Transformational technical leadership couples practical expertise with leadership excellence.

Every industry is being disrupted. All sectors are adapting to new technologies. Businesses are on a journey to digitally transform themselves, which means the critical strategic initiatives are equal parts business and technology. It is unsurprising, then, that organizations are searching for technically strong leaders who can drive business results and guide this transformation at all levels.

“Technical leadership is more critical today than ever,” Chuck Passannante, senior vice president and chief information officer of Textron Aviation, tells me. “The lines between information technology and business roles are blurring. We need technical leaders who can set technical direction for the entire company – not just IT.”

Companies compete vigorously to recruit and hold their share of the best technical talent. But do we command the technical leadership talent required to turn the efforts of our diverse technical talent into positive business results? The evidence suggests not. As one survey revealed, recruiters said leadership potential is often overlooked when assessing technology candidates. And the data revealed that some 42% of companies provided no ‘soft skills’ or leadership training for tech employees.

“Technically skilled people add value by utilizing their expertise to solve complex problems,” says Passannante. “Moving into a technical leadership position requires a very different set of skills. Instead of solving technical problems, one is now adding value by growing others to solve problems.”

People are often promoted into leadership roles because of their technical expertise, despite lacking the array of broader skills necessary to lead and make others successful. Left to their own devices, even experienced technical managers often suffer blind spots which contribute to difficulties in their teams. They haven’t truly made the identity shift from expert to leader of experts.

Businesses need a reliable way to convert technical experts to ‘T-shaped’, technical transformational leaders. The notion of the ‘T-Shaped Leader’ was coined by Tim Brown, chief executive of IDEO, a firm renowned for its human-centred innovation. Technical specialists have deep, and indispensable, technical skills; these represent the vertical portion of the ‘T’. The horizontal part represents the broader leadership skills required to lead people, strategy and change – and drive innovation. They are a force multiplier for harnessing the technical talent on teams and creating transformational results.

Professor Amanda Goodall of Bayes Business School has discovered that the best technical leaders are not merely generalists with strong skills at the top of the T. They boast both relevant expertise and the required leadership skills. Her research spanned 35,000 people in industries including healthcare, education and sport. “People managed by experts are much more engaged in their work than people managed by generalists,” she argues.

Her intriguing finding was that experts preferred to be managed by those who had themselves mastered critical technical skills, be it emergency surgery or hitting three-pointers on the basketball court. “It matters that the leaders understand the nature of your work,” says Professor Goodall. “Then they can assess you well and know how to help you raise your performance and encourage you in the right direction to advance in your career.” However, they need to be good leaders as well as experts.

Duke CE’s partnership with Learning Tree International has given rise to the Transformational Technical Leadership (TTL) experience, which centres on shifting the mindset and building the skillsets technical leaders need to drive business transformations in a complex world. We’re excited to play a role in building better technical leaders and more resilient businesses.

The time is right for executives and their businesses to focus on building more technical leadership talent. It is one of the strategic leverage points to accelerate their digital transformation and achieve next level results.