Leading Technical Professionals: A Challenging Equation
Start with 1 team of engineers, add 1 engineer-turned-manager, multiply by a list of assignments to the 10th power, divide by the time frame for achieving results, and there you have it – an equation that describes what it’s like to lead one of the most complex and critical populations in the workforce today – technical professionals. We have spent nearly 20 years researching and working with technical professionals and their leaders, and our latest study indicates that the solution for more effective leadership, although complex, delivers significant rewards.
Who Are Technical Professionals and What Do They Want?
They’re everywhere, doing the jobs that are vital to the success of almost every organization on the planet. They’re creating the latest life-saving medicines, designing our bridges, and keeping our servers humming. Technical professionals include software developers, scientists, analysts, engineers, programmers, and other highly skilled professionals.
Our research and experience indicate that technical professionals have a combination of needs and concerns that distinguish them from the workforce at large. These expert employees want:
- Autonomy – They crave self-management and independence. They prefer a high level of discretion and control over their work conditions, pace, and content.
- Achievement – They like a challenge and are driven to accomplish goals that require considerable skill or effort.
- To Keep Current – They want to know the latest and be the first to try the newest ideas or gadgetry. Obsolescence is unacceptable to them.
- Professional Identification – They tend to identify with their fields of interest or profession first and their organization second.
- Participation in Mission and Goals – They can be reluctant to commit to mandated goals unless they understand how they and the organization will benefit from their efforts.
- Collegial Support and Sharing – They value idea sharing and networking because they identify so closely with other experts and share a desire for personal development.
Net-net: These expert employees can disengage when their needs aren’t met. They need expert leadership.
What Are the Challenges Faced by Their Leaders?
The 898 leaders of technical professionals in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific who participated in our latest survey overwhelmingly agree that “delivering on projects with few resources” is their most challenging issue. This finding, coupled with the fact that their other top challenges focus on juggling their own development and projects with those of their teams, suggests that many of these leaders may be stuck in a daily tug-of-war of competing priorities.
Add another variable to this equation: Most leaders of technical professionals have been promoted for their technical expertise, not people skills.
What’s Important for These Leaders to Succeed?
Leaders of technical professionals agree on what they should be doing. When our survey respondents were asked to rate the importance of nine leadership actions, the vast majority rated eight of the nine asextremely or very important to their success. “Building collaborative relationships,” “communicating effectively at all levels,” and “building trust with my team,” were identified as the most important.
What’s surprising is not what was viewed as most important but, rather, what was identified as least important – “encouraging risk-taking and innovation within my team.” Considering innovation is the mantra for most technical fields (think R&D at “big pharma,” for example), why isn’t innovation viewed as more important? Do the leaders we surveyed interpret “innovation” as the responsibility of the larger organization – not a concept that can be applied to their team’s daily interactions? Or are they a bit reluctant to release the creativity and ideas of their talented teams for fear of having to deal with the failures or lost time that may accompany increased risk taking?
How Effective Are They?
The leaders we surveyed were also asked to rate their effectiveness in the same set of leadership actions. Their responses suggest they recognize that they are less effective than they must be to successfully lead their teams. Only two actions were identified by two-thirds or more as extremely or very effective: “Building trust with my team” and “building collaborative relationships throughout my organization.”
Nearly a quarter of respondents feel that they are somewhat or not effective in:
- Giving specific, relevant feedback
- Encouraging risk-taking and innovation within my team
- Coaching and developing the technical professionals who report to me.
This critical self-assessment can only add to the stress that these leaders experience, since many share the high need for achievement that their teams exhibit.
A Formula for Success
Our findings suggest that leaders of technical professionals already know what’s important to their success, but they realize they are not as effective as they need to be. Many are juggling project and leadership roles, as well as whatever business or workforce challenges affect their industry or region at the moment. Others are faced with the additional challenge of managing virtual teams or multicultural dynamics.
A lot of variables, perhaps, but not an impossible equation to solve. We recommend that leaders of technical professionals:
Be leaders of people, not managers of projects. Despite the pull toward project work, it’s essential that they move out of their comfort zone and have the critical leadership conversations they need to achieve results through others.
Understand what makes technical professionals tick. When leaders grasp the unique characteristics of their team members, they can move beyond the fundamentals, and apply leadership skills strategically.
Be just enough of an expert to lead, not do. Hard as it may be to let go, they need to learn to rely on their team’s expertise. They can’t have all the answers, and their success no longer depends on their own know-how.
Increase their influence throughout their organization. It’s about translating their team’s ideas, needs, and accomplishments for non-technical colleagues as well as linking their expertise to the business.
Do the Math
Organizations look to the highly skilled members of their workforce to create and maintain competitive advantage. Leaders of technical professionals, like their team members, want to accomplish work that matters. They are motivated to succeed but have gaps in the expertise they need. They hold the key to unlocking the drive, guiding the energy, and focusing the unique talents of the organization’s most highly skilled and valued employees. Investing in this critical population promises a major pay-off for organizations.
Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
— Mark Twain