Leadership Redefined: Why Technical Experts Are the Best Leaders
In the realm of leadership, a fascinating truth emerges: the most remarkable leaders are not just adept at steering the ship but also possess a deep well of technical expertise. Think of a basketball coach who was once a dominant player on the court, a doctor who easily transitioned from performing surgeries to leading a hospital, or a software engineer who rose to the position of CEO in a tech startup. These scenarios illustrate a powerful principle: the best leaders are those who not only grasp the art of leadership but also retain a strong foothold in the world of technical prowess.
Before we begin, I wanted to share that I was motivated to write this article after listening to an episode of the HBR on Leadership podcast titled “The Best Leaders Are Also Technical Experts”. During the episode, Amanda Goodall, a professor at Bayes Business School at City University of London, discusses her research on leadership. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend listening to the entire podcast, which is available on most streaming platforms.
Expert’s leader edge
“(…)among companies with over $1 billion in revenues, 24% had digitally savvy boards, and those businesses significantly outperformed others on key metrics — such as revenue growth, return on assets, and market cap growth.”
In recent years, there has been a shift in the perception of expert leaders versus generalists, with the latter often gaining more favour. This shift can be attributed to the evolving nature of industries and the increasing emphasis on cross-functional collaboration.
However, we now observe that leaders with exceptional technical expertise tend to outperform their peers. The key lies in their distinct advantage, which enables them to promote innovation, make wise choices, and motivate their teams in ways that others cannot. Consider the medical field, where a surgeon who rises to the top of a hospital’s administration becomes a leader who fully understands the complex issues faced by medical staff. Thanks to their first-hand experience, these leaders can empathize with their colleagues and create solutions that align with both the frontline workers’ needs and the hospital’s goal of providing outstanding patient care.
Another vivid example can be observed in sports. Imagine a basketball coach who not only understands the theories of the game but also has personal experience with the challenges, victories, and emotions that players face. This coach can connect with their players on a deeper level, building trust and respect, and creating an environment where every player is motivated to perform at their best. Similarly, technical experts with specialized knowledge can simplify complex concepts, breaking down obstacles that may have seemed insurmountable.
The IT industry is another field where technical leaders excel in driving digital transformation projects in areas such as AI, cloud computing and customer experience.
“A study of 35,000 leaders from around the world found that technical skills were the second most important driver of overall leadership effectiveness, after strategic thinking.”
But what exactly about managers who are experts that make them better leaders?
Study by Amanda Goodall and Ganna Pogrebna shows experts often shine as leaders due to their ability to communicate effectively and assess their team members with precision. Imagine being evaluated by a manager who lacks insight into your role, and lacking a genuine grasp of your responsibilities and experiences. In such cases, accurate assessment and meaningful career guidance become challenging. This aspect is a game-changer: when a leader comprehends the intricacies of the job, they’re better equipped to provide valuable insights, evaluate performance more accurately, and steer employees in the right direction for career growth. This connection between a leader’s expertise and job satisfaction is a significant discovery. It highlights how an expert leader’s in-depth understanding not only fosters effective communication but also nurtures a supportive environment that cultivates employee advancement.
The Transition: From Expert Individual Contributor to Leader
“Being a tech expert is crucial to becoming a technical leader. Without the ability to understand your team’s work, you would be no more useful than a random hire.”
Ok, some of you may now wonder — I’m an expert individual contributor so how can I become a leader? While this is an excellent question is also quite a broad topic with not one short answer. Becoming a leader is more of a journey and you shouldn’t expect to do it overnight. If you thinking about where to start your thrilling yet challenging expedition to become a triumphant one, consider these steps:
Embrace Humility: Shifting from personal achievements to collective success is at the core of leadership. Embrace the humility required to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, and that your role now entails guiding a team towards shared accomplishments. To help sharpen your analysis of the problem,
you almost invariably will benefit from considering others’ perspectives and soliciting feedback.
Develop Soft Skills: While technical prowess is crucial, cultivating soft skills like effective communication, empathy, and conflict resolution is equally vital. The ability to connect with your team on a human level is pivotal in creating a collaborativ
e and motivated work environment. According to a report by LinkedIn, among the most in-demand skills for 2023 communication and management is respectively in second and first place.
Delegate and Empower: As a leader, your role shifts from doing tasks to guiding others. You can delegate responsibilities to your team and empower them to excel. This not only lessens your load but also fosters a feeling of ownership and responsibility among team members.
Learn Continuously: Developing your leadership skills is an ongoing process that requires dedication and effort. You can enhance your abilities by participating in workshops, finding a mentor, and reading books on leadership and management. This journey of growth will help you become a better leader.
Navigating the Challenge: Generalist Managing Experts
“For tech leaders specifically, strategic thinking and an innate ability to execute well are two important skills that go hand in hand.”
Finally, what about generalists among us, are they doomed? Not at all! While leading a team of experts as a generalist might appear to be a formidable challenge, I have some advice that can help you along your journey.
Acknowledge Their Expertise: It’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the vast knowledge and skills that your team members possess. As a leader, your job is not to overshadow them in their area of expertise, but rather to support and guide them towards success.
Facilitate Collaboration: Create an atmosphere that promotes collaboration among experts, where they can share their insights and learn from each other. As a generalist, your task is to develop a platform for these productive interactions, which will enhance the overall knowledge of the team.
Clear Communication: You excel at simplifying complex technical information and presenting it in a way that is easy to comprehend. Your role is to promote effective and straightforward communication that ensures everyone is on the same page regarding the team’s goals.
Remove Roadblocks: As a leader, your responsibility is to provide your experts with the resources and support they need to excel in their work. It’s important to shield them from unnecessary bureaucracy and obstacles that may hinder their progress. By doing so, they can focus all their energy on what they do best.
“The ability to envision and drive change is just as important as the ability to work with technology. If you don’t have both, you can’t succeed in this world.”
Effective leaders are often seen as distant administrators, but true leadership lies in maintaining a strong connection to one’s technical background. This applies to leaders in various fields, including doctors, basketball coaches, and tech startup CEOs. The most influential leaders are those who not only possess leadership skills but also inspire through their technical knowledge and expertise.
As you embark on the journey from expert contributor to exceptional leader, embrace humility, develop your soft skills, and remain committed to lifelong learning. And if you find yourself guiding a team of experts as a generalist, remember that your skill in facilitating collaboration, communicating effectively, and offering unwavering support will empower your experts to achieve their full potential.
In the grand saga of leadership, one thing’s for sure: whether you’re hacking code or hacking leadership strategies, the journey is a rollercoaster worth every twist and turn.