Career Tips: How to become a leader from a technical expert

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In most organizations, technical experts who perform well will eventually be asked to lead a team and to deliver results through that team. This is because advancing in one’s career typically means moving into management, even if your area of expertise is unrelated to managing people. But being in management requires an entirely new set of skills. If you don’t learn these skills, you’ll likely end up underperforming and feeling frustrated.

Being an efficient manager involves not only identifying opportunities for the team, but also getting on the same page with key team members.

Your mastery at solving technical challenges helps a little in managing a divided team. The underlying problem can be summarized as below:

  • People get promoted into leadership roles because of technical or functional skills and expertise that enable them to perform well in their technical domain, but that doesn’t translate into effective leadership. They struggle to inspire, coach, co-create, and build commitment to a shared vision and to strengthen ownership and accountability in their teams.
  • Many organizations fall short in filling this gap with the training and coaching needed to develop technical or functional experts into skilled leaders. They also fail to prioritize effective leadership in their reward systems and culture. Without clearly communicating what effective leadership looks like in practice, valuing it, and providing structured opportunities to get better at it, they contribute to the gap between leaders’ actual and potential effectiveness.
  • Managers often operate under misguided assumptions about leadership and don’t appreciate their own contribution to the difficulties they experience. As a result, they often misdiagnose the situation, go astray in their search for solutions, and default to ineffective behaviors. They fail to learn and grow as leaders.
  • Ineffective leadership behaviors erode performance and well-being for organizations and their members.

Intuitively, some managers try to solve every people management problem by checking up on every team members’ performance directly, specifying the day when each member can make contact. 

These can be very wrong approaches and may only aggravated the situation. If a manager does any of these, the key team members can understandably feel undermined, disrespected, and micromanaged. 

Fortunately, there are steps a manager can take to avoid such situations:

  • Identify a leadership competency you’d like to build. If you’re starting with a problem you want to solve, ask yourself what you need to be able to do better as a leader in order to solve it. Shifting your focus from the external problem that’s bothering you to the internal development you need to solve it is a crucial step. In applying the same types of thinking to leadership challenges that they’ve successfully applied to technical problems, technical experts often look to “fix” others and fail to recognize their own role in the problem. Unless you develop insight into how your patterns of thinking and reacting interact with those of your employees, you will find yourself in the same situation again and again. Your analysis of the leadership challenges you face will be incomplete and your strategies to resolve them won’t work.
  • Reflect and seek some input to better understand the challenge you’re facing – just as you do when trying to solve a technical problem. To help sharpen your analysis of the problem, you almost invariably will benefit from considering others’ perspectives and soliciting feedback. Leadership challenges are fundamentally interpersonal in nature; thus, their solutions are as well. By inviting key team members to share how they experienced their working relationship and listening with empathy and an open mind, a manager can create an opening that allows them to share their own experience without becoming defensive. 
  • Use your increased understanding of the situation and your own role in it to identify specific behaviors to change or implement. It’s also helpful to seek suggestions from people who know you for actions you can take, a practice that executive coach Marshall Goldsmith calls feedforward, because it consists of suggestions you can try in the future rather than information on past behavior. For instance, if your team members reply that they need more support, you can translate the concept of support into behaviors they can practice. 

By engaging in this kind of self-directed learning, leaders not only improve their skills; they also serve as role models for learning, openness, and taking accountability for interpersonal impact. Communicating what you’re trying to do differently and seeking feedback or feedforward helps generate support for your improvement efforts, which can enhance their impact. With this approach, you are much more likely to succeed than if you attempt to solve leadership problems by imposing a solution on someone else.

If you’d like to become as expert in leading others as you are in finding technical solutions, the best place to start is by understanding that the pathway to progress lies in shifting things inside yourself first. By learning to see yourself as part of a system of relationships and experimenting with ways to shift the dynamics of the whole system in a more productive and collaborative direction, you can transcend the limitations of trying to fix other people that can confound technical experts. This paves way for leadership and career success.