Leading Top Technical Talent 'AKA' Technical Experts

 Xavier S Raj, Director, SplineAIXavier is an accomplished IT Leader and a Microsoft Veteran

The IT industry is not very young anymore, particularly in this part of the world. Technical capability and technical tenure are high than ever before. This is also fairly true worldwide. In our technical management and leadership journey, we might have experienced the challenge of managing technical individuals who are smarter than us and more technical than us. This is a moment when our team asks us a question, we don't have an answer; this is the moment, when our team talks to us about a deep technical challenge, and we don't understand enough!

Have we ever wondered, why this senior technical talent also called as Technical Experts need a Manager?! They are smart, they are experienced, they have the maturity to collaborate, they have strong technical skills, they understand the process, and if any point of time they need clarification or help they can simply turnaround and ask their peers and they have the answer. So, why do they need a manager! We as a technical management leader might face this challenge, we might face the challenge to be 'relevant'.

Here are some points that might help. These are written with inputs and experience from several senior technical managers & leaders in the IT industry and technical experts.

Hire the right people
Hire the right talent that suits the technology organization. Find the best people better than our best people. Find the talent that suits our organization's technical vision and road map. Hire for attitude, train for skills. Find people that suit current and future technical needs. Understand the skill and complementary skills to run our technical organization.‘Technical experts love and grow in the right technical environment’. We are not hiring just technical people, but we are hiring technical leaders. Typically, the technical organizations are built around this technical leadership.

Many managers have a tendency to talk more with the assumption that they are helping their technical experts. Often, the experts do not think that is what is happening. Several studies and management principles have strongly emphasized the need for the manager to listen. Most technical experts have openly appreciated managers who listen to them. Managers might drive business issues and business needs without providing enough space and opportunity for technical experts to express. It is not uncommon to hear that; technical experts don't have a lot of love for the one on one meeting with their managers who don’t listen to them enough.

It is important to 'understand' these technical experts. Knowing technology and product knowledge is important as we lead these experts to know the expert’s language, engineering language, and the core technical requirements. Managers may lose their credibility with their technical experts and technical teams when they are not able to interpret the engineer’s language. When managers don't understand the base technology, they don't understand the impact, implication or potential of what experts are saying, what the experts & engineers are developing, and what they are innovating.

Understand beyond the titles
IT industry is filled with many titles for the technical experts. They are called architects, senior developers, escalation engineers, Consultants, Data Scientists, project/team leads, etc. What is there in the title! While we may follow many management practices, often we miss the attention to individual needs. Let us not forget that there is a person behind the title 'architect' for example. He or she comes to work not only to accomplish their technical and professional aspirations but also to accomplish their personal aspirations. At one end of the spectrum, their aspiration is around technology, products, and innovation; and at the other end of the spectrum, they have aspirations for travel, buying a car, buying a house, taking care of family needs. Titles mean nothing! It is an individual! It is a person! How can we lead a person if we don't know them? Connect with them 'emotionally'. Know their dreams, dream along and help them accomplish their dreams and aspirations.
Do we realize, many things around us were invented by technical people with all due credits to the management team! Mobile phones we have in our hand now and apps/software that is used in the hospitals, aircraft, workplaces, etc.have a major contribution from the technical people; in fact if not for these technical experts, these innovations may not exist. Many technical experts aspire to innovate a software, a tool, a solution. It is a reality to understand why corporate companies, startups, and governments invest so much on innovation. The innovation from the R&D Labs does not happen if not for the technical experts. As managers and leaders, it is an important aspect to understand the senior technical people's aspiration for innovation. Allow them to make mistakes, factor these time and mistakes in business planning. It is no surprise 'innovation management' is a major skill the senior management needs to poses, particularly in the modern world.

Modern workplaces and workforce expect managers and organizations not to 'manage success' but to 'enable success'

Drive to lead, not just contribute
Managers might need to be able to differentiate technical experts beyond their titles. The key role of a manager is to help technical experts or engineers to be successful. Often, the role of the technical expert is not just 'contribute'. Managers have a major role to help these technical experts to think about what they can own, what they can lead, whom they can inspire. 'Speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack'. If we do not help the technical experts to lead, to own; we may not be driving organization fast enough to be relevant in our fast-changing industry.

One of the major tasks of the manager is to dream, envision and plan the future of our organization. It is the role of the manager and business leader to onboard the technical team to this mission. Providing clarity on the deliverables, project expectations, the implication of the project, the technical and business value, etc. is the responsibility of the manager. There are enough witnesses on how this big picture impacts the quality of the work, the pride in the accomplishment, and the forward-looking readiness.

One of the most important roles of a manager/leader is to coach the team. We might have noticed, the role of a coach before and during the tournaments. The role of the manager is not very different from the world cup football coach. Take time out to watch a national football coach during the practice sessions, having a conversation with individuals and team, giving attention to an injured player, focusing on the health and readiness of the players and driving them to success. Let’s remember - the best football team needs a coach, the best football player in the world still needs a coach.

Reverse Mentoring
As managers, we focus on what we can give to others, how we coach others, how we mentor others! We might miss the fact that there is a lot we can learn from others, particularly from the technical experts. Their perspectives on technology, business, collaboration, and innovation are invaluable. We will realize, the value and impact of what we can learn from our team when we listen, listen carefully and understand their perspectives. The modern workplace is two way learning the manager is expected to learn from their team, from the smart individuals he or she manages. The more we realize this, and the more we are open to this, we will learn more, we will understand our technical experts more, we will lead and manage them better.

Enable success, not manage success
Modern workplaces and workforce expect managers and organizations not to ‘manage success’ but to ‘enable success’. The speed of thinking, the speed of business, the agility required to run organizations is faster than ever before. Modern workforce expected managers to help the technical experts understand the needs, the big picture, business value and impact in the shortest possible time. Managers might need to be more proactive than ever before in removing roadblocks, collaboration models, cross-group and cross-geography engagement models and bring clarity to the team to operate on this new platform. Technical experts do not want to be managed; they want to be enabled.

The job of the technical experts is mostly depth work -as project architect, innovation, troubleshooting a major issue, removing a technical roadblock for the larger team. This requires deep thinking, concentration and research; this also so means they expect their managers to facilitate this give them the air cover from administrative activities, internal and external noise/interference, allow them to trial and error, and help them recover when they fall.

Success Measure
It is often difficult to have many metrics to measure the success of senior technical talent. It is also true that many organizations follow some level of metrics in measuring people success. Managers could be more be pragmatic about this context and bring several success measures ‘before’ at is assigned to the experts. Few ideas include clarity on the scope, intermediate deliverables, timelines, customer satisfaction, internal SLAs/OLAs, scale, expected impact, knowing and seeking feedback from stakeholders and partners, feedback from peers or participants, etc. It is important to factor these‘before the commencement of the project’. The experts will also expect the manager to keep a tab of these for them proactively. It is also critical to ensure that we do not criticize an expert for missing a milestone but only repeating patterns.

Executive Credibility and Executive Presence
The technical experts are most often are also technical leaders. Strong executive presence and executive credibility of a manager might exhibit strong leadership. Executive presence can be projected through confidence, physical, verbal and nonverbal communications. Strong leaders clearly demonstrate their personal values and organization values, connect across teams, organizations and with the senior leadership team; thereby gaining credibility. Technical experts often expect their managers to coach them to become stronger leaders and project their leadership across the departments and Company. Managers need to develop their ability to coach technical experts to become technical leaders.