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Technical Experts Make Great Leaders

It is a bold statement that I have made there, one that is not just my opinion but is backed by research.

Ask yourself who was the best leader or manager you have ever had? Regardless of your profession, chances are your best leaders had one or all the following qualities;

  • If necessary, they could do your job
  • They were technically competent as assessed by you
  • They worked their way up inside the company

For this article, I have left out an important argument around leaders’ emotional quotient, charisma and their soft-skills. There is a ton of research done in that area and hence I believe it to be of no value to re-visit the obvious here. However, there is little research done on leaders’ technical competence and how it impacts an organisation or how it correlates to employee job satisfaction. I was, therefore, rather excited to see the research by Associate Professor Amanda Goodall.

Amanda concludes that “employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business”. In her view, employees are happiest when the boss knows what she or he is talking about, and that drives performance. This, in turn, impacts an organisation’s productivity.  There is growing evidence – based on randomised trials – that when you make workers happier, they become more productive. One study found that even a small boost in employee happiness resulted in 12% additional labour productivity.

Amanda argues that the best leaders are technical experts, not general managers. She states “if your boss really understands the nature of your work, then that predicts your job satisfaction. If your boss understands the nature of the work, then they can actually help you. They can assess you well, and they can encourage you in the right direction to advance in your career, and that is a very important element for job satisfaction”.

To highlight another reason why Technical Experts make great leaders, we can have a look at this article by Dr. Darryl Carlton, Industry Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology. Darryl focuses on the challenges the public sector has with implementing information technology projects. Some of the projects that he has highlighted are the Census (#censusfail), the myki smartcard and the Queensland Health payroll. He believes that the failure rates of large-scale IT projects are unreasonably high across both the public and private sectors, with costs of failure reported in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Daryl also noted the lack of studies which considered the role played by the technical knowledge of project leaders in the success or failure of projects. He then goes on to do his own research and finds that the technical knowledge of leadership plays a key role. One of his main findings was “underpinned by the idea that leaders require more than a passing familiarity with the technical skills required to do the job if they are to identify competence in those carrying out the work. Without this, the projects have a poor chance of success.”

Daryl concludes that “Technological competence needs to be specific, not generalised. The most senior executive with day-to-day accountability for the project, and who has a direct and material impact on project outcomes, must have experience with, and knowledge of, the technology being developed.

An inexperienced project leader will be incapable of comprehending the advice being provided if they lack the specific experience in the technical domain being managed. That means that it’s not sufficient to surround an inexperienced manager with experts upon whom they would theoretically turn to for advice”.

Having read this article and the supporting documents, my question to you is; who will you hire to lead your team of experts?