Do leaders of technical experts need to have technical respect?

Written by Darin Fox, 21 Jun 2021

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Expertship Research summary 18 June 2021

Publications Researched

To manage a team of experts require a special kind of manager.

Many organisations believe that a people leader doesn’t necessarily need to have a strong technical understanding of the skills and knowledge of the experts they manage, because strong people management will always trump all.

This is categorically false in all but the most exceptional circumstances. There is significant amount of research that shows the importance of leaders of technical teams also being technically strong. For example, “If Your Boss Could Do Your Job, You’re More Likely to Be Happy at Work”.

It requires a special kind of manager to lead experts – one who understand how experts work and also understands the work.

To be successful, a manager needs to have the technical respect of the experts they manage. Without this respect, attempts to do “people management” can be opposed either overtly or passively.

How do expert team leaders earn technical respect?

To earn technical respect, a people leader should do one or more of the following:

  • Have a working level of knowledge of the technical work the experts are doing

  • Make a technical contribution to the field/profession the experts work in

  • Keep up with relevant emerging trends, technologies, and tools in the experts’ domains

  • Be active in relevant technical or professional organisations

  • And also do all the other stuff taught in people leadership courses!

This is why many managers of technical teams who are hired from outside the company struggle; because it is going to take them longer to prove their technical capability – assuming it exists in the first place.

Furthermore, many experts are not interested in becoming a people manager and may view management as a necessary evil.

Recommendations

Therefore, an organization should focus on developing its technical leadership internally and wrap its arms around any technical expert showing real potential as a people leader as they can be rare. They should be encouraged, developed, and rewarded.

Yet, some research suggests that as little as 5% of first-time managers of technical teams receive any leadership training before starting their first management position.

About the book

Managing the Unmanageable is a detailed 544 page handbook that specifically focuses on all aspects of managing computer programmers across the employee lifecycle – from recruitment to termination. However, the valuable hints and tips provided in this book are likely applicable to managing any expert in any domain.

This summary highlights the key messages from the book relating to why organisations should focus on hiring managers of technical teams from within and avoid hiring externally.

Learn more

Expertship research summaries are written by our Chief Research Office Darin Fox.

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Download Master Expert chapter one: the age of experts