Engineering, environmental, and architectural firms routinely promote their best technical practitioners into management roles. Unfortunately, the top-shelf experts in our field sometimes turn out to be second-rate leaders and executives. Perhaps this is why the number of nontechnical principals has more than doubled in recent years. Still, business-trained leaders remain a small minority in our industry.
That's not to suggest that accomplished technical professionals can't be exceptional leaders. Many are. In fact, researchers are tracking a growing trend of notable business leaders emerging from the ranks of technical experts (think Apple, Microsoft, and Google, for example). Technically-minded leaders know their industry, have established credibility, relate well with their staff, and are good problem solvers.
But many in the A/E industry 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.
So how do the exceptions make the transition from technical expert to effective leader? Based on my accumulated observations over 45 years in this business, here's what I've learned:
First, they truly aspire to be a leader. In most A/E firms, the natural career path leads to some kind of role where one is expected to lead others—project manager, department head, office director, firm principal. Everyone wants to advance, but not everyone embraces the idea of being a leader. That responsibility often conflicts with their greater interest in working on projects. It involves the sometimes messy task of supervising people, or dealing with thorny operational issues (usually people challenges again!). Effective technical leaders don't merely serve in the role by default; they genuinely relish it.
They are able to relinquish some (or most) of their technical involvement. This is the foremost challenge for most. You might argue that project managers or disciplinary department heads are still fully engaged in technical work. Not true. The good ones spend increasing amounts of time delegating responsibilities to the team, helping develop staff skills, engaging with clients, bringing in new work, overseeing the business side of their projects, or getting involved in operational improvements. The not-so-good technical leaders cling too much to technical tasks to the neglect of these other critical responsibilities.
They properly allocate their time. Like the rest of us, "expert leaders" have more demands on their time than they have availability. So they must choose what's most important. Setting clear goals and priorities is key, then budgeting their time accordingly. These leaders create adequate "strategic capacity" to devote to their most crucial responsibilities. They avoid being constantly sucked into the realm of the urgent, where time is consumed fighting fires instead of leading others.
They are master delegators. As noted above, becoming a leader usually means giving up some other duties. Expert leaders spend much of their time pouring their expertise into others. That inevitably means delegating responsibilities, often to those less seasoned. This is a great difficulty for many technical professionals, either because they distrust the ability of others to do the job as well or because they do a poor job facilitating the handoff. Leaders are by definition team and people builders. They commit the time, attention, and communication necessary to properly delegate and free up time for more crucial matters.
They work hard at their communication skills. This is an Achilles heal for many a technical professional in a leadership role. There are many facets to becoming a better communicator. A big one is simply taking the time to do it. The best leaders are intentional in their communications, setting specific times and frequencies to get the message out. They also devote attention to the content of their messages, a common shortcoming for technical practitioners. And they are attentive to the emotional context of their communication, which can dramatically alter what is understood regardless of the content. Those who recognize they're still lacking in this area are willing to get help from others more skilled at it.
They recognize the limits of their expertise. Being a great engineer or architect doesn't make one 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 go beyond expertise and develop insight. In their book Clients for Life, authors Sheth and Sobel argue that expertise is increasingly becoming a commodity (a point increasingly made by others). Those professionals who are best positioned to excel at leadership are those who offer both expertise and insight. They intentionally develop their capabilities outside their technical field, cultivating their strategic thinking, being a great listener, asking the right questions, and working collaboratively with others.
They have a passion for learning about business and leadership. 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. For those who find these topics uninteresting (as I often witness in my training workshops), it's fair to question their suitability for the role of leader.
Bottom line: Expert leaders leverage their assets and seek help where they 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.