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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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Leadership in a Technical Role

Rodney Caudle

A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.
- General of the Armies John J. Pershing

Recent articles provide many reasons for the need to begin developing technical leadership. Sources argue that the skills necessary for successful technical leadership are often underdeveloped in the leaders present in a technical environment. Sources have also predicted a significant increase in the replacement rate for technical leaders reaching as high as 20% by 2014. The predicted lead time for developing technical leadership is at least five years. To address the predicted growth in replacement rate for technical leaders companies must decide how to meet this demand.

As General John J. Pershing so eloquently stated, competent leadership is crucial to successful teamwork. This paper provides a list of attributes crucial to successful leadership in a technical environment. The paper goes on to illustrate how development of these attributes helps address challenges faced by leaders in a technical environment. These attributes can be used as a basis for developing a curriculum to train the necessary leaders for success in technical environments.

Summary of the Literature
Carl and Thomas [5] provide many reasons for the need to begin developing technical leadership. They argue that the skills necessary for successful technical leadership are often underdeveloped in the leaders present in a technical environment. Coupled with "significant organizational changes" such as outsourcing and geographically separated teams the technical leader is facing challenges unique to an IT environment. Carl and Thomas [5] also note that the "rapid rate of technological change requires" technical leadership "to have an ever-increasing breadth of technical competency." Facing these challenges often leaves little time to devote to the mastery of skills needed for effective leadership.

Carl S. Vieth and Thomas W. Smith [5] use the terms "technical leadership" and "engineering management" interchangeably throughout their article. To avoid further debate on the comparison between leadership and management this paper assumes that "effective engineering management" is equivalent to "technical leadership". This assumption will simplify the discussion and provide an avenue for progress. Additional information is available in the reference from Ken Wright [2] on the comparison between "The Manager" and "The Leader".

In addition to making a distinction between leadership and technical leadership, Carl and Thomas [5] also point out that technical leaders "tend to be five years older than the average (leader)." Carl and Thomas provide a predicted replacement rate for technical leaders that is expected to reach 20% by 2014. Given the lead time for developing technical leadership is five years this makes the development of technical leadership a near-term decision. Carl and Thomas state "to remain competitive globally, technical enterprises will have to develop leaders internally."

As the business environment becomes more Information Technology (IT)-centric the need for effective leaders in IT is being recognized. As Carl S. Vieth and Thomas W. Smith [5] stated in February of 2008, "technical leadership is defined differently depending on the role of engineering within an organization." This statement is crucial in establishing that the traditional development models for leadership might not be effective for developing technical leadership.

Leadership Attributes for a Technical Environment
Development of technical leadership must be centered upon key attributes. These attributes, if developed, provide the raw skills necessary to address these challenges in a technical environment. These attributes are facets of the technical persona that, if developed, can provide the growth necessary for a technical leader. The attributes presented represent a focus on interaction skills, personal development and project management skills.
• Attitude and Optimism
• Humility and Professionalism
• Passion and Curiosity
• Commitment and Focus
• Innovation and Vision
• Communication and Cooperation

The pairing of attributes is meant to describe attributes which are complimentary. This is to say that the attributes are mutually beneficial and the development of one attribute will aide the development of the second. In some cases a specific attribute’s development may be aided by the development of supporting attributes that are not included of the initial pairing. The next section continues with detailed descriptions of each attribute pair providing a definition and a discussion for how the attributes are essential to technical leadership.

Attitude and Optimism

Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.
Harold S. Geneen

Attitude and optimism are important for a technical leader. One of the core challenges that a technical leader must address is the interaction with others including non-technical persons. An appropriate attitude is crucial for technical leadership. A technical leader should remain easy to approach and provide solid feedback when asked. This attitude will generate additional opportunities for engagement and inclusion in other aspects that might have been unavailable with a different attitude. This leads to tangible benefits because the technical leader will be included earlier in the lifecycle and provide a better chance of catching errors earlier in the process. Attitude is crucial to the beginning technical leader and should be quickly developed. Without an appropriate attitude the development of other attributes may be hindered by missed opportunities or additional time spent on conflict resolution.

Optimism is very closely tied to the attitude of the technical leader. These two attributes are inseparable for the technical leader. Dede wrote in 1993 [7] that one of the four attributes that exemplified the true nature of leadership was the ability to encourage followers. Encouragement is only possible with an optimistic outlook. A technical leader must maintain an optimistic outlook to maximize their effectiveness. A more positive attitude is easier to interact with expanding the influence of the technical leader. This expanded influence will provide avenues of providing input which would not be available with a less optimistic outlook.

Humility and Professionalism
Every technical leader should be considered an expert in one or more aspects of their field. However, this knowledge should be tempered with humility when advice is given. This will avoid the "know it all" persona which can be detrimental to the receptiveness of technical advice. Humility is a crucial aspect to successful communications in a technical role. The goal of any communications is to be heard and reciprocally to listen and understand. The technical leader must retain humility to avoid driving away listeners to his or her communications.

In addition to humility, professionalism is an important part of technical leadership. Carl S. Vieth and Thomas W. Smith [5] included professionalism in their list of key attributes that need to be developed as part of building a technical leadership program. They describe professionalism as "social responsibility and advancing the body of engineering practice and technical knowledge". Many studies have shown that long-term relationships with customers are more prosperous than short-term relationships. However, a long-term relationship with customers can only be built upon strong bedrock of professionalism. Technical leadership is key to developing these long-term relationships. Technical Leaders often strive to solve the root problem and not just the most visible symptom. This perspective is sought after when customers wish to move into long-term partnerships with their vendors.

Passion and Curiosity
Technical leadership involves a depth of knowledge that can only come from possessing a passion about technology. This passion drives the technical leader to continue learning and growing as a technical professional. There is no replacement for passion in searching for a solution or passion in understanding. Passion is what drives the technical leader to not settle for the "good" solution but to seek out the "great" solution. Jim Collins stated in his book Good to Great [8] that "Good is the enemy of Great". He also noted that passion and commitment are required for a company to become Great.

It is difficult to find a passionate person who is not curious about the topic they are also passionate about. For this reason these attributes are paired. Curiosity is described by Carl S. Vieth and Thomas W. Smith [5] as "a strong desire to learn and engage the imagination to invent novel products or solve challenging problems". Matched with a deep passion for technology a technical leader can provide the "special sauce" to make solutions succeed.

Commitment and Focus
The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.
Ray Kroc

Commitment to succeed and also to complete the necessary tasks is a key attribute of technical leadership. Jim Collins noted in his book Good to Great [8] that companies remain only good and fail to make it to great because being good is comfortable. Many companies do not have the commitment to become great. Follow-through is critical to development of trust in relationships with other groups. The commitment to succeed and follow-through is key for leadership in a technical environment. As Jim Collins [8] stated passion and commitment is required to make this leap. Development of commitment should come first because leadership has to be great and not just good.

Partnering with commitment is the attribute focus. Focus is difficult to develop outside of actual circumstances that require this attribute. The ability to focus on the tasks that need to be completed and the commitment to continue working to the end is necessary to facilitate the relationship building necessary for a technical leader. Focus is required to continue to make progress on commitments and not become inundated by day-to-day firefighting. When the opportunity arises to develop focus the technical leader should make the effort to learn from the opportunity. Technical leadership is built in the fires of Information Technology growth.

Innovation and Vision

I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can't be done.
Henry Ford

Carl S. Vieth and Thomas W. Smith [5] describe innovation and vision as "Intellectual breadth and depth, or the ability to harness a deep ‘discipline-specific’ knowledge with a wide range of cognitive skills that span a broad range of technical, sociocultural and scientific disciplines". The intellectual breadth provides the vision to see, not only the long-term goal, but the possible avenues of accomplishing that goal. As Henry Ford stated, the best thing is to be able to not know what cannot be accomplished. Innovation requires a strong base of knowledge to fully comprehend and recommend cutting edge solutions.

The depth, or deep discipline-specific knowledge, drives the innovation to overcome the technical and managerial challenges that will arise. A technical leader should be able to challenge the accepted practices and strive for improvement. Technical leadership does not consider what cannot be accomplished but instead searches for avenues to complete what should be accomplished. This is a very important aspect of leadership that is often overlooked.

Communication and Cooperation
Lastly, communication and cooperation are crucial skills necessary to overcome the challenges faced by a technical leader. Communication is the most important attribute for a technical leader. As Patricia Wallington stated [6], "Communicate, communicate and communicate! To senior executives, with your peers, and to the organization." The ability to clearly communicate complex ideas to technical and non-technical audiences is fundamental to leadership. Several attributes mentioned earlier can be considered supporting attributes to communication. Humility is important in communicating information to avoid turning off an audience and missing an opportunity to provide technical advice. Passion is another attribute that is important for communications because a passionate person is naturally motivational. The technical persona is dominantly an introspective persona. Communication is an interactive exercise and will require technical leaders to practice in order to develop skills in this attribute.

A companion to communication, cooperation is also very important for technical leadership. The ability to cooperate with the many groups the technical leader will engage is paramount to successful technical leadership. Leadership often requires the engagement of resources in other organizations, groups or companies. According to Carl S. Vieth and Thomas W. Smith [5] cooperation involves "relating to and communicating with others across a wide band of functional and organizational disciplines to build effective problem-solving organizations". Carl S. Vieth and Thomas W. Smith list cooperation as one of the key attributes that needs to be developed as part of building a technical leadership program. The technical leader must be a model in how to cooperate.

Excellence is not an accomplishment. It is a spirit, a never-ending process.
- Lawrence M. Miller

The technical environment is a challenging environment and a difficult environment in which to develop leadership. Some challenges, such as developing "street cred", are unique to the environment. Other challenges like building and nurturing relationships are common to most leadership environments. Regardless of the environment, the leader needs to develop certain attributes of their personality, both social and professional persona, to meet these challenges.

This paper summarizes the need for developing leadership within the technical environment. A set of twelve attributes are presented which, if developed, will develop leadership in a technical environment. These attributes are: attitude, optimism, humility, professionalism, passion, curiosity, commitment, focus, innovation, vision, communication and cooperation. Focusing development of the attributes following the recommended balance will help build leadership in a technical environment.

[1] Leadership - Wikipedia
Retrieved March 11, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
[2] Ken Wright (2007). Attitude, Intentions, and Focus. Acanthus Publishing.

Attitude, Intentions, and Focus

By Ken Wright, Copyright Ken Wright © 2007, Publisher: Acanthus Publishing

The Manager…

The Leader…

Controls processes

Makes informed, inspired decisions

Assumes responsibility

Sets and explains clear expectations

Manages within set guidelines

Creates new strategies and plans for success

Referees disputes

Inspires team collaboration

Exerts authority

Models, promotes, and rewards initiative

Solves problems

Forms and shares vision and values

Polices behavior

Builds self-esteem and focus

Minimizes impact of change

Sponsors and supports positive change

Manages things

Develops people

[3] Debra L. Pahal. Effective Leadership - An IT Perspective.
Retrieved March 11, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
[4] jmcgovern(Enterprise Architect). Becoming a strong technical leader
Posted on 5/12/2005
Retrieved March 11, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
[5] Carl S. Vieth & Thomas W. Smith. Engineering and Technical Leadership Development:
Challenges in a Rapidly Changing Global Market
Retrieved March 11, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
[6] Patricia Wallington. Technical Difficulties: Developing Technical Leadership Skills.
Retrieved March 11, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
[7] Dede (1993), Leaders Without Followers
Retrieved March 11, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
[8] Jim Collins (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t.
Harper Business