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Leadership without Technical Expertise

21/11/17 Greg McHugh Partner

It is believed that in today’s society and in education that the skills required to lead an organisation are more or less transferable. In other words, if you can motivate and inspire people in one particular arena, you should be able to apply those skills in another.

Recent studies have suggested that this may be a challenging notion. The best leaders are knowledgeable about the domain in which they are leading which is what makes them successful executive and senior managers.
Greg McHugh, Redline Executive Search Partner takes an in-depth look at the fundamental competencies of today’s leaders. “There are several core elements of what a leader should know in order to successfully spearhead an organisation. These include:

  • The ability to motivate one’s self and others
  • Effective oral and written communication 
  • Critical thinking skills
  • The ability to problem solve 
  • Skills with working with teams 
  • The ability to delegate tasks

“On the surface, this seems like an accurate list, says Greg.  Good leaders do have these abilities and if you wanted to create future leaders, making sure they have these skills is a good bet. They need to take in a large volume of information and distil it into the essential elements that define the core problems to be solved. They need to organise teams to solve these problems and to communicate to a group why they should share a common vision. They need to establish trust with a group and then use that trust to allow the team to accomplish more than it could alone. But these skills alone will not make a leader because to actually excel at this list of skills in practice, you also need a lot of expertise in a particular domain.

For example, take one of these skills: thinking critically in order to find the essence of a situation. To do that well you must have specific, technical expertise. The critical information a doctor needs to diagnose a patient is different from the knowledge used to understand a political standoff, and both of those differ in important ways from what is needed to negotiate a good business deal,” says Greg.

“Even effective communication differs from one domain to another. Doctors talking to patients must communicate information differently than a CEO responding to a political issue affecting their business. When you begin to look at any of the core skills that leaders have, it quickly becomes clear that domain-specific expertise is bound up in all of them. And the domains of expertise required may also be fairly specific. Even business is not really a single domain. Leadership in engineering, semiconductor fabrication, consulting, and sales and marketing, all require a lot of specific knowledge.”

Greg continues: “A common solution to this problem is for leaders to say that they will surround themselves with good people who have the requisite expertise that will allow them to make good decisions. The problem is that without actual expertise, how do these leaders even know whether they have found the right people to give them information? If managers cannot evaluate the information they are getting for themselves, then they cannot lead effectively.
This way of thinking about leadership has two important implications. Firstly, when we teach people about leadership, we need to be more explicit that domain expertise matters. Just because a person is successful at running one type of organisation does not mean that they are likely to have the same degree of success running an organisation with a different mission. Secondly, when we train people to take on leadership roles, we need to give them practice solving domain-specific problems so that they can prepare to integrate information in the arena in which they are being asked to lead. For example, it isn’t enough just to teach people about how to resolve generic conflicts between employees, we should create scenarios derived from real cases so that people have to grapple with all of the ambiguities that come from the conflicts that arise within particular industries.

This issue is particularly important given the frequency with which people in the modern workplace change jobs and even move across industries. This mobility means that many younger employees may not gain significant expertise in the industry in which they are currently working, which will make it harder for them to be effective in leadership roles.  Companies need to identify prospective future leaders and encourage them to settle down in order to develop the specific skills they need to lead.”

Redline Executive partners with established and emergent technology businesses across Europe and the USA delivering search, assessment, profiling services and assisting clients to meet their strategic goals. Redline Executive has successfully delivered hundreds of 'D' and 'C' level search assignments in the engineering and technology sector. Our senior management team has over 150 years' combined recruitment experience which makes our network and influence in these sectors unparalleled.

Redline Executive are the industry-aligned key partner for C and D suite permanent and interim hiring assignments for the European Technology market. To find out more about our Executive Search Process you can download our Executive Search Brochure here.

To have a confidential discussion about our executive search services or broadly discuss assignments such as Technical Director jobs, please call Greg McHugh on +44 (0)1582 878853 or send an email to GMcHugh@RedlineExecutive.com