Sunday, June 1, 2014

How Do You Turn Technologists into Leaders?

Charles Skipper and Lansford Bell wrote back in 2008 that “there is a realization that the leadership development process takes years to produce results (Rubin et al.2002). In too many cases good technical people have been promoted to senior positions requiring people-oriented leadership and management skills that they were ill prepared to provide. Rubin reported on a survey that indicated only 18 percent of the construction industry executives surveyed had any formal personnel management or leadership training,” (p.77).
Now many may argue that a survey in the construction industry isn’t a fair representation of the leadership development that technologists get within other industry groups. But one thing that appears true over the decades, maybe even centuries is that technologists do their jobs because they enjoy working with ‘widgets’ and aren’t naturally keen to be working with other people – i.e. the main traits of effective leadership aren’t behaviours or tasks they actually relish.
Robert Fulmer and Bryon Hanson wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2010 that "helping tech professionals see the value in leadership can be difficult. Technologically oriented people often get more personal satisfaction out of designing and building new products and services than they do out of managing people. As a result, they may be reluctant to give up hands-on involvement in day-to-day projects. To fix this, tech companies need to create a corporate culture in which leadership is rewarded and respected as much as technical expertise.
Self-image also plays a role in a leader's effectiveness. Managers who see themselves primarily as technical experts are less likely to spend time developing subordinates than those who see leadership as their main role. In addition, most people will listen differently to feedback from a person they view as a team leader as opposed to someone they view as a technical colleague.”
Many smart organisations have two development streams for their technical staff; one that allows technological experts to develop into leadership roles should that be their career aspiration (or at least a development and succession planning that gives them the opportunity); and a second stream that allows technical experts to stay in their technical roles, but without losing out on the respective grading and salary increases that they deserve.
Because technical employees are analytical by nature Robert Fulmer and Byron Hanson mention that “our research suggests that one of the best ways to compel tech leaders to improve their leadership skills is to measure things such as the thoroughness with which they try to advance the careers of their subordinates. Measurement may be as simple as calculating the percentage of a manager's direct reports with completed performance reviews or succession plans. Or it may include more sophisticated analysis of employee surveys aimed at comparing the environments created by various leaders in a firm.”
Developing technologists into leaders involves employee engagement from the day they join your organisation and in some respect starts before that during the interview process when you ideally get a grasp for their career aspirations (both in the short and long term) and the elements of business that excite them.
Then it’s a matter of engaging with your techie audience and one way to do that is to ensure you already have well-grounded technologists who have become highly effective leaders in your organisation and who can coach and mentor selected techies as they have the respect of the employees throughout the organisation.
Not everyone wants to lead – but in the technology sphere, leadership and what it entails can be really badly misunderstood – where leadership is perceived as a hands-off, administrative role rather than a dynamic, strategic and innovative role that can give any self-respecting techie all the excitement they crave – and help take the organisation and its employees to new heights in respect of innovation and growth.
Fulmer, R.M. and Hanson, B. (2010). Do Techies Make Good Leaders? They can, but developing their skills definitely poses challenges. [On-line:]
Skipper, C.O. and Bell, L. (2008). Leadership Development and Succession Planning. Leadership & Management in Engineering. Vol. 8 Issue 2, p.77-84.

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