Developing Leaders of Expert Employees

Engaging technical experts to do their best work is a competency that proves to be increasingly important for almost every organization in every industry.  Yet helping technical experts transition into leadership roles and helping them manage and engage other technical experts presents specific challenges.

Building on previous studies BlessingWhite provides an overview of technical people, the challenges faced by leaders of expert employees, and the learning preferences which inform our design of leadership development initiatives for this specific population. We also look at shifts we have observed around leadership challenges and technology usage.

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Ideas and innovation
In today’s knowledge economy, competitive advantage is no longer secured purely through the access to capital or information — but by having employees come up with creative and novel ways of solving clients’ problems. To achieve this, organizations are increasingly dependent on the passion, creativity, energy and engagement of the workforce, and in particular on expert employees in fields such as finance, engineering, design and technology.


The retention of such experts is a particular business challenge in industries where expertise is rare and in high demand — Petrochemical Engineers, Architectural and Engineering Managers, Lawyers with experience in specific industry practices, etc. The ability of an organization to attract technical talent in the first place is predicated on a reputation for being a place where technical people can thrive.

Such technical people tend to fit specific criteria such as advanced degrees and specific roles or functions. For the purpose of organizational development though, what unites them (as a specific population) are 6 key workplace needs that must be addressed for them to thrive: Achievement, Autonomy, Professional Identification, Participation in Mission and Goals, Collegial Support and Sharing, and Keeping Current. When these needs are consistently met, technical employees are more satisfied and contribute at higher levels (e.g., are more engaged).


A leadership challenge:
While the technical or creative expertise that these individuals bring to the table is of high value to the company, more often than not expert employees stumble when taking on managerial roles or leadership positions such as team lead, project lead or senior project manager. “People management” is not typically their strong suit, and in today’s matrix-based structures they often have little formal authority which leaves them feeling disempowered. The first transition to management is a difficult step for any employee but, in a technical setting, serious interpersonal challenges arise as the result of the nature of technical people both as followers and as leaders.

Despite all of this, organizations have no choice but to increase their reliance on leaders of technical people. The pitfalls that leaders of technical people face are many, but the top ones we identified in our study include:

  • Micromanagement
  • A failure to embrace the manager or leader roles
  • A counter-productive “project management” approach
  • The development “tug-of-war.”


The consequences of poor leadership in technical teams results in:

  • Disengagement, turnover and loss of talent
  • Lower contribution/productivity
  • Slower innovation in meeting client needs
  • Slower adoption of new technology to move the organization forward
  • Greater resistance to change.

With most studies indicating that “replacing valuable staff can cost from 30 to 250 percent of annual compensation”2 the turnover issue alone is an expensive proposition. Calculating the missed opportunities of slower innovation and technology adoption may be harder, but the rapid demise of Blackberry and Nokia are painful reminders of how quickly an industry leader can fall behind.

The issues that arise in technical teams can be perplexing to senior leaders who oversee such departments, since technical teams can be more insular and the challenges less familiar to executives who are not from technical backgrounds. These dynamics may be unfamiliar to them, making it hard for them to coach the technical leaders who report to them.

The role of leadership development
Leadership training and development needs to evolve to ensure that these technical experts avoid such pitfalls, thrive in their new role and provide maximum value — to their teams, to their organization and to their customers. Sadly, development initiatives still tend to be generic even though this audience has distinctive needs — both as followers and as leaders.

While technical leaders face specific challenges, these appear to be misread by the learning and development teams. As a result many current learning efforts address the wrong skills or competences, and use less-effective delivery methods not aligned to these learners’ preferences. Technical leaders do not buy-in to this type of general leadership training. Online self-paced walk-throughs of performance management processes would be a good example, or generic presentation-skills training.

By better understanding the most pressing challenges of technical leaders, the characteristics of technical people, and the learning preferences of this specific audience, HR learning leaders can tailor leadership development strategies that provide much greater returns by addressing the specific pitfalls faced by technical leaders.

To be successful, we have found that leaders of technical people need to:

  • Be leaders of people, not managers of projects.
  • Understand what makes technical people tick (even if they are a technical person themselves).
  • Be just enough of an expert to lead, not do.
  • Develop the skills to build trust by engaging in purposeful dialogue with team members.
  • Increase their influence outside of their team or department.

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