During a recent coaching session, a senior manager, newly appointed as leader to the team they used to manage, asked for help on building credibility. They had no issue with team members in non-technical roles. The ones in more technical jobs, however, felt what made a leader credible was how much they knew about the jobs of their team and whether they could do those jobs as well. We discussed if that was relevant to leadership or not, and how, if you find yourself leading in a field you know less about, it can have its advantages. You can’t show how clever you are at the work, so you put your energy in to being a good leader and driving others to achieve great things.
Bill Gates said: “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” He was talking about the century we’re in and he’s right. To be a good leader, sometimes you have to stop trying to be the best at everything.
Leaders come in different shapes and sizes. Some rise up the ranks through their technical abilities. They are good at the work so that earns them promotion. Some enter through a different route. They are good at leading teams and managing projects and are able to apply those skills in a range of settings. Neither one is better; it just is what it is. You can’t help what you don’t know and you can’t unlearn what you do know, but you can make the best of either situation and avoid the inevitable traps.
So for leaders and managers who are experts in the work of the people in the team:
- You will always have credibility. You’ve been there and done it and you have wisdom to offer, so mentor others to grow and develop in their knowledge and skill.
- You might find delegation and letting go a bit of a challenge. Will they do it as well as you? As it happens, they may do it better, which is great, but even if they don’t, they may just do it differently, or cheaper, or quicker than you – and all those things have value.
- Take care that all roads don’t lead to you. Technical experts often become fixers of others’ problems rather than coaches who help people work it out for themselves. One day you may leave and whilst you want a decent send off, people to be a bit sad, say there was no one quite like you etc., you don’t want the place to fall apart. So encourage people to sort their own problems, with your support.
- Your knowledge is not in question here, so take time to develop your leadership skills. Leadership is a skill to be mastered, like any other and the great thing about it is that you can apply it in a variety of settings
- Watch out for meddling tendencies dressed up as “being helpful”. If you do it because you are missing something you love (management roles can be very lonely for technical leaders), find something else you love, or be a contributor on a project rather than overpowering others who have a job to do too.
And for leaders who didn’t take the technical route:
- Listen hard and learn fast. You don’t need to be able to master the jobs of everyone in the place, but you do need to have intelligent conversations with them about their work and what you can do smooth the path to success and add value to their day.
- Consider a stint on whatever happens to be your version of the shop floor, more than one if you can. It’s a first-hand experience you can discuss with people, it will give you a better insight than just observing and may well up your credibility with others. At the very least it will give them something to laugh at.
- Join forums where you can develop a bit more technical knowledge. As well as benefitting you it shows commitment to the team and can help you develop some great networks.
We coach leaders and managers at all levels. Whatever route has got you to where you are now, we’ll commit to helping you use your knowledge and skill – your cleverness – to be the kind of leader people want to have around.