The More Talented the Techie, the Lousier the Leader

Don Tennant

Perhaps you’re witnessing the phenomenon as we speak. There’s a guy in the IT department who has outstanding technical skills, and his value to the organization is phenomenal. So he’s promoted into a leadership position, and the results are catastrophic. He has absolutely no leadership skills, and his managerial cluelessness is making everybody crazy. Welcome to your world, right?

I raised the topic of that phenomenon in a conversation I had last week with Dr. Richard Wellins, senior vice president at Development Dimensions International (DDI), a global HR consulting firm based in Pittsburgh. We were talking about a new survey on frontline leadership (frontline leaders being those who move into a position of  managing a team of individual contributors for the first time) conducted by DDI in conjunction with and the Institute for Human Resources. Wellins was forthright about technical prowess vs. leadership skills:

I would go out on a limb and say there is probably an inverse relationship between technical depth and the ability to lead. They are really, fundamentally, a different set of skills. Having some technical depth is a plus for any leader of a technical team, or you will not have confidence, you will not have respect. The problem arises when that is used as the sole or primary criterion for promotion. That’s when you run into trouble.

I asked Wellins what the key is to resolving that problem. He said for starters, when organizations select IT people for leadership positions, they need to do a better job of clearly defining what the leadership criteria are:

You would be surprised in the number of companies that use no validated approach to assessment at senior levels, let alone the frontline leader level. So you can make an estimate that a failed frontline leader is a cost to the organization of anywhere from three to five times their salary. It’s hard to estimate, because it’s not just the recruiting cost—it’s the training cost, the replacement cost. It’s the impact that poor leader has on the morale of the team, and potentially on the interaction with customers that frontline leaders very often have to have. One of the things that’s unique about going from an individual contributor to a leader is those people will not necessarily have had leadership experience. That’s where the field of testing and assessment comes into play. Not spending $100 to $300 per leader [in testing and assessment costs] to get a more valid take on leadership, and the ability to perform as a leader, is pure negligence. The benefits far outweigh the costs.

The other thing that’s important, at DDI we’re big believers that you can train leaders, but there are a lot of things about leadership that you can’t train. If you hire a person who’s arrogant, or who is not willing to learn, or who is totally insensitive towards other people—if you don’t catch some of those things in the selection process, you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to change people. And that’s a costly, if not impossible, endeavor.

The DDI survey found that poor interpersonal skills are the No. 1 reason frontline leaders fail. I told Wellins that I’ve found that it’s generally accepted that there are differences in the ways men and women communicate and collaborate, and that women tend to be stronger in interpersonal skills like empathy, listening, and consensus-building. I asked Wellins if it follows that women tend to be stronger, more successful frontline leaders than men. He said DDI’s assessment data would indicate that that is indeed the case:

That’s an interesting question. I want to answer this question scientifically, as opposed to survey research. Some of our assessment data would show that women have a slight advantage in areas that have to do with building relationships, while men have a slight advantage in areas that have to do with business acumen, financial analysis, etc. So it would generally support that proposition.

Wellins explained that what makes these interpersonal skills so essential is that they’re the fuel of effective conversations:

If you look at what any leader needs to do, it is probably made up of dozens of different interactions each day. Effective leadership is largely dependent on a series of effective interactions. So you need to have those basic skills—listening, responding with empathy, asking for help and involving people in solving problems. But the reality is, frontline leaders are not very good at it. And it’s these interpersonal skills that are the foundation of any sort of leadership success.

One of the things our actual assessment data shows is that leaders don’t get better at these interaction essentials, or interpersonal skills, as they go up the ladder. Time in grade or experience as a leader does not necessarily lead to improved interpersonal skills. So the message there is that frontline leaders, who are not very good at these skills, may not be able to count on much support from their bosses to help coach them and develop these skills. Because their bosses may be worse.

Finally, given that IT workers tend to fall on the introvert side of the personality spectrum, I asked Wellins whether good frontline leaders are more likely to be introverts or extroverts. He said extremes on either side of the spectrum can be problematic:

I think leaders need a certain degree of extroversion—they have to be, to some degree, people persons. I think it’s very hard for an extreme introvert to be a good leader. But it’s also difficult for a person who’s an extreme extrovert. For an extreme extrovert, it’s not just about being sociable, it’s about it being all about themselves. So extreme on either side is a danger.

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