Effective technologists implement good technology; effective technology leaders enable others to do this. These are two very different roles. Technologists need three essential skills to become effective technology leaders…
Over the course of the past month, I have had to opportunity to reconnect with several mentors and colleagues from across my career. All of these professionals started their careers as technical experts (in their respective domains) before moving on to becoming celebrated industry speakers and organizational leaders. As we recounted our activities across the past few years we got into a discussion on what enabled us to move from individual contributors to technology leaders. We came up with three key essential skills for technology leadership:
Communication is the means by which you share and obtain knowledge and information. It enables you to elicit support from investors. It enables you to understand what you customers want. It is required to enable your staff to understand you strategy, goals and plans.
New leaders often forget that the key to communicating effectively is understanding the point of view of your audience. This begins by listening to what others want and need. One you have learned this, you can use this understanding to shape when and how you share information to satisfy the needs of your investors, customers and staff.
Learning to communicate effectively can be especially hard for new technology leaders because so much of their prior education and work experience is focused on the details of technology (rather than the perceptions of people). However, it is an essential skill that serves as a foundation for all other aspects of effective leadership.
Architects and Technical Leads demonstrate expertise by telling others how to do something; technology leaders by motivating others to figure this out for themselves. Once you learn to motivate others, you magnify what you achieve from what you can personally think of and do yourself to the collective creativity and skill of your entire organization.
Technology leaders usually need to learn motivation at two different points in their careers. The first is when they begin leading line staff for the first time. The second is when they begin leading managers for the first time. At each of these times, the keys to success are: 1) getting your staff excited about your goals, 2) providing them the freedom to figure out how to achieve them and 3) creating the environment that enables their success.
Switching from a controller who does things yourself to a leader who motivates others to act on your behalf can be scary (essentially, it puts your career in the hands your teams). However, people who do not do this become micro-managers (instead of motivational leaders).
I know what you are thinking: this skill seems a little low-level in comparison to more strategic ones like communication and motivation. However, it too, is a critical skill for effective technology leadership.
Estimation is the art of diving how much time and resources are required to achieve an objective. When you are able to estimate with great accuracy, you can repeatedly “do what you say, when you promise, with your planned cost.” This is absolutely essential for hitting launch dates and achieving profitability targets. (It also avoids undesirable outcomes ranging from getting beaten to market by your competitors to running out of investor funds.)
There are many, many estimation techniques of varying rigor. However, all of them share the following critical success factors: 1) break down large tasks into smaller ones for greater accuracy, 2) let the people will do the work build the estimate, and 3) use past outcomes as proxies for future ones.
Leaders who become good at estimation build enormous trust with customers and investors. They establish reputations for “always doing what they promised.” The rewards for this range from repeat work to expanded market share to increased capital investment.
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The best way to learn these skills is to find mentors. Look for learners inside and outside your organization and ask them to share their wisdom and experience. It can also be helpful to study the published lessons learned from others on these topics. I recommend the following books:
- Communication: Effective Business & Nonfiction Writing by Jan Yager, The Quick & Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie, Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and the Chicago Manual of Style.
- Motivation: Organizational Culture & Leadership by Edgar Schein, Organizational Transitions: Managing Complex Change by Richard Beckhard and Rueban Harris, and Leading Change by John Kotter. You can also explore some interesting concepts on self-motivation in Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
- Estimation: My all-time favorite book is Demystifying the Black Art by Steve McConnell. I also recommend Guy Kawasaki’s Reality Check for a completely different perspective on how important it is to be able to hit cost and time goals.