Shifting From Tech Expert to Organizational Leader [Guest Post]

This post was submitted by Robert P. Hewes and Alan M. Patterson.

Moving from a job as a technical expert to an organizational leader represents a unique challenge that is more complex and has far greater impact than adding more technical knowledge.  Becoming an organizational leader means transforming technical competence into business success.

With decades of combined experience in working with clients in technical areas such as R&D, engineering, IT, and Finance and Accounting, we have witnessed four key areas of success for technical experts who become effective leaders:

  1. Building a base of credibility and trust
  2. Building and managing critical relationships
  3. Working through others
  4. Thinking and acting strategically

The Starting Point: Building a Base of Credibility and Trust

Anyone starting their career or taking on new or changed job responsibilities must begin by becoming proficient at what they do. While it’s possible to describe this generically as “technical expertise,” what it takes to gain and maintain this level of proficiency clearly depends on the job itself. For example, technical expertise for a nuclear engineer looks different than technical expertise for a baker. However, both need to be “experts” in order to be successful.

From a business standpoint, the technical expert begins to shine not so much when he or she simply demonstrates how much they know, but rather when they begin to build a track record of success. It is more than the “expert” knowing their stuff. It’s the expert providing real value because they know what they are talking about, and make commitments and deliver on them. In essence, they create a base of credibility and trust.  In doing so, they shift into the area of building and managing critical relationships.

Relationship Management and Emotional Intelligence

Technical expertise represents “what” the job entails. The shift to relationship management represents knowing “who” the players are, for which the “what” is critical and important.

Developing and managing relationships is not based on a person’s depth of knowledge but on their ability to deliver something of value to someone else in the organization. A tax specialist can be the most knowledgeable resource on international tax. Yet, when he provides critical guidance on how to evaluate a new business opportunity, he shines in a new light. This type of success is based on the specialist’s skills related to asking important questions, listening and communicating at the level of the audience, making personal connections, and being convincing at both a logical and emotional level. These skills are part of a person’s emotional intelligence, and are clearly distinct from technical expertise.

Working Through Others

In our highly matrixed, resource-constrained world, there’s an increased dependence on working through others. While this is nothing new, it’s taken on a greater sense of urgency. The picture here is a moving target, where effective execution means everything from getting buy-in for your ideas to managing projects and clarifying expectations without a clear direction or mandate. It requires continuous flexibility to keep your eye on the goal, define resources in the critical path — whether they report to you or not — form the team, align and execute. This represents a shift into an area of leadership competence that every business needs to succeed.

Thinking and Acting Strategically

A heads-down management style creates tunnel vision and short-term thinking. However, one of the biggest shifts needed to move into a leadership role requires you to look up and out, well beyond day-to-day activity. Thinking strategically requires vision to see well beyond the here and now, to identify trends and extrapolate from the current reality. This means looking beyond a functional or even organizational perspective to identify and understand elements outside the current system. Business professionals tend to be consumed with “what” and “how.” The shift into strategic thinking requires us to ponder a deeper question — “why.”

The Leadership Shifts

There are technical professionals who are and will continue to be solid individual contributors and outstanding experts in their fields. However, the changing nature of business suggests that technical experts can offer additional value through their potential impact as organizational leaders.

To reach that level, their expertise is the base from which they shift into areas needing different skills and competencies. These skills range from building credibility, building relationships, working effectively through others and seeing the big picture. A technical expert growing into these really can reach the next level of capability and results.

Bob Hewes is a strategist, facilitator, executive coach, and senior partner with Camden Consulting Group. Alan Patterson is an executive coach, facilitator and consultant with Camden. Both created the Organizational Leaders Program to hall tech experts make the shift.

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