As an individual contributor, technical skills are an asset to being successful. But once we elevate to a leadership role, relying on technical expertise can stand in the way of being effective. Spending our time on low level tasks keeps us from focusing on the essential elements of leadership like coaching, building relationships, providing feedback, and facilitating results.
My first position in the HR department at the credit union was a human resources generalist. In this role, I wasn’t managing any employees, my responsibilities were the technical aspects of HR.
I ran payroll every two weeks, enrolled new employees in our benefits program, ensured we were following all federal and state employment laws, and helped managers navigate employee challenges. I loved this job. All these responsibilities were new to me, and I enjoyed learning and mastering new skills.
Within a year, I had built up my confidence and worked hard to become indispensable to my manager, Deb, the vice president of human resources. Because of my hard work, Deb promoted me to assistant director of human resources. I was thrilled! I now had two employees reporting directly to me, and I was excited to continue to build my leadership skills. Deb was an encouraging and supportive manager, and always made me feel like I was doing an excellent job. I was excited to take on this new challenge and make a bigger impact. But the first few months of my first leadership role, I struggled to get out of the technical and focus on the leadership elements required to be successful.
Three months into my new position, one day Deb called me into her office. She gave me some feedback that, looking back now, was instrumental in my leadership development. It was a casual conversation, but I took it to heart and felt like I wasn’t performing up to expectations.
Deb told me that she noticed I was still mostly doing my old responsibilities from my HR generalist role, and that she wanted me to start focusing on more strategic projects like creating training programs for our managers. I’m so grateful that Deb gave me this constructive feedback early in this new role so that shifting my focus and energy into the elements of the position would make me successful.
Frankly, it hadn’t occurred to me that doing parts of my old job was getting in the way of my success in my new position. I was focused on being of value to each employee, which was essential for success in my old job. If an employee called about a mistake on their paycheck, instead of delegating it to one of my team members, I fixed it myself. If an employee called asking a question about their benefits, I thought it would be rude to tell them to call one of my team members, so I handled it myself. What I didn’t notice was that these small requests were taking up so much time, that I was essentially still doing my old job.
While I was being of service to the employee calling me, I was not being of service to the organization. I thought my technical skills were the value I brought to the organization, and that was true for my old position. But in my new position, the value I contributed to the organization was my leadership skills. Deb wanted me to pull myself out of the technical aspects of HR and focus on the more strategic areas, like developing training workshops, where I could make a bigger impact.
In my work with leaders, one of the biggest challenges managers face when they are promoted to leadership is shifting from using their technical expertise, that they were previously rewarded for as an individual contributor, to focusing on the leadership competencies required to be effective in their new job.
This is especially hard for leaders who were promoted from within. It’s very easy and tempting to keep doing what you were doing before because you know how to do the jobs of your team members. In addition, these were the skills you utilized to earn the promotion, and we naturally think that continuing to use those skills will lead to more success.
Here are some ways technical expertise gets in the way of great leadership:
1. We gravitate toward a focus on tasks, not results
Transitioning into a leadership role can feel overwhelming and uncertain. Often, new managers aren’t provided with training on where to focus their time and energy for successful leadership. Because most managers don’t receive any training or preparation before becoming a manager, they often don’t know how to make the shift to doing higher level, strategic work.
We have been conditioned to be doers—checking off activities that will get the job done. Leadership skills feel harder to check off a list of activities (although you can distill some actions that will contribute to effective leadership). We get a momentary boost of dopamine when we check something off our list, so it’s natural that we gravitate toward activities and tasks rather than strategy and results.
2. Lack of training for new managers
In general, most companies are bad at teaching managers how to lead, often because many executives struggle with leading effectively. It becomes a cycle that will not be broken until organizations stop promoting people because they are technical superstars, and invest in proper training and preparation for high potential employees before they become leaders.
3. Staying stuck in “fix it for them” cycle
In the traditional work environment, managers were conditioned and rewarded for fixing issues. This meant that at that time, most managers could be fairly effective by focusing on fixing issues and keeping production or service flowing. But the evolution of our society has changed what people want at work. The traditional style of leadership is no longer effective.
Many tenured leaders who were perhaps somewhat successful as a leader earlier in their career, are no longer effective in today’s environment. Many of these leaders did not evolve their skills with the times, and therefore, many high-level leaders don’t know how to coach their managers on how to be more effective. Do you see why this cycle is contributing to disengaged, unhealthy cultures?
Even leaders who mentally know they should be focusing on the leadership elements of their job often can’t resist the temptation to stay in the weeds. They feel like they are accomplishing things throughout their day, but these smaller tasks and emergencies are not the right things for leaders to accomplish.
These managers often make excuses as to why they can’t find time to coach, develop, connect, and provide feedback, because they have convinced themselves that there is no time. They lack the mindset and skills to shift into the key result areas necessary for their success.
Continuing to work in the technical holds leaders back from making the necessary shift to creating success in a leadership role. This results in new (and tenured) managers not focusing on the areas that are essential to leadership success like coaching team members, building connections, facilitating results, adjusting your leadership style, and delegating. These are all essential elements for successful leadership, but most managers were not taught how to do these things effectively.
When you’ve had no training or preparation for this shift, it’s natural to just do what you were doing before. I call this managing by default.
Managing by default is staying in the weeds and doing what you have always done. Operating this way results in sabotaging your success as a leader.
Learning to shift your focus to the essential elements of leadership - creating clarity, caretaking the culture of your team (coaching employees, facilitating performance discussions, creating development plans, providing relevant feedback), and facilitating results - will increase your leadership influence and effectiveness.
We need to shift away from fixing issues to facilitating results to be an exceptional leader.
Share in the comments...
If you're a leader who's relying on technical expertise in your leadership (i.e. managing by default), what next step will you take to move away from technical expertise and toward the essential elements for leadership?
If you have a leader on your team who is relying on their technical expertise instead of pursing exceptional leadership with their staff, how will you help them adjust?