidly becoming a common requirement. This “leap” is big—moving from first violinist to orchestra conductor, from quarterback to coach, from actor to director. It requires working through others to get results. The focus must be on aligning the organization by creating a culture of performance and accountability. This is about building organizational capacity. It is a highly leveraged position which, for the organization, far exceeds the value on just hands-on performance.

Moving from Aligning the Organization to Taking a Strategic Perspective

The pressures of cost reduction and competitive threats require leaders at both the functional and enterprise level to see the broader picture of what it will take to be relevant moving forward. This is not simply running the day-to-day operations. It requires a strategic vision, amplified by asking and answering “why” – why are we doing what we are doing and how does it fit into our strategy. Without the ability for organizational leaders to operate at a strategic level, the issue of relevance and economic viability are moot.

Moving from technical experts to an organizational leaders is a move away from building individual competence to creating organizational capacity. For these individuals, leadership is all about making the shift. While they need to develop the skills and competencies for managing relationships and understanding the business, they must also put the brakes on wanting to be the best and the brightest. When both individuals and organizations come together in this realization, it becomes a highly doable and impactful objective.

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