The Perils of Thinking Technical Skills
Trump Leadership Skills
At organizations across the country and around the globe, employees are being promoted into the leadership ranks because of their expertise in their functional work area, not necessarily due to their strengths leading people. Do any of the following sound familiar?
- The lead sales rep gets promoted to Regional Sales Manager because of her great talent for wooing clients.
- The best programmer gets tapped on the shoulder to run the software development department, even though he rarely looks up from the computer or talks to people.
- The clinical research assistant is moved into the clinical development manager role because she knows how to manage projects and meet deadlines, but leaves a wake of people feeling bullied and coerced to do so at all costs.
In many cases, the person who is best at doing sales, programming, research, marketing, and so on gets appointed to be the leader for that area of the organization. And we agree that criteria for being promoted should be based on excellent performance, yet in leadership roles, technical expertise in one's field is never enough.
Any time a leader overvalues his or her technical skills, industry knowledge, or field expertise at the expense of other emotionally intelligent leadership attributes, such as flexibility, self-control, and social skill he or she runs the risk of alienating others, derailing team independence and losing critical value of human capital.
At times, this thinking gets triggered for leaders not because they are arrogant, but for whom technical expertise is a safe zone where they are most comfortable playing. The leadership skills required just don't come naturally for this group or seem to too time consuming or complicated to learn, so avoidance sets in. Either way, thinking technical skills trump leadership skills can be a deal breaker for leaders who are trying to stick their landings at the top after being promoted there. For business owners, it is just as salient of an issue, given that these leaders have often built successful companies on their high proficiency as experts in their fields. Business owners will often defend their EQ defects (as Steve Jobs did) by pointing to their entrepreneurial success, yet the reality is that EQ is an essential piece of the leadership pie that can't be ignored.
The key is to know:
· when to leverage your technical expertise and when to keep it under wraps
· how to encourage your team to develop confidence in their own technical skills, and not have to be the smartest person in the room
· how to adjust to the needs of your followers instead of working in your comfort zone and expecting everyone else to always do the adjusting to you
· when to fix or get involved and when to purposely stay on the sidelines so others can learn and shine
Each of these skills involves being able to balance your own natural ego response with the needs of other team members, along with reading the context of a given situation.
We recommend those who struggle with this particular challenge to go first within - by consciously recognizing how they are feeling in a given situation and noticing any impulses to react from the gut as a technical expert (that's self-awareness). Do you have an instinct to spout knowledge to a team dilemma rather than to patiently sit and listen as the team talks it through for a while? Do you have the urge to jump on someone's computer and start hacking away at the financial worksheet just because that is what you are really good at or are used to doing in a previous role? The goal is to tune into those impulses so that you can control and moderate them, rather than being controlled by them.
Next, look outward - read the cues from the people around you to get a better handle on what others may be feeling in a certain situation and what they may need from you (empathy alert!) Has the whole meeting room gone quiet because the team senses you don't trust their opinions? Do employees bring you unfinished work because they know you will make changes to it anyway, relying more and more heavily on your input (and feeding your self-talk that your technical skills are needed: "I can't get less involved in the technical problem solving, no one else is capable of doing the work independently.")
The final piece of the puzzle is to respond appropriately. The goal here is to take the internal and external information that you have gathered and use it to calibrate an emotionally intelligent response, rather than an ego-based one (use self-control). Instead of jumping in with recommendations to a problem, you may instead ask the group to work through the answer. If the group comes up with a recommendation that started with your idea, let the group take credit for it. With this approach, your need to be the smartest person in the room (ego) gets set aside in favor of building the team's technical skills and overall confidence (EQ).
By letting go of your need to be the expert, stepping out of your own comfort zone of doing what comes naturally to you, and investing energy in developing your people's expertise, you will be able to shift from the technical expert with a leadership title to a proven people-savvy leader who uses your expertise as a platform for others to reach new heights of success.