How to transition from a technical expert to a leader of people

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You’re good. You studied hard, made the right choices, and over the years progressed from a graduate to a senior technical role. Along the way you’ve led a team or two, usually in a project environment and you are known as a keen operator, high performer, a problem solver, and someone to rely on when things have to be done.

And so, you are rewarded: a bigger team, maybe a permanent team. You are now ‘off the tools’, you’re up in the head shed and when you do wear safety orange, it might just be a little too clean.

But something’s not quite right, there is a disconnect. Whereas once your skills and experience were directly aligned with your day-to-day job, things have changed. You find yourself in situations that you are not so readily able to deal with. Now it’s not like you don’t understand what needs to be done, it just seems that your answers aren’t producing the results you expected.

More frustratingly, when you do try a different approach, you only solve part of the problem, and there are things, like staff issues, that you can’t seem to solve, critical conversations that don’t go to plan, no matter how hard you try to.

Sound familiar? If it does, you are not alone. It’s the challenge of moving from technical expert to people leader, and it’s something most professional people experience at some point in their career.

For many facing this challenge, the limitations of a technical mindset — especially when leading people — take time to show. Work load is often the first indicator that is there is simply too much to do. Why? Well you might be doing a lot of work yourself; work that others should be doing.

A little while ago you assigned the task; however, the results just weren’t up to scratch, so now you either micro manager the activity, or worse, you do it yourself.

Then there is also the growing tension with your own manager. While things are still progressing, often it’s through sheer force of will. Following another lacklustre appraisal, you feel that no one is seeing the effort, and, frustratingly, they keep talking about more leadership. But how can you do that if you’re too busy doing.

Well the hard truth might be that while you are certainly doing plenty, there is a question? Are you doing the right things?

So, what’s the answer? We need to look at strengths. This is not to disregard your strengths, but to broaden your strengths base. You got where you are because you were successful, so let’s recognise what got you there and use it as a lever.

The good news is that using a strengths-based approach to leadership is about as natural as breathing. If you’re a good runner, you might want to push yourself and compete in a triathlon. Now the first thing we DON’T do, is stop being a good runner. It’s your base, and you are counting on it to help you balance the other race disciplines you’re not so good at.

Now, at a very simple level, your strengths at running might give you the chance to build a good lead or catch up after a slow swim or cycle. However, it’s much more than that, it’s about the components to your core strengths. Your athleticism, your cardiovascular fitness, your endurance. All of your strengths will serve you well as you try your hand at road cycling and swimming.

So it is with becoming a people leader. Your strengths — listening, analysis, critical thinking, and application, for example — are vitally important. You just need to develop a new way to apply those strengths to your leadership method.

Broadening the based

1. There is power in the pause. You’re smart, and experienced, however, you didn’t get where you are by having someone give you the answer. So pause. If you are leading the conversation give others the opportunity to flex their own intellectual muscles. It just might create a stronger team.


2. Development through delegation. If your delegation is all about telling someone what to do, and then waiting to be disappointed, you really need to reset the clock. Delegation is a fantastic way to develop skills AND introduce positive team behaviours. So when you delegate (1) allow the team member to have input into the outcome (building skills) and (2) clearly communicate your expectations for reporting, issue management and on time delivery (introducing positive team behaviours).


3. Find your trust threshold. Then when you do, go one step past it. If you don’t trust your people to deliver, then they probably won’t, and they might not trust you as a leader. 


4. Identify your successors. It’s a challenging thought, there is a very good chance you’ll move on to another role. Thinking about building a high performing team that doesn’t include you changes the dynamic. It’s no longer about your strengths, but what lies in the team and your potential successors. 


5. Lead up. It’s equally important to lead those you report to, as it is to lead your reports. Whereas there is an assumed leadership structure between you and your team, to lead up, you need to become an influencer. 


This fundamental shift from technical expert to people leader is a key step in your career development. Like all significant steps, you’ll need to give it your full attention, but most importantly you’ll need to realise its more than a change in title, it’s a change in thinking about your strengths, and how you apply them.

Contact Mark to chat about how coaching can identify and enhance your strengths as a leader.

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