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To be leaders, technical professionals must move beyond IT expertise

Technical professionals sometimes flounder when adapting to leadership roles. Here are the four critical skills that they must strengthen to become high impact business leaders.

Despite professionals working in technology, science and engineering being as smart as corporate executives, technical experts are still not well represented in senior corporate ranks.

Sridhar Ramaswamy, senior vice president of ads and commerce at Google, is one of the executives who made the leap from technology to business leadership. Ramaswamy has a Ph.D. in computer science from Brown University, and was the key driver of Google's multibillion-dollar advertising business and its original product, AdWords. Today, he leads Google's advertising and commerce business. Science and technology professionals who aspire to follow Ramaswamy's footsteps wonder how they can prepare to lead as boldly as they code, design and create.

At Brown University, we recently conducted a series of in-depth interviews with more than 30 senior leaders in top technology companies to identify the key skills and capabilities technical personnel need to progress in management. Not surprisingly, we learned that technical professionals tend to have core strengths: They are proficient technical and analytical thinkers who drive to the root causes of problems and dive deeply into details in a structured, systematic and disciplined way.

Corporations have a pressing need for transformative leaders who drive innovation in today's complex, rapidly evolving global markets.

In their early careers, these traditional strengths serve them well, but they often stumble when asked to lead bigger teams and achieve success through the efforts of others. There are too many cases of brilliant technology professionals floundering once outside their functional areas.

Top skills for technical pros

Our research with senior executives identified four critical skills that technical professionals must strengthen to become high impact leaders:

1. Big picture thinking. How can technical experts move beyond detailed, analytical thinking to thinking strategically about the "big picture?" How can they learn to see the forest and the trees? A leader needs to think strategically to set a clear vision, to build and inspire a high performance team and to establish a path forward in the face of incomplete information, limited resources or other challenges.

Big picture thinking requires an understanding of the company and its position in the industry ecosystem. The focus is no longer on a functional area but on how the group contributes to future corporate success and how to help define that future.

Big picture thinking requires a leader to look internally and externally, to identify market and global trends and to continuously assess the impact of competition, regulation, resource availability and other factors. Taking this larger view also requires skills at influencing others and speaking the language of business, finance, marketing and other functions beyond their technical expertise.

2. People skills. Technical experts are masters of facts, data management and control processes. But to advance as leaders, they must develop the skills to work with and through others. Leaders must inspire their teams, manage conflict and give feedback in ways that encourage others to progress rapidly toward shared goals. By understanding how their teams view the world, effective leaders can have expanded knowledge resources available when making decisions and taking action. Leaders learn quickly that interpersonal dynamics are central to the mission.

3. Flexible and integrative leadership. Flexible leaders know when to use technical and analytic problem solving and when to be conceptual and creative. They integrate multiple perspectives and have a range of problem solving and management approaches. Flexible leaders have their core leadership style, but also have the awareness and skills to adapt that style when needed to achieve results.

4. Effective communication. Engineering, science and technology professionals are proficient in the technical language of their fields. In that domain, credibility and influence come from communication with colleagues who respect their expertise, but leaders must communicate with diverse stakeholders and compete for resources in the face of multiple priorities. Technology professionals who aspire to leadership positions must become skilled at influencing business leaders, building partnerships across functional areas and working effectively with multidisciplinary teams. Clear, persuasive communication tailored to different audiences is key to maximizing opportunities and achieving results with and through others.

Getting results

Corporations have a pressing need for transformative leaders who drive innovation in today's complex, rapidly evolving global markets. To become one of these highly prized leaders, technical professionals must transcend their silos and broaden their perspectives on business and industry success. This personal transformation can happen slowly via trial and error as technical professionals move through management ranks. More rapid results are possible when companies and professionals choose an intensive, accelerated executive leadership development program.

The best choice is a targeted leadership development program designed for professionals trained and experienced in engineering, science and technology. The best results are achieved when professionals continue to work while learning. This provides opportunities to immediately apply new knowledge and skills at work, and leverage advice and feedback from peers and professors.

The most robust executive leadership development programs convene a professionally-diverse cohort of students who understand and view the challenges in the field from different perspectives. In a cohort like this, each student derives significant value from highly credible insiders and forms powerful, lifelong networks. Finally, compelling educational experiences open our eyes to new ways of thinking about and analyzing opportunities and challenges.

With a first-class executive education, science, technology and engineering professionals who want to lead can prepare to attain transformative results through their teams, be primed to identify sources of innovation within and outside the company, and develop the skills to communicate their goals and results to all stakeholders. With an enhanced understanding of their companies and the industry, these newly invigorated leaders are ready to leverage opportunities, build and deploy talent and achieve strategically-aligned results.

Next Steps

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This was last published in November 2016

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