A while back I had an opportunity to participate in a lunch and learn about this topic and thought these big take-aways would be great to share.
Today’s workforce is a blend of Ernest Hemingway’s “Lost Generation,” Jack Kerouac’s “Beat Generation,” Timothy Leary’s Vietnam-era Generation and Generation Y (I couldn’t quite decide what literary work or author to define this generation; I’ld love to hear your thoughts, share in the comments). This workforce is the most highly educated and most technical in history, but most organizations are ill-equipped to harness the resources and talent of this workforce. Let’s break it down and look at what it takes to lead technical people and what happens when technical people become leaders.
Who are technical professionals?
Technical professionals are experts; educated and skilled individuals who have strong voices about how their work should be done and prefer a high degree of autonomy or control.
Where did they come from?
Technical professionals are an outgrowth of the capital and labor market looking to things like data and processes and generating innovation and problem solving. Technical professionals grew from the call of the market for problem solvers and specialists.
What are the needs of technical professionals?
Technical professionals need opportunities for:
- Achievement – Remember where technical professionals come from, they are your problem solvers. They require opportunities to exercise their skills and be successful or fail.
- Autonomy – Remember who they are, they are highly trained and have a strong voice in how they want to do their work
- Professional Identification – Technical professionals have invested a lot of time, skill and training into their field and they often identify themselves by expertise first and their company second. This need is often missed by organizations. As an example, workers who had previously been segregated by discipline were told their jobs would be combined into one new discipline. Technical professionals including engineers, accountants and data analysts felt they were being told that anyone on staff could do their job. Their work was not a reflection of their investment, expertise or skill set. It was demoralizing.
- Participation in the Mission and Goals – While technical professionals like to work autonomously, their first need is achievement and with that they need to know how their problem solving, their innovations ultimately contribute to the organization’s mission and goals.
- Collegial Support and Sharing – Technical professionals need the opportunity to be around and access other people “like” them, both internal and external to the organization. These relationships allow technical professionals to use each other as sounding boards resulting in greater collaboration, more creativity and faster solutions.
- Keeping Current – Technical professionals are your experts. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge and expertise, but they need their organizations to continually invest in them to they maintain their relevance and expertise.
How do you successfully lead technical professionals?
If you’re leading technical professionals, focus on creating an environment and offering the necessary feedback that meets their needs and allows them to produce for you. Technical professionals want to perform and are highly motivated to do so.
- Don’t get caught up in the knowledge gap between their expertise and yours
- Acknowledge the talents and skills they bring to your team
- Avoid micro-managing, but create clear expectations and deadlines
- Provide clear pathways connecting their work to the goals of your office and organization mission
What are the challenges of technical professionals becoming leaders?
Now that you are more familiar with who is a technical professional and what they are looking for in their jobs (maybe you find yourself saying, hey that’s me…that’s how I feel) let’s talk about some of the challenges they face as leaders because of these things.
- Challenge #1 – Technical professionals will stay in their comfort zone. It’s natural; stick with what you know and what you are good at. The problem is they never really get around to being the leader. Perhaps they got the promotion of new position based on their expertise, but as a leader, that knowledge base doesn’t serve them in the same way it did before and often leads to the next challenge.
- Challenge #2 – Technical professionals will continue to use skills they previously employed. This often results in the technical professional working rather than leading. The technical professional manages or even works everyone’s projects decreasing performance and creating cycles of constant and unnecessary review stifling productivity.
- Challenge #3 – Technical professionals experience an internal tug-of-war between developing themselves and developing their team. Like the chicken and the egg they wonder which should come first and one or both parties end up suffering because of this battle. For the technical professional the idea of developing themselves centers around their area of expertise and not around developing themselves as a leader. The same can be true when they consider developing their team; the technical professional may look to the skill of the individual team members vs. looking at team building as valuable training.
- Challenge #4 — While one of the needs of the technical professional is autonomy, as a leader the technical professional can have a propensity to micro-manage. At their core, the technical professional is still the expert. Recall from who they are and what they need, technical professionals hate being told how to do things, but as leaders they often do this. They are used to knowing how to do things best and can struggle in accepting that their way might not be the only way or even best.
These challenges highlight the fear of losing credibility many technical professionals experience when they are leaders. As a leader, they are no longer the expert.
Why this matters?
Organizations cannot avoid these pitfalls by simply describing the issues. Ultimately, organizations need their leaders, be it technical professionals or others, to be better coaches. Better coaching starts with specific, relevant and timely feedback. Tune in next week to find out the number one reason managers give for not providing feedback (any guesses?).
The views, opinions and positions expressed by the authors and those providing comments on these blogs are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of their employers.
Sabrina Delay is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.
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