Technical to Business Leadership
Author : Gowri S Ramani | Published On : 24 Sep 2021
Transitioning from technical to business leadership? What are the top skills to build on?
As a lot of my clients are from the technology industry, one of the common situations I come across is when a technically strong person is at the inflection point to move into a broader business leadership role – by choice or by lack of a choice to grow within the company without making that move!
Many large technology companies now offer clear technical and business leadership paths to grow – on the technical side go from an engineer to a designer to architect to fellow/scientist, etc. And the managerial or business leadership path commonly goes as project manager, program manager, client engagement manager, practice head, business unit head. And a person can choose to pick up one of these or a product management path to becoming a product owner.
In several companies, even MNCs these choices don’t exist and as a technology expert, you may have to pick up a business leadership role if you want to grow in the same company.
So, what abilities should you be focusing on as you climb up the technical ladder and have to make that transition from being an acknowledged technical expert to be able to capitalize on that expertise to become a business leader?
Let’s first look at what are your strengths as a technical expert, other than knowing your technology very well:
1. Problem Solving – You are probably at ease with solving complex technology problems, perhaps able to integrate multiple technologies, even if not equally adept at all of them
2. Create a collaborative environment – A key skill required to solve complex technical problems could be the ability to maybe take help from other teams to create an integrated solution for the problem at hand. Complex solutions typically require multiple teams to contribute towards an integrated, seamless solution, so you probably know how to get teams to collaborate towards a solution
3. Achieving goals – You are used to inspiring your teams to achieve the technical goals within reasonable timeframes, for the business leader to keep his/her commitments.
4. People skills – It’s a myth that all technical experts are hopeless when it comes to dealing with people and interpersonal issues. While it’s true that it may not be their strongest skill (though there are some great people managers I have come across who were also technically very strong), as I said before they are generally able to motivate people to contribute and work towards common goals.
So, what are the top leadership skills you should start thinking about?
1. Think Strategy – as a technical expert you are probably used to solving one problem at a time, for one client. The critical shift in thinking that needs to happen as you move into business leadership is to look at any problem systemically and strategically. What are the long-term implications of the problem and solutions under consideration, are you in a position to make choices that can perhaps be disruptive or introduce innovations that can be valuable for the business, and so on…
2. Risk-taking – As a technical expert, you are probably used to solving every problem and considering failure to be not an option. As a business leader, you will be forced to make informed choices with some level of risk towards the outcome. This is a big change in thinking and also the ability to deal with the situation when the risk actually materializes is a key difference from previous roles. How you manage and lead under that situation could be one of your defining moments as a leader!
3. Business Problem Solving – Extend your problem-solving skills to solve business problems instead of focusing only on the technology side of the problem. When making technical choices, begin to think about the business impact for your company and also your customers’ business context. Instead of getting super excited about finding the most complex solution, think of the most simple and elegant solution, even if it does not exercise your (& teams) full technical expertise.
4. Collaborating Across Boundaries – With a focus on business results. Keeping in mind the previous point, the collaboration is not only on technical grounds but also on business outcomes for the teams involved. This may mean compromise and influence others to compromise to find the best Business solution and not necessarily the best technical solution.
5. Manage Across and Vertically more – a key luxury technical experts typically have in organizations is a layer of business leaders who shield them from several business and political aspects of organizational dynamics. As a business leader, you will require to deal with them yourself, both on your upper management chain and also across peers who could also be new business leaders or hardcore business leaders with no technical background.
6. People Management – And your team will look up to you much more for people related aspects issues than before – taking care of their development, clear and visible decision making, being an empathetic but fair leader, providing a clear direction, functioning under pressure, etc are some of the areas where the expectations would grow exponentially!
A proven technical expert can more often than not be a great business leader too if they are provided with the right support in preparation for and during the transition period. Work with a leadership coach, who herself went through this transition and has also helped several leaders across industries.