Is technical leader an oxymoron?

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As a recovering engineer, I enjoy getting together with technical experts. These folks have some serious mental horsepower. They have invested thousands of hours getting really, really good at what they do. They even speak in code just to be able to get all their thoughts into the bandwidth constrictions of human speech and hearing systems.

We would not be exploring Mars, or have iAnythings, or the computer I’m typing this on without these people. Our modern lifestyle is a result of the work of millions of technical experts.

Bill Gates once quipped during a graduation speech: “Be nice to geeks – you’ll probably end up working for one.”

And every day people in companies all over the world hold their heads in their hands, wondering what they have done to deserve a supervisor who can solve problems but is unable to lead or manage.

An example: several years ago I was working for Motorola manufacturing microchips. When I wanted to lend some of my experience managing and leading people, I discovered there were two schools of thought about management and leadership:

  1.  – You have to know everything about something before you can successfully manage people who are doing that thing
  2.  – You have to know how to optimize people’s contribution to the whole, and understand enough about the technical stuff to throw the BS flag, in order to be a successful manager

At my facility I was told that it would be 7-10 years before I would have enough experience to be able to become a manager, because I would have to work in every functional area in the facility first. On the surface it makes sense – Motorola needs managers who understand the technology they produce. However, you could almost hear the gnashing of employees' teeth when managers reacted to crises by fixing things instead of getting their engineers to do it. One engineer told me, “Whenever a crisis occurs, it’s like I’m suddenly an idiot. What did I go to engineering school for, anyway?”

Admittedly there are times and places for micromanagement. Real-life emergencies. Clients who hold the future of the company in their hands. Recovery from significant mistakes.

However, most managers and leaders underestimate the amount of micromanagement they do. They also are usually unaware of the negative messages they send employees by micromanaging them. Messages like: “You are unable to do your job without my help,” “I cannot trust you,” “You would fail if I weren’t here to rescue you,” and "I know you can't possibly handle this on your own, so let me take care of that for you" all contribute to people doing far less than they are capable. I actually know of organizations where the employees put glaring errors in reports, so the boss is able to correct something without screwing up the important parts of the document!

Clearly, not all bosses are micro-managers. (My direct boss in the example above was actually tremendously supportive.)

The problem is that some organizations tend to develop and promote those with technical excellence and not those with management and leadership excellence. Yet as people “rise,” the need for technical excellence diminishes and the need for organizational and people skills increases significantly. And most organizations realize this only after highly talented people begin leaving the company. Worst still, some organizations never figure this out and have many employees idling through their jobs.

Actions you can take today

  1. Evaluate how much importance you want your organization to place on technical skills versus people leadership skills. It’s not what you say – it’s what you do. What kind of organizational philosophy would serve you, your clients, and your staff best?
  2. Take action to make a difference. Just like engineering school, effective management and leadership are skills that must be learned, practiced, and reinforced. How can you help leaders in your company become as people proficient as they are technically proficient?
chris hutchinson, CEO

chris hutchinson, CEO


Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.