22nd February 2018

Technical Leadership

There is often a belief that to lead a group of people you need to be the best at what those people do; the best technician, the best teacher, the best player. I often hear people expressing doubt about their ability to lead people who are older or more technically competent or more experienced than they are.

I understand the thoughts, the doubts and the feelings. Often, we come to be appointed leaders because we are the technical expert, the best practitioner or the most experienced, but the belief that we need to be the technical expert in order to lead has to be a classic example of a limiting belief if ever there was one.

From the individual’s perspective it would be impossible to develop all of the technical expertise a growing business needs in advance of them needing it. The business leader would need to have significant expertise in law, marketing, accounting, finance, systems and so on. The list is endless.

One of the reasons many leaders get stuck is they don’t understand the need to transition between being the number one expert and managing people who are more expert than they are. Typically, this crisis happens when business owners fail to successfully recruit and lead accountants and sales managers who are more expert in their respective fields than they are. Often the first time a growth firm hires an accountant is the first time that business has ever hired someone with more expertise in anything than the founder. This is often a real watershed moment.

Richard Branson doesn’t fly all of his own aeroplanes and attributes much of his success to surrounding himself with people who are much more expert than he could ever be. Some even postulate that Branson’s own dyslexia makes that both easier and more necessary for him. He understands he can’t, under any circumstances, pretend to be the expert in any one thing. Most of us are too vain and self-important to understand or accept that.

Jack Welch pointed out that once he became a manager his success was predicated on what he could get to be done, no longer on what he could do. When criticised about his lack of technical knowledge Henry Ford pointed out that he didn’t need to be a technical expert as he had the best technical experts in the world in his employ ready willing and able to provide the technical solutions for him. The leader’s job should not be measured the way other jobs are.

So, is your job, as leader, to be the technical expert? Or is your job as leader to grow and develop your people to grow and develop your firm? You choose.

These thoughts are in part sponsored by talking about the book ‘Turn The Ship Around’ by David Marquet a true story about an American Navy Commander who couldn’t follow the usual path of being the overall technical expert and as a consequence learned how to turn followers into leaders and radically improve performance as a result. If it isn’t in your library now would be a good time to change that.