The Challenge for Technical Leaders

If you lead, there’s a high chance that you got there as an outgrowth of your technical professional skills. Often, it’s the most experienced, the most proficient, and sometimes the most loyal (!) who is asked to lead the team. Many people believe you need to be a technical expert to gain leadership credibility.  What’s called “expert power” does indeed give credibility, but a limited kind which can go stale in a minute these days. No one disputes they’d like their leader to understand what they are doing – the challenges, the lingo, the way things unfold. This empathetic understanding which followers crave is different than the kind of “know-it-all” assumptions they sometimes get from leaders.

I’m coaching a leader, D, who really did spend years doing what his team does. They are a lean company, and when there is a push on, or someone is out for a few days, D is happy he has the skills to jump in. It also gives him a chance to stay up-to-date. His ability to contribute to tasks perpetuates the feeling that he’s one of the group, and that he is a helpful leader.

His team, though, is starting to get annoyed. D’s attention to detail means he’s not paying attention to the bigger stuff. The team is actually under-staffed, and he hasn’t even thought about how to build a business case or influence senior leaders to get more bodies or restructure the function. Their friends in other departments talk about managers who direct the activity without so much criticism. D’s team feels micromanaged when he asks a lot of questions about how they are getting stuff done.

D used to play soccer, and he coaches his daughter’s soccer team. We discuss the downfalls of coaching based on such close observation. D’s questions feel prying, and as though doesn’t trust his staff. His intention is to help them do better work and be efficient. “If I see a better way, shouldn’t I share that?” he asks, frustrated.

We talk about the balance of praise and correction. We discuss empathy and how it is more about listening than about telling. We discuss how a person asks questions when they are truly interested in your experience, versus asking questions to solve the problem. D starts to understand how he is inadvertently robbing the team of accountability and stifling their development. D’s conversations with his team shift from progress reports to conversations about the future and the bigger picture. He asks the question, “What do you need from me?” – and he’s not suggesting he do their work.  D fills his time with more strategic concerns.

D becomes a development coach, as well as a performance coach. He takes accountability for the sustainability of the organization and for the engagement of his team. He is still able – sometimes – to rely on his expertise to influence change.  Most of the time, though, he relies on the expertise of his team.

** Jill’s Leadership coaching challenges are fictional cases which represent common challenges.

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