Great technical skills does not make a great leader

Research has shown that a major area of failure for leaders occurs when a new role requires different skills and behaviours to those used and honed in previous roles. This isn’t just an issue for people new to management, this also occurs as people move up the leadership ladder. The skills required as a functional manager are not the same skills and behaviour needed to be an  effective executive manager, and often times this transitions turns out to be more difficult that expected.

The assumption that someone who exceeds in their technical job will exceed in managing that technical area, often neglects that management requires a totally new skill set, for which a small part is knowledge of the technical area. When that person has been promoted to manager, their concerns now include skills like delegation, motivation, communication, discipline, team development.

How about promotion from leading a functional area to leading a company?

  • The leader is now leading other leaders/ executives,
  • Has to consider how all the functions of the business integrate to ensure organisational goals are met,
  • Has to balance competing priorities of various business functions,
  • Has to juggle the expectations of the board or even better,
  • Must make their board to be a point of expertise and advise as opposed to the judge, jury and executioner.

Michael Watkins in his 2012 HBR post described the transitions as seismic and outlined seven seismic shifts that a leader has to make. These are the shifts:

  • From specialist to generalist– new leaders may lack confidence in leading the functions that they are unfamiliar with and may end up remaining in their comfort zone, over managing the area that they are more familiar with and undermanaging the others.
  • From analyst to integrator– leaders must integrate and balance competing priorities for e.g. balancing production capabilities with sales demand. Not only do they need general knowledge around all of the various functions but they also need the skillset to understand and make tradeoffs among various areas and to clearly communicate the reason to everyone involved.
  • From tactician to strategist– being tactical can be very rewarding, because it allows you to see the results of decisions play out in the day to day business of an organisation. However, being tactical is time consuming, demanding attendance at meetings, involvement in day to day decision making and completing lower level daily tasks. As a result the leader simply does not have time to be strategic they are focusing on the trees, rather than looking at the forest.
  • From Brick layer to Architect– As a functional, leader, it’s easy to look at the  organisation, identify areas that don’t work well and dream about how you would make changes should you have the opportunity and then that day comes. However, new leaders are oftentimes unaware of all the intricate ways in which all the elements in the organisation are linked and how one seemingly small change in one area could have earthquake size on other areas of the organisation.
  • From problem- solver to agenda setter– For many managers their ability to solve issues is one of the skillsets that factored into their promotion. However, the scope and number of problems to solve are exponentially greater at the executive level. New executives must learn to prioritise issues and delegate them as they will be unable to personally deal with all- agenda setting.
  • Warrior to diplomat- New executives often find that they are high in demand. Prior to the promotion, the only people vying for their attention was their staff and colleagues, now all kinds of stakeholders are coming out of the woodwork- Gov’t, media, investors, interest groups, they all want an opportunity to speak with the new exec or have them attend an event. As the face of the organisation, the new exec has to address their concerns, understanding that some of them will not be in line with the organisations.
  • From Supporting Cast Member to Lead Role– Who would have known that the spotlight could be so bright. As a manager, people pay attention to what you say but as an executive, all of a sudden, even your random musings people take seriously. Its feels like you always have to be on guard and this can be a very stressful. Execs have much greater influence and new execs must navigate this new level of scrutiny.