What is ‘Technical Leadership’?

It’s funny, as I look at the functions and places I have worked in my career, and I look at some very successful people I know, the importance of being good on your business feet, communicating well and leading the work efforts of others become the common, recurring skills that seem to sustain an individuals career progression in organizations.  I’ll call these the “People Skills”. Yet most of these people who have stood out, at least the one’s that I know, spent their formal educations on technical subjects, not the people subjects.

I had a great lunchtime conversation with 4 visiting faculty members from MIT.  There is something about being engaged in energetic dialogue with passionate individuals who are also at the top of their field, and in that regard, these guys didn’t let me down at all.

As the conversation progressed, the term “Technical Leadership” emerged as the essence for what their current academic program is striving to prepare graduates for. The good news is, that when they used the term, they were not referring to technical prowess or ability as much as the orientation towards working and growing in organizations of a technical nature and shaping them (or starting them from scratch) while still contributing an engineering skill set.

Given the tendency for universities to focus on theory and leave the application up to the students, I find it interesting that an engineering program from a top school is actually considering the notion that engineers can prepare themselves for a career of being more than an individual contributor.  But it shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, when you consider the number of leaders out there with technical educations.

Firms like Spencer Stuart, that track the demographics of S&P 500 CEOs, have discovered that a large portion of the pool of top corporate executives have undergraduate educations in engineering.  But we all know how linearly, and how literally, engineers think.  How could they come to serve and skillfully manage the needs of the one thing that gets in the way of brilliant engineering projects: People?

Well, for one, the stereotype that all engineers tape their glasses and can’t hold a normal conversation isn’t necessarily that accurate, especially with the four, creative and systems-oriented scholar-practitioners that I was able to learn from today.  The reality is that we all go through an often transformative process of earning a living and the natural development that accompanies career progression.  It turns out that those engineering-founded, super executives actually spent little time in their degree field and still rose to business and management success (which should give most of us a sigh of relief).

Like any degree, engineering was simply a jumping-off point or entry into business which quickly led into other operational fields, the most notable of which are marketing, sales and, of course, finance.  When you look at the stories these careers tell, I think the folks at MIT are on the right track: Technical leadership is both the development of leading technologies and the leadership of technology organizations – both of which are required to produce results that develop the world we inhabit.

The lesson? Even individual contributors, often those brilliant souls who slave individually over a crazy notion that turns out to be pure genius (think post-it notes or waffle irons… hey, I love waffle irons) need to develop the “interpersonal engineering” skills that facilitate the production, application and adoption of their contributions. Check out this pdf from Novations (specifically note the question on slide 2).

What this means to you: Map out both the areas of your technical expertise and the areas of your people expertise and measure each one. Depending on the stage of your career, determine an appropriate balance between the two and then go to work filling in the gaps.  Early in your career, your technical expertise better be high – that’s the entryway into organizations.  Your people skills need to be constantly developed in the areas of interpersonal and team communication and leadership. Mid-career, you need to really sharpen your people skills and begin focusing on the bigger picture of how all the people around you contribute to the success of the organization.  Advanced careers will need to keep their people skills razor-sharp and move their technical expertise to areas of strategic planning and organizational leadership.

What this means to your organization: No matter how well the lab rats are running in their wheels, give them the resources, time and most importantly, encouragement to stretch their project management, project leadership, and people skills. I know, I know… I have met many coders who will go to the grave with the words “just let me code, man!” on their lips. No matter their claims, they are human beings with the stock human development needs that we all come with, and sooner or later, the organization will either benefit from their increased development or stand indicted upon their exit.

Technically leading organizations that maintain sustainable results over time have technically people-proficient and business-savvy leaders.