How to Go From Technical Expert to Leader

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Domenic was very smart, very precise and had a lot of success in his current organization (as a chemical engineer). He was given the opportunity to act as a team lead, a role he very much wanted and where he felt he could make a difference.

He took the role on and was frustrated. Frustrated because he spent hours a week in meetings where he had the solutions to problems, but nobody was listening. He had the expertise and the background; he knew how to solve their problems but he couldn’t get his voice heard.

Andrew Zeitoun standing in front of a building
Andrew Zeitoun

Andrew Zeitoun met Domenic a year after that because he signed up for one of Andrew’s advanced training classes.

There are a lot of smart people, experts, but nobody listens to their suggestions. Why?

For some, they lack the credibility with their stakeholders. For others, they’ve focused on what’s important to them rather than what matters to their stakeholders.

In some cases, the credibility is there and the focus is right, but the differences in communications styles shuts down effective communications.

All of these are challenges for people who want to move from technical roles into project management and leadership roles.

Back to Domenic. When Andrew caught up with him again, not only had Domenic been successful in getting his voice heard, but he said he’d been promoted to team manager.

That’s the power of successful communication and stakeholder engagement skills – and knowing how to use them.

I wanted to hear more about how switching up your style can lead to drastic improvements on teams (and in careers), so I got in touch with Andrew, who leads a course about how to transform from being a technical expert to a project manager and leader. It covers six transformations you need to make to succeed at that jump.

Read on to find out how to make the transition from subject matter expert to team lead. Spoiler: more technical skills is not the answer – it’s all about the people.

Andrew, so much of moving from technical expert to leader is knowing how to position yourself with stakeholders. Can you give us an example of where failing to do that has caused a problem?

One of the hardest lessons to learn about stakeholder engagement came early on in my IT management career.

We had put together a new infrastructure solution to connect our office in Beijing to the Canadian head office. We built what my boss (the divisional head of IT) said he wanted. What I didn’t understand was that he wasn’t actually my primary stakeholder. My primary stakeholder was the managing director of the Asia/Pacific business unit.

To make matters worse, the more the managing director pushed back, claiming that the solution that we built was slow, unreliable or otherwise didn’t meet his needs, the more I delivered data that contradicted him…

Regardless of how technically sound our solution was, I learned that the solution you delivered is not a success if your primary stakeholder doesn’t have confidence in what you’ve delivered or if the users don’t use it.

I wish I could say that I saved that project through my knowledge or expertise. The truth is that I didn’t. That project was saved by accident. The project was saved through some of the tools and techniques we now teach to understand and engage stakeholders so that fewer people have to learn these lessons the way I did.

So what’s the best approach to avoiding situations like that?

Understanding your stakeholders is the key.

There are several things that you need to understand about your stakeholders. In addition to their preferred communication styles, understanding what motivates them and how they measure success gives you a solid starting point.

Then you can take concrete actions tailored to how your stakeholders view you and how they view your project.

Stakeholder analysis isn’t a static, one-time activity. It gets repeated and refined as you go along in a project and is something you can carry over, in large parts, from project to project with the same stakeholder.

In addition to being a tool I can use to plan my interactions with stakeholders, I can use some of the stakeholder analysis findings to brief my team.

That helps the team understand why stakeholder success looks like it does, and it helps them make better decisions throughout the life of the project.

Do technical experts have to shift their communication style in order to be successful in project management and leadership roles?

Yes. One of the things we see regularly in our consulting clients is an approach to communications based on ‘This is what is important to me. This is why it’s important to me. This is how I describe it and communicate about it.’

That approach can work when your team members (or your stakeholders) have the same communication style as you, which can be the case when you are working with your peers who are also subject matter experts in the field.

But for it to work with other types of team members, they also have to have the same motivators as you do. This doesn’t happen very often.

Has it ever gone wrong for you?

Yes! This is one of the mistakes I was guilty of as a newly minted manager. Everything was thought-out, logical and made perfect sense to me… What it didn’t do was account for differences in the communications styles in my team.

I had team members where this worked well. Unfortunately, that accounted for a small percentage of my team. I had other team members who needed more detail, or less detail, or more time to digest and develop questions.

I had people who had reservations but didn’t want to bring them up in the wider group setting.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have been aware and tolerant of different communications styles. None of those communication styles is good or bad, by the way, but they are very different.

I would have also been more aware of how my own natural communication style showed up in my interactions with others; especially my stakeholders.

How did your course come together?

During some post-graduate research (on a technical problem at the time) I keep circling back to the realization that the technical answers weren’t matching up to what I was seeing in the business and government at the time.

That led me down a multi-disciplinary rabbit-hole that played havoc with progress towards that degree.

When I stepped back and looked at all the information I had gathered, all of the deductions and inferences, it was daunting. There were a few times where I just wanted to put things into their individual folders and go back to consulting and teaching ‘normal’ courses.

What happened instead was that every project that I was brought in to could have been made more successful and less stressful if the project managers had the knowledge and skills that I had sitting in those manila folders.

At the end, we were left with the transformations people need to make to move from technical expert into leadership and management positions (and get promoted). The essence of those transformations is Stakeholder Management.

Is it really possible to teach the soft skills that make the difference between expert and team manager or project leader?

That’s a great question. I’m enough of a realist to have asked myself the same question over and over.

Yes, I think it is. My Technical to Exceptional course takes different disciplines and approaches and blends them into a set of practical techniques that you can use immediately. It addresses the mindset shift as well as the activity shift that needs to happen for project managers to be more successful in delivering value to their stakeholders.

Some project managers will do some of these things unconsciously, but the real value comes from being able to do it consistently and, over time, being able to teach the next generation effectively.

What results have people seen?

One of the joys I’ve had teaching these skills over the years are the number of people that I’ve helped. For some people, you can see the lightbulb go off in class. For others, I’ve had the email days or weeks later telling me that they’ve taken the new skills and knowledge and they’ve used it to get the promotion they wanted or the new job.

One of the stories that stands out for me is of a gentleman that took one of our instructor-led courses. He was an IT operations person from many years back who had been in an IT management role for several years. His boss had stopped listening to him, stopped seeking his feedback and while he could have coasted until retirement, he felt he was wasting his potential.

While the focus of the week was work-related, at the end of the course he told me that the knowledge and the skills he gained gave him the confidence to take on a big project in a local charity that meant a great deal to him.

Not only did he end up leading the project, but when I last heard they had successfully raised the money to build a community center and were just about to break ground.

That’s great. What do you think readers’ next steps should be?

Since leadership and communications impacts almost every aspect of project management, it’s hard to see just how big an impact it can have until you start looking and start raising your own skills. Start there.

You’ll find the nature of your work changes when you do. You’ll spend less time fighting administrative fires, less time frustrated because people are trying to bypass you and your organizations Project Management oversight. You’ll finally get a chance to work collaboratively with your key stakeholders and solve the important problems.

Thanks, Andrew!

About Andrew:

Andrew Zeitoun has spent the last 20 years straddling the technology and management divide. He has filled many roles including technical pre-sales, system administration, IT Operations management, as well as consulting and training. The consulting and training roles are what Andrew keeps coming back to. Whether it’s authoring or delivering Technical and Leadership courses, Andrew’s passion is for helping people solve their own problems. Throughout his consulting work, Andrew saw that most of those problems were not technology problems, even though they had technical symptoms. With research conducted during his graduate studies Andrew was able to bring many facets together blending knowledge and practices.

Andrew founded Threshold Knowledge Inc. in 2004 with a focus on the practical balancing of Leadership and Technology. Andrew still actively leads consulting teams to support customers undertaking IT-led Business Critical projects in addition to coaching and training new and experienced managers. He is the author of From Technical to Exceptional.

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Technical Expert to Leader Transition