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How Do You Move from Being a Technologist to Being a Business Leader?

One of the questions I am asked and many of the comments I receive from my blog have to do with technologists making the transition from ‘technology’ to ‘business leadership/management.’   (One quick note:  while I write about ‘technologists,’ the term can also pertain to those in technical roles such as auditor, financial analyst, market analyst, and engineers.  The issue is, they have hard skills, might be more introverted, and are trying to transition to a role requiring soft skills.)

A wonderful article entitled “Making the Shift from Technical Expert to Organizational Leader” was recently published by two authors from Camden Consulting — Dr. Robert P. Hewes and Dr. Alan M. Patterson.  Their key point is that ‘…technical competence alone is not enough to make them [technologists] successful…making the move to organizational leader represents a unique challenge.’

Hewes and Patterson identified four areas where shifts must occur to enable technologists to become business leaders.

  1. Build and manage critical relationships.  After the individual has begun to build a track record of success based on their technical expertise, she needs to demonstrate a track record of proven performance on multiple projects and that she has added value.  Unfortunately, for a technologist, merely getting a project completed on time is no longer sufficient for receiving kudos.  Instead, she shows the ‘value-add’ by knowing the business intimately and delivering on all her commitments.  By doing so, she creates trust and credibility.  (See my blog on Executive Presence.)
  2. Relationship management and emotional intelligence. Unlike technical expertise, which is both easy to demonstrate and expected, exhibiting value means helping the business identify ways to become more competitive and  integrating the technical conversation with the management dialogue.  As the authors write: ‘….when this person provides step-by-step guidance on how to evaluate a new business opportunity…the individual shines in a new light.’  Transitioning from being proud of one’s technical prowess to helping guide a business requires the individual to take a risk by stepping into the realms of strategy, market dynamics, finance and planning.  Being good at asking questions, having deep business understanding, making personal connections (as opposed to the purely transactional) and behaving both ‘…logically and emotionally…’ are all necessary elements of emotional intelligence.  Fortunately, emotional intelligence can be taught and learned with the right personal determination.
  3. Work through others.  With the growth in matrixed organizations and the advent of outsourcing, it’s become more difficult to engage and work with others whom you either manage or know personally.  The impact is greater reliance on working through others and the urgency to get it right.  According to the authors, this is not new, but its prevalence is a new way of doing business.  For a technologist — indeed, anyone — this entails team creation ‘…in the absence of standing teams…’  To be successful, you’ll need to manage change well, clarify work without ‘a clear direction or mandate,’ and get buy-in from a dispersed set of management.  You’ll need to be more active in gaining support and keeping your constituents informed.
  4. Think and act strategically.  Technologists and ‘technical’ staff tend to be heads-down workers.  However, to make the shift to business leadership, they need to reach out to others, look up beyond their immediate work, and think strategically.  Every work activity should contain a component of what the business would consider novel thinking.  ‘These comprise a set of business imperatives that…are the basis for an organization’s strategy.’  You need to act and think like a business leader before you’ll have the opportunity to become one.

Moving from the role of an expert in technology (or any other technical subject) to business leadership requires a deliberate act of learning new skills, thinking more broadly, building relationships, and having the presence to be noticed for being a significant contributor.

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