by Patricia Wallington

Technical Difficulties: Developing Technical Leadership Skills

Dec 01, 20006 mins
IT Skills

The responsibility of today’s technical leader is awesome. The introduction of new technology touches everyone in the company with all the attendant changes and risks. And it never stops. Just when you have completed a full deployment, the next version is released and you start all over again. Searching for a stable state is fruitless. Today, transition is the stable state. As a result it is more important than ever to know how to lead and motivate your technical group. Developing the people and processes that support the ever-changing landscape can help mitigate the inevitable feelings of chaos.

The Technical Persona

Perhaps the biggest challenge is understanding the people you work with. Consider, for instance, that technical people are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty. The quest for certainty can lead to extensive periods of analysis, thus paralyzing the organization or project. Moving to a decision despite some uncertainty is vital. In this fast-moving field, by the time certainty is achieved the technology is obsolete. I once heard the professor at Harvard who was responsible for selecting the PC for incoming students say, “At the beginning of the semester I was a hero; by the end of the semester they were looking for the dummy who picked this obsolete technology.”

In search of the perfect solution, most technical people become oblivious to time. On the positive side this makes them very dedicated, hardworking individuals who frequently work crazy hours to achieve their objective. On the other hand, the perfect answer delivered too late is useless. Driving to conclusion in an established time frame is important to success. If the competitor’s product gets to the marketplace before yours it will achieve marketplace advantage. Of what comparable value will the extra 1 percent to 2 percent of perfecting be?

I have developed more ways to ask, “What other alternatives did you consider?” than you could imagine. But I have never found an approach that brought joy to the heart of the questionee! It seems that once the technical person has decided on the solution, it is elevated to the level of the Holy Grail. Any suggestion that there might be another solution is viewed as an attack on their competence, on their ethics or something else. Yet it is important for you as the group leader to understand which things were considered and ruled out.

Passion, so much a part of the technical persona, sometimes leads to wishing and hoping for things to be different than they truly are. In one company, I observed an energy-filled discussion of a project with a great rate of return; it was really beneficial to the business, but the organization did not have the cash flow or capital budget to support it in the current year. It was extremely difficult for the project manager to accept that reality. The project was tabled until the following year. The project manager swallowed his disappointment and took a big step into the real world of business.

One of the primary benefits the technical leader can bring to the organization is balance. Balancing the business and technical continuum is a constant challenge—as is striking the right balance between people and projects. Balance is crucial at a time when choices have moved from “either/or” to “and.” How many times have you been asked this question (or one like this), “What is more important? Customer satisfaction or financial results?” The answer is “Yes.” They are both important. While making decisions in the outsourcing project at Xerox, many times we were faced with the seemingly competing objectives of caring for our people and getting the best financial contract. Only by understanding that success did not fall within either people or the bottom line, and persistently working toward both of those objectives did we achieve what we set out to do.

And let’s not forget the ever-challenging quest to balance our work life and our family life. No matter how critical the work, the best leaders understand the need to support their people as they struggle to achieve balance in their lives.


Gaining the respect of the group is paramount. Technical people tend to respect those who have the same (or higher) level of intelligence and knowledge of technology as they possess. If you come from a technical background, you will inevitably earn respect based on your technical knowledge and accomplishments. Your challenge will be to develop the executive presence and credibility to represent the group’s interests and garner for its members the recognition they deserve. Coming from a business background poses the challenge of figuring out what level of technology knowledge you will need to ensure the effectiveness of your leadership. It is a mistake to try to “become an expert.” Learn enough to ask the right questions and be able to test the adequacy of the answers. Your greater knowledge of the business and the freedom to rely on the experts should ensure the respect of the group.

One of the biggest pitfalls in leading a technical group is to allow all solutions to be driven by technology. Given the intense focus of those working in this field, there is a tendency to see everything through the lens of technology. While many aspects of business today are based on technology, it is still important to keep “the technology for technology sake” out of your decision-making process.

Know When to Fold Them

One of the lessons I observed over the years is, “It’s easier to keep a failing project going than to cancel it.” No one relishes this task. The technical team is eternally optimistic that they can make it work. Yet, the astute technical leader knows when a project has reached its waterloo. That is the time to call a halt. While these decisions take courage, continuing to stumble forward is the real failure. It hurts everything: morale, credibility and company results.

Here are a few other things you may want to consider. Be sure a direction is set and communicated. Everyone likes to know where they fit in. Communicate, communicate and communicate! To senior executives, with your peers and to the organization: Continue building relationships; keep your own skills current; stay balanced; promote holistic thinking; leverage the positives; provide a learning environment so that everyone grows in capability; and inject some fun.

Sometimes the smallest things have the biggest effect. I once had a group that was located in the basement of our building. It was wonderfully decorated with bright colors, nice furniture and artwork, but it was the basement. Clearly their self-image as a group was hurt by this location. They were embarrassed to bring customers to their office. After a lot of discussion, I arranged to have them moved to another location. In their eyes, this was the greatest accomplishment of my leadership tenure. Morale went up, productivity went up, employee satisfaction went up. Even our customers were happier. For some, it wouldn’t matter. For this group it mattered, so I did something about it.