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 fieldInsecure, closed with knowledge. Competitive
Brought people on journey with themDistrusting
Generous with knowledge. Not condescendingOver-reactive and defensive.
Good listenersInconsistent 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 peopleHigh 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 represents an expert who is “stuck”. There’s a couple of reasons why:

  • They’ve been the single Point of Failure for far too long. They may be mission critical to a specific business process they’ve run for a long time. There’s no succession plan, so unless they quit they’ll be stuck doing that work forever. Unsurprisingly, experts in this situation get fed up and take it out on co-workers.

  • They feel under-valued and under-recognised. Or they have plateaued in their career, despite excellent technical skills. Could they be offered a more more senior role? Not until they have a stronger grasp of strategy, commercials, executive sponsorship and relationship building.

  • It’s not their fault, it’s “management”. This manifests as negative talk such as “people don’t get me” or “no-one in this company gets it”. But regardless of the competency of their management, the underlying issue is that they are not as effective or respected as they’d like.

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

There’s a number of reasons experts get stuck, 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.

How to win as a leader of experts

There’s five things senior experts tell us that would make their work more satisfying. Each of these represent a “win” for your leadership if you can help.

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

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

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

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

  • And finally, experts want 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.

Helpfully, skills such as business acumen, collaboration, stakeholder engagement, and change leadership can all be taught.

All you need is a plan.

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