January 21

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Do you need to be a ‘technical leader’​ to bring out the best in a ‘technical team’​?

I work in Leadership and Culture and spend a lot of time helping organisations and leaders with their “people leadership”. I’ve seen technically oriented leaders who fail to let go of the ‘security blanket’ of technical competence get bogged down in the weeds of micromanagement. I’ve seen them frustrate their best technicians by failing to delegate and in some cases actively seeking to compete with them for “who know’s the most”! I’ve also seen leaders from non technical background investing inordinate amounts of time trying to get across technical concepts for which there is expertise already within the team.

My message has always been pretty clear:

  • Technical Leaders – Shift the focus of your expertise to people and strategy. Let the smart people you’ve employed handle the technical nuances. Don’t be seduced by the lure of technical problems to solve.
  • Non-Technical Leaders – Trust in the process and your leadership skills. People are hungry for good leadership. Use the technical expertise of your team, rather than trying to replicate it in yourself.

But….(and this is a pretty big but); in my culture and engagement work, I have heard many stories from technical teams and staff lamenting the fact that their boss doesn’t understand the nature of the work they do. These teams are wanting a ‘technical expert’ to lead them and manage their day to day work.

In an HBR Idea Cast “Why technical experts make great leaders”, Amanda Goodall, a senior lecturer at Cass Business School in London, argues that the best leaders are technical experts, not general managers. Her research suggests people managed by experts are “much more engaged in their work than people who are managed by generalists”, and that “whole organisations perform better when they have technical experts in leadership roles”.

So, to put it another way, if your boss really understands the nature of your work, then that predicts your job satisfaction.

Being a good ‘people leader’ is essential (irrespective of your background), but maybe it doesn’t hurt to have some level of technical competence in the mix?

Greg Dean, YES Psychology & Consulting


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