A/E firms routinely promote their best technical practitioners into management roles. Unfortunately, the top-shelf experts in our field often turn out to be second-rate leaders and executives. Perhaps this is why the number of non-technical principals has more than doubled in the last decade. Still, business-trained leaders remain a small minority in our industry.
That's not to suggest that accomplished engineers, architects, and scientists can't be exceptional leaders. Many are. But many more struggle to distinguish themselves in leadership roles. Some have difficulty shifting their focus from project work. Some lack strong interpersonal and communication skills. Some are more tactically than strategically minded.
If you are a technical professional serving in or contemplating a leadership role, let me offer the following advice:
Properly allocate your time, with a focus on investing in people. This is usually your foremost challenge. The temptation for many "expert leaders" is to continue to spend much of their time doing project work. It's important to budget your time based on careful consideration of how you should be dividing it among competing priorities. Be sure to create adequate "strategic capacity" to devote to your most crucial responsibilities. Avoid being constantly sucked into the realm of the urgent, where your time is consumed fighting fires instead of leading others.
As a leader, you need to commit a substantial portion of your time to helping others be more effective. This is what I call the Time Investment Principle, which states that the best way for a leader to increase his or her productivity is to help others improve their productivity. In that way, you multiply your time through the efforts of others. A practical suggestion is to start each work day by spending time with others who depend on your guidance before you step into your office, where emails, voicemails, and other distractions await.
Recognize the limits of your expertise. Being a great engineer or architect doesn't make you a great leader. That should be obvious, but there is a persistent tendency among expert leaders to exert their authority in business areas where they might be better served in yielding to the real experts. I've written about this relative to the marketing function, but it applies as well to areas such as human resources, finance, and business strategy.
Effective leaders acknowledge their shortcomings and surround themselves with people who can offset those deficiencies. They understand that the "way we've always done things around here" (e.g., business development) may not be good enough anymore. So they look for expert help outside their own areas of expertise. Sometimes these "experts" are simply people who know how to do their own jobs well. For example, who better to define improved work processes than the people on your staff who actually do the work?
Go beyond expertise; develop insight. In their book Clients for Life, authors Sheth and Sobel argue that expertise is increasingly becoming a commodity. Those professionals who are best positioned to excel are those who offer both expertise and insight. This means developing your capabilities outside your technical field, cultivating your strategic thinking, being a great listener, asking the right questions, and working collaboratively with others.
Developing insight requires a passion for learning. Many experts focus their professional development only on their technical specialties. But expert leaders need to expand their understanding of diverse topics such as motivating others, developing strategy, running a business, delighting clients, and communicating effectively. If these kinds of subjects don't interest you, it's fair to question your suitability for leadership.
Strengthen your people skills; seek help if necessary. The essence of leadership is getting others to follow. It's not assigned by position; it's earned through the influence you have on others. That means that your people skills are crucial. (I'd like assume that anyone in a leadership role has passable people skills, but I know from experience that this is assuming too much.)
There are many ways to approach this--doing a self assessment, asking for feedback from others, getting some training, reading books on the subject, hiring an executive coach. But I would suggest starting with people you work with. First, invite feedback. Ask how people thought you did in certain situations (e.g., an important staff meeting), and what general areas you could work on. Avoid being overly sensitive or defensive. Seek out a confidant or mentor you trust.
Consider also how others can support you in areas where you have shortcomings. If you struggle with organization or time management, an administrative assistant might help you keep things in order. If you're not a strong writer, a marketing professional might review and edit your correspondence (e.g., office- or company-wide emails) before it's sent. You can delegate certain tasks (e.g., financial matters) to those better equipped for those functions, as noted above.
Bottom line: Leverage your assets and seek help where you have liabilities. Being a technical expert brings certain strengths to a leadership role in a technically-oriented company, of course. But it also presents some challenges. The best expert leaders are not too smart to learn how to overcome them.
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