Smartest Employees Most Difficult to Manage
By Christopher Rice
Technical professionals are highly skilled individuals representing a wide variety of functional disciplines and industries. Some are clustered in specialized teams and secluded research and development labs, and others are woven into the fabric of the workforce. They include programmers, software developers, engineers, scientists, analysts, mathematicians, statisticians, etc.
These expert employees, who are so essential to your organization’s innovation and competitiveness, are also demanding, sometimes rebellious, intellectually agile, and often insular and uncommunicative with those outside their circle — the brightest minds can be your organization’s biggest headache.
The bosses of these difficult-to-manage employees are often not great managers. They are apt to be technical professionals themselves, rising through the ranks because of their specific expertise not their people skills. They tend to err toward two extremes: telling their people exactly how to do things or spending so much time on their own projects that they don’t “get around to” their leadership duties until there’s a crisis.
Being Nice Is Not Enough
In BlessingWhite’s survey of 898 executives in charge of technical professionals, the leaders rated themselves as most competent in soft skills such as “building trust with my team” (78 percent) and “building collaborative relationships throughout my organization” (66 percent). At the same time, the greatest shortcoming these leaders share appears to be coaching and developing their teams. Although 83 percent rated this leadership action as critical, fewer than half (46 percent) think they do it well.
The implication here: They’re good at being nice but not so good at helping their people acquire skills or apply their expertise in challenging and innovative assignments. This finding is particularly disturbing because technical professionals place high value on personal development and crave exciting work.
Advanced Maneuvers Required
The individuals who design bridges, discover vaccines and create tomorrow’s killer applications might not speak the same technical language, but they do share a combination and intensity of similar characteristics. It takes deft leadership, not supervision, to unleash and align their energy and talents to deliver what your organization requires. Four tactics, in particular, are most effective in leading these talented employees.
Understand what makes technical professionals tick. This expert slice of the workforce exhibits a high need for achievement, autonomy, collegial support and sharing, keeping current, professional identification, and participation in the mission and goals. Leaders who understand these characteristics can apply their leadership skills more strategically. For example:
- Setting and supporting goals without impinging on team members’ desire for autonomy.
- Delegating responsibility in a way that involves team members in the decision-making process and connects the work with a larger organizational goal.
- Creating a work environment that fosters creativity, camaraderie and individual achievements while focusing efforts on team goals and organizational priorities.
Be leaders of people, not managers of projects. Leaders of technical professionals must learn to rely on their team members — not their own know-how and project management savvy — to deliver results. That requires:
- Delegating and coaching to leverage team members’ unique skill sets.
- Overcoming the inclination to micromanage.
- Investing in conversations, setting goals, explaining “the why” behind “the what,” handling resistance, and giving performance feedback. Otherwise, team members won’t have the information or motivation they need to take initiative.
Be just enough of an expert to lead, not do. The majority of individuals who lead technical professionals owe their successes to their exceptional know-how. They relish the role of expert. Because their current job is about delivering results through others, they need to figure out how much knowledge is “just enough” to be able to lead a team of experts. BlessingWhite’s findings suggest they struggle with finding that balance. They need to prioritize equipping their team members with the latest knowledge and skills, and they need to be more selective about their own development.
Increase their influence outside of their team or department. BlessingWhite research indicates leaders of technical professionals understand they need to be less insular, that they need to build collaborative relationships and communicate effectively at all levels of the organization. Most also see room for improvement. They need to:
- Be able to translate their team’s core capabilities, ideas and accomplishments for nontechnical colleagues.
- “Influence up” to secure resources or promote innovative ideas.
- Broaden their understanding of their organization’s business so they can be more valued partners in product strategy, delivery, and support.
A New Type of Expert
Your organization no doubt looks to your highly technical workforce to keep your business humming or deliver the innovation needed to stay ahead of a crowded pack of competitors. Yet, the challenges leaders of technical professionals face are substantial.
They often hold player/coach positions and must juggle the competing priorities that come with those roles. Interpersonal skills tend to not be their strong suit, and their team members exhibit a complex combination of needs that make them among the most difficult to manage in today’s workforce.
To succeed, leaders of technical professionals must move out of their comfort zones and redefine themselves as expert leaders. They also need to move beyond Leadership 101 to apply their knowledge and skills strategically to make the most of their team members’ valuable qualities and skills.
If you can find people who are good at motivating others and getting the best out of people, they are the ones you want. There are plenty of so-called experts, but not as many great motivators of people.”
— Sir Richard Branson – The Virgin Group