What is Transformational Technical Leadership and Why Does It Matter in 2022?


Balanced Skills will Drive Results

Today, every industry is being disrupted by and adapting to new technologies, and in most firms, the critical strategic initiatives have become equal parts business and technology. So, it is no surprise we are all looking for technically strong talent who can drive business results and help transform our companies.

As we fight to recruit and assemble our share of the best technical talent, are we taking the right steps to ensure we also have the technical leadership talent needed to transform the efforts of diverse technical talent into the business results we need?

The Technical Manager Leadership Skills Gap

A recent survey revealed that recruiters said leadership potential is often overlooked when assessing technology candidates, preferring to prioritize technical expertise and other skills over leadership. In addition, the survey showed that 41% of companies provided no soft skills training, including leadership training, for tech employees.

People often get promoted into leadership roles because of technical or functional skills and expertise that enable them to perform well in their technical domain, but that doesn’t translate into effective leadership.

Many struggle to inspire, coach, lead change, collaborate, build commitment, and strengthen team accountability. As Harvard Business School professor Linda A. Hill, PhD, has found in her research on new managers, “One of the first things managers discover is that their role is even more demanding than they’d anticipated. They are surprised to learn that the skills and methods required for success as an individual contributor and those required for success as a manager are starkly different—and that there is a gap between their current capabilities and the requirements of the new position.”

Left to their own devices to figure out how to lead, technical managers often operate under misguided assumptions about leadership. As a result, they have blind spots related to their contribution to the difficulties they experience with their teams.

Constructing the T-shaped Transformational Technical Leader

Technical skills are critically important and indispensable. Leaders need to keep these skills sharp because they represent the vertical portion of the T. The horizontal part of the T represents the leadership skills required to lead other people, strategy, change and drive innovation.We need a reliable way to turn more technical experts into “T-shaped Transformational Technical Leaders.” We borrowed and adapted the notion of the “T-Shaped Leader,” first coined by executive chair Tim Brown from IDEO, a firm well-known for its human-centric innovation and prominence in Silicon Valley.

Technical specialists have deep knowledge, skills, and expertise that they use to understand the landscape of rapidly evolving technologies and how to apply them to benefit their organizations. These technical skills are critically important and indispensable. Leaders need to keep these skills sharp because they represent the vertical portion of the T.

The horizontal part of the T represents the leadership skills required to lead other people, strategy, change and drive innovation. Learning and sharpening these critical leadership skills, such as collaborating across boundaries, navigating complexity, translating strategy into action, leading change, and building and leading teams, becomes the force multiplier to harness the technical talent on their teams and create transformational results.

Technical Expertise Supports Leadership Impact

Let’s clear one thing up, the top of the T is important, but we are not proponents of building a cadre of generalists. Transformational Technical Leaders need a strong base of technical expertise and leadership skills on top not only for their organization’s benefit but also to remain relevant in the workplace.

In another recent study, associate professor Amanda Goodall, PhD, from the Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), at City, University of London said, “Employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of their business.”

In her view, employees are happiest when the boss knows what they are talking about, and that assurance drives performance. Goodall argues that the best leaders are technical experts, not general managers. She states, “If your boss really understands the nature of your work, then they can assess you well, help you raise your performance, and encourage you in the right direction to advance in your career.”

Success Requires Intention

There is an urgent need for more Transformational Technical Leaders — businesses need them, and teams deserve them. It is unlikely for them to emerge in sufficient numbers if we leave things as they are and leave technical managers to fend for themselves to “learn as they go.” It requires structure, investment, and commitment. When done, the results are rewarding. Let’s get started.

Jonathan Gilbert and Michael Canning

Written by Jonathan Gilbert and Michael Canning

Jonathan Gilbert is the Managing Director of Leadership Practices at Learning Tree International. He is a globally-recognized leading thinker in the areas of leadership, strategy and its execution, organizational behavior, and contributes regularly to the world’s body of knowledge about adaptive leaders, complexity and its impact on organizations. He has influenced thousands of attendees world-wide in speeches, webinars, workshops and other learning events while working at Korn Ferry, StrategyExecution, ESI International and through his own firms the Oar Collective and the Gilbert Consulting Group. In addition, he is an educator with Duke Corporate Education, and has partnered with Duke in the development of several learning programs over the last five years. Currently, Jonathan manages the Learning Tree/Duke partnership, which is bringing the Adaptive Technical Leader Program to organizations across the globe.

Mike Canning is the Global Managing Director for Innovation and New Commercial Models at Duke Corporate Education (Duke CE), a premier provider of leadership offerings for global organizations. Duke CE works with clients to understand their context and craft the right offering for any level of leadership, from mid-level managers to c-suite executives.

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