CAN TECHIES BECOME GOOD LEADERS?
"In 2007, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, knew that he needed help. His social-network site was growing fast, but at the age of twenty-three, he felt ill-equipped to run it." (Quoted from the article "A Woman's Place" in The New Yorker magazine July 11, 2011). That is why he aggressively courted and then hired Sheryl Sandberg away from Google to become his company's COO. In the technical sector there are similar stories of 'techies' who have started a company and then realized (or were told by their investors or Boards) that they needed to hire a more seasoned executive to take the company from its entrepreneurial stage to a more professionally managed stage-Think Apple and Google, among others.
By most definitions, Zuckerberg would not consider himself to be a good manager: "There are people who are really good managers, people who can manage a big organization. And then there are people who are very analytical or focused on strategy...I would put myself much more in the latter camp." He goes on to say that he is grateful that Sandberg "handles things I don't want to, such as advertising strategy, hiring and firing, and dealing with political issues." (from The New Yorker article cited above).
So, even though Zuckerberg acknowledges that he is not a particularly good manager, does that mean he is not an effective leader? I think not.
What we know about leadership is that the most effective leaders create the vision and develop followership. They see the future, develop strategies for making the dream come alive and motivate others to follow them on the journey. By that definition alone, there is no doubt that Zuckerberg, certainly a 'techie', is providing leadership to one of the fastest growing companies in the world.
"Techies" are not confined to the technology industry. You can find techies in any industry. Techies are those individuals who have been trained in a specific expertise and whose career progress largely has been based on their functional knowledge and expertise. Highly successful salespeople could be considered techies, along with research scientists, fashion designers, engineers, accountants or lawyers.
In a recent program I did for women lawyers on leadership, one woman partner came up to me afterwards and said "You know, until today I always thought of myself as just a lawyer. You've opened my eyes to the fact that my associates need me to be a leader for them and my clients expect, not just my expertise-but my leadership, as well". Techies often think that "if I'm the smartest person in the room I win"; but, what they don't realize is that they have to continuously "sell" their expertise and influence others to heed their advice.
I often find myself reminding my techie audiences or coaching clients that if anyone is watching them for direction, evaluating them as a 'role model', and wanting feedback and recognition from them, then they are in a 'leadership role', like it or not. And others expect them to perform this leadership role effectively.
So to answer the question posed in the headline: Can techies become good leaders? The answer is a resounding 'yes'. The harder question is how do you develop techies into good leaders?
What follows are key insights and lessons that have emerged from many years of experience in training and coaching techies to become effective leaders.
First, you need to create a culture that delivers the message "If you want a larger management role in this organization then you must not only provide technical expertise, you also must demonstrate your ability to lead others." This message needs to come from the top. It does not mean de-valuing people's technical expertise, nor does it mean that all techies want to or are capable of becoming leaders. But if you want a senior level career path then you must commit to leadership.
Second, it is then critical to define the strategic leadership competencies that the organization requires. A young company that is focused on managing its growth has a different set of leadership priorities than one which is struggling with competitive and financial pressures. Senior management should collectively define the business strategies required over a future 1-2 year period and then prioritize the leadership skills and practices that will be required by both individuals and leadership teams. One company we work with is moving from publishing exclusively print magazines to one that provides integrated solutions that offer a combination of print and digital media. They identified that their leaders need to proactively demonstrate leadership abilities in such areas as: Innovation, Strategic, Persuasive, and Communication.
Third, provide data-based insights about the current leadership competencies of your high potential leaders. This can be done through interviews, but techies love data-so, if possible, use a 360 leadership assessment that specifically examines the leadership role being performed (we use the Management Research Group's Leadership 360 survey). This can then highlight each individual's leadership strengths and areas for development, giving priority to those leadership requirements that are critical for the business. I doubt that Zuckerberg ever took a 360 survey; however, we do know that there were several people who had suggested that his strengths were not in operational management. And to his credit, he accepted the feedback and acknowledged that there were some leadership roles he should not perform. Enter Sheryl Sandberg.
Fourth, we all can't be good at everything and the best organizations are those that seek to put people in roles that leverage their 'unique abilities'. However, to help techies grow into their leadership role you may need to provide internal or external leadership development support, such as coaching, mentoring or offering attendance at programs that help techies to develop their leadership skills (e.g. we recommend The Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College, for example.) This is tricky because the 'smartest people in the room' don't often respond to programs or people who they perceive to be irrelevant. A new program that is having some appeal among techies is called "peer coaching". This is a coaching model where individuals are matched to one or more of their peers based on a model of complementary competencies (i.e. if I am skilled at making technical presentations understandable to wide audiences, but I'm terrible at social interpersonal interactions, I may be matched to someone who is good at the latter and terrible at the former.) The objective is for us to talk about our relative strengths and receive coaching from each other, with no fear of our discussions appearing on a performance review.
Fifth, encourage your techies to take the focus off of showing off their own expertise and pay more attention to the development of their people. Techies usually have a history of spending their time on maintaining their own personal credibility and currency. However, the number one reason why people leave for new jobs is that they do not believe their managers care about their career development or progression and don't take the time to recognize their unique contributions. If you enable your 'creative geniuses' to drive people out of the division or the company, you are sending mixed messages to the other team members about what you really value. As techies move into leadership roles there should be an increasing emphasis on how well they attract, develop and retain the talent they need to grow the organization.
We have all been witness to brilliant people who have been able to move into positions of increasingly greater influence. Most of them would admit that, as their organizations grew and evolved into different phases, they, too, had to grow and change on their leadership journey. Those who are successful acknowledge, as a mentor of mine once said: "A finished leader, is a finished leader."
If you would like to learn more about EquiPro's leadership, team development and executive coaching programs, please contact EquiPro International at 212-421-1645 in New York or 813-415-3664 in Tampa.