What business skills do technical experts and individual contributors need to be effective?

Written by Grant Heinrich 09 Nov 2021

Ask yourself a question:

Thinking of the best experts you have ever worked with or led, what attributes set them apart?

Then a second:

Thinking of the worst or most difficult experts you have ever worked with or led, what attributes set them apart?

In our Leader of Experts program, we ask both those questions and consistently get similar responses to this.

Positive characteristics of great experts Negative characteristics of difficult experts
Very passionate about their field Insecure, closed with knowledge. Competitive
Brought people on journey with them Distrusting
Generous with knowledge. Not condescending Over-reactive and defensive.
Good listeners Inconsistent behaviour / approach / moods.
Positive and inspiring (can do). Critical and negative mindset (can’t do).
Made everyone feel like they contributed. Dismissive of others’ work.
Genuinely interesting people High maintenance
Those who had a quick and authoritative answer to any question, or conversely, those whose default was ‘what do you think?’ My way or the highway

The right hand column typically represents an expert who is “stuck”:

  • Single Point of Failure. Perhaps they’ve been mission critical to a specific business process they’ve run for a long time. Since there’s no succession planning, unless they quit, they’ll be stuck doing that work forever. Unsurprisingly, these experts can get fed up and take it out on co-workers.

  • Feeling under-valued and under-recognised. Perhaps they have plateaued in their career. These experts still have excellent technical skills, but they need a stronger grasp of strategy, commercials, executive sponsorship and relationship building to be offered a more senior role.

Typically, these experts are frustrated that they’re not as effective or as respected as they’d like. Unfortunately, these experts often blame - this state of affairs on “management”. This is often accompanied by a great deal of negative talk: “people don’t understand me”, or “no-one in this company gets it”.

How do engineers, scientists, software developers and actuaries get stuck?

There’s a number of reasons it happens, but the most common is this.

As people managers become more senior, they are coached to develop the business skills needed at a senior level.

Technical specialists don’t get that support.

A surprising number of experts don’t have a career ladder, capability framework, or even regular appraisals – and even where they do, appraisals won’t be explicit that business skills are essential to career progression.

And so a technical specialist can become very senior without a strong grasp of organisational strategy and commercials. They may not know how to leverage executive sponsorship, how to build highly functional stakeholder relationships, or how to coach and delegate.

Quick wins

This presents a quick win for the leader of an expert team, because there’s five things senior experts tell us that would make their work more satisfying.

  • They want to reduce or eliminate their low-level work and operate at a more strategic, value-added level.

  • They want to be more influential in their organisation and beyond.

  • They want to be involved, front and centre, in transforming their organisation through innovation.

  • They want to be involved in initiatives that can make a difference.

  • They’d like a better-defined career path that gives them greater ability to contribute beyond technical advice.

If a leader of teams of experts can build the capability of their experts to be able to achieve these aspirations, they will have a significant impact on overall team effectiveness, fulfilment, and productivity.

Typically, this means providing opportunities to build the capability of your experts is fields such as business acumen, collaboration, stakeholder engagement, and change leadership.

And helpfully, these skills can all be taught. They’re not rocket science, especially to an actual rocket scientist.

All you need is a plan.

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