Is Technical Leader an Oxymoron?

or How most companies breed micromanagement

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.

Promoting technical excellence

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 to the team, I discovered there were two schools of thought about management and leadership:

  • You have to know everything about something before you can successfully manage people who are doing it
  • 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 working in every functional area in the place so I could then become a manager. On the surface it makes sense – Motorola needs managers who understand the technology they produce. However you could almost hear the gnashing of teeth of employees when bosses reacted to crises by fixing things instead of getting their engineers to fix things. 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,” and “You would fail if I weren’t here to rescue 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!

Of course, I’m not talking about you

Clearly not all bosses are bad, and neither are all geeky bosses. (My direct boss in the example above was actually tremendously supportive.)

The problem is that organizations tend to develop and promote technical excellence and not 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 versus people leadership. 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?

Chris Hutchinson

About the Author:  Chris Hutchinson, President and CEO of Trebuchet Group, helps facilitate leadership growth and business success of local and global clients, using a collaborative approach to enable consistent, effective results. He can be reached at chris@trebuchetgroup.com

© 2008 Trebuchet Group