Transitioning from Technical Expert to Successful Leader
Why is this important?
For some time now we have been aware that people continue to develop beyond becoming an adult. Stages of adult development, combined with the world of neuropsychology and the idea of neuroplasticity, make it clear that we have the opportunity to continue to develop our cognitive ability. As we do, the way we make meaning in the world shifts and grows. We also know that the journey of leadership goes through stages. The ground-breaking work of Rooke and Torbet describe those stages with great clarity.
One of the most difficult leadership transitions is that from technical expert to leader.
Very often people demonstrate their competence within their craft and, consequently, are promoted to roles with responsibility to lead others. Yet showing excellence in a craft offers little indication that a person can lead. Indeed, sometimes the opposite is true, the skills of excellence in a craft might even hold someone back from being a good leader.
Let me give an example. Someone I coach is an eminent cardiologist. Let’s call him Ted. Due to his great skill in his craft as a doctor he has been given opportunities to both head up the cardiology department and been asked to contribute to leadership across the hospital. In order to take up those responsibilities he needs to reduce his clinical workload to allow time for this new leadership work. At the same time patients are continually referred to him because he is an excellent clinician. To free up time for his leadership responsibility he will have to turn patients away or refer them to other doctors in the service. But what gives him meaning in his works and his life, is being referred patients. It makes him feel valued, worthy and that he is making a contribution. In his leadership journey his commitment to his craft has more meaning than the potential contribution to the systems of the cardiology service or the hospital.
Ted’s experience is replicated over and again for engineers, accountants, lawyers, mechanics, carpenters, care support workers and bureaucrats. This paper identifies some of the reasons all these people struggle with the transition and offers some suggestions about practices that can be used to make it work.
One of the key reasons some people struggle is that experts are highly valued in organisations. They are often the “go-to” people, they get tasks done and they do them well. That is often rewarded, in both financial and other less tangible, and sometimes more important, ways. One of those rewards is promotion to a role that requires leadership. There is little incentive for the organisation to want the expert to shift their thinking or behaviour. They just want things to keep getting done. Indeed thinking beyond the task can result in uncomfortable questions and the system rarely thanks anyone for asking those. As the African proverb goes “The truth-teller has no friends”.
When the work involves achieving by leading others there will inevitably be added complexity. Also the growth in perspective beyond task to strategy adds another layer. With broader responsibility a broader perspective must be taken, beyond the task, to the team, the organisation and even beyond the organisation. The market, competitors, collaborating with partners, meeting the needs of different stakeholders all add to the complexity. Then add in the digital revolution, globalisation and increasing levels of geopolitical uncertainty and leaders find themselves in a situation that requires new thinking and new behaviour.
Experts have a degree of comfort in their work. They have achieved a level of excellence through honing their skills and learning how to achieve predictable outcomes. Their technical expertise allows them to respond to technical challenges with great alacrity. They have developed strengths that have now been embodied and part of their identity. The need to let go of some of those strengths and develop new skills and strengths can be daunting. The transition means not just new skills but potentially a change in identity. This is not easy work and requires a level of insight and inner work that can be challenging.
Back to the case of Ted, his identity involves his clinical excellence and to change that requires not just different behaviours but developing a new identity.
So what does an expert who finds themselves in a role that requires leadership do?
There are some practices that advanced leaders use that can be adopted by people at all levels. In summary those practices are the 6 “S”s:
1. Stage of Leadership Development
2. Systems and Strategy
5. Speaking from the Heart
6. Skilful Intervention
Below I outline, in very brief form, these six steps to make the transition from technical expert to a successful leader.
Stage of Leadership Development
My first advice is to undertake the Harthill Leadership Development Framework assessment that will show you which leadership “action logics” you apply most often and offer some development guidance. This will allow you to create a development inquiry to broaden and deepen your leadership development.
Each leader is informed by a dominant Action Logic which has been shaped by time, experience and learning. A leader’s Action Logic both enables and constrains effectiveness, interacting with the demands made on the leader. Most leaders, however, are not conscious of their Action Logic and thus are ‘blind’ to it. They are unaware they can transform beyond the limits of their current ways of thinking and acting.
Becoming aware of your Action Logic provides you with crucial insights into what constrains your effectiveness and importantly, how you can develop beyond these constraints. The dominant Action Logic of your team, your division or your whole organisation has a dramatic impact on performance and ability. The challenge for most organisations is to move beyond the “conventional” frame to incorporate ‘post-conventional’ thinking and behaviour.
Systems and Strategy
It is vital to take a systems and strategy approach to diagnosing the particular situation or challenge you are facing. There are three primary elements to this: discerning the difference between technical and adaptive challenges, thinking in systems and making time to get on the balcony.
Discerning the difference between technical and an adaptive challenge is core to leadership. Experts solve technical challenges whereas leaders solve adaptive challenges. As an expert we typically know what is required to solve a problem and we apply tried and tested solutions. That works very well at the task level. When it comes to achieving through people we immediately add some uncertainty and even volatility to the mix. The tried and tested solutions at the task level no longer work. Also as the breadth and scope of a challenge increases technical solutions will no longer work.
An example is reducing the road death toll. A very effective technical solution was to introduce seat belts and then make it mandatory to wear them. This has, without a doubt, had the biggest impact on reducing the road toll. But it got us so far and then the death rate plateaued. There were marginal improvements as the safety of cars improved. But the real issue now is ensuring driver behaviour changes, especially in relation to speed and substance use. There is no technical solution to apply to changing the behaviour of drivers. That challenge is an adaptive challenge and requires influencing drivers through education, advertising and appealing to their better natures. There is no quick fix to this and it requires the collaboration of a number of stakeholders, such as car design engineers, road design engineers, drivers, peers, families and government.
In the same way trying to apply a quick fix, a technical solution, to an adaptive problem not only doesn’t work but can create a new problem or make the old problem worse. One of the biggest leadership traps is to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges. As a leader it is imperative that we develop the skill to discern whether the challenge is technical or adaptive, and the approach to solving the challenge is very different.
Very often when facing a problem we treat it as an event. For example, someone leaves the organisation and we explain it away as them finding the job of their dreams, wanting new challenges or wanting to take a break to travel. While those reasons might be true it’s also important to look beneath those events and see if there are patterns or trends. What is the turnover rate? Is it higher than we want? Are there specific areas of the business that are losing people more than others? Are there themes in the data of exit interviews? Treating the departure as an event does not allow us to look into the causes.
There is another level again. That of structure. Are there systems or processes in the business that are causing people to leave? Work flow, work allocation, balance, developing mastery, alignment of purpose? Also, at a deeper level again, are the mental models or worldviews that create a culture and determine our response to events and trends. Do we care about people leaving? Do we even do exit interviews? Do we want to learn from our experiences or justify or deny?
The ice-berg diagram shows that we can choose to interpret a situation at any level but the greatest impact to achieve change occurs at the deepest level. Leaders need to be working at this level.
Experts tend to be engrossed in the details of their work. They can answer questions at any level of detail and take pride in being totally across their work. There is some comfort in the certainty this provides. Leaders make time to “get on the balcony”. This means they lift their focus above the detail and look for patterns, trends and relationships between events. Making time to reflect and learn is a critical part of developing the strategic mindset of the leader.
Second, which is an important part of self-awareness, is that the strengths that got us to where we are might not be the ones that will work now we are here. Human beings are learning machines. Our intelligence gives us an ability to learn that is unmatched on earth. From the moment we are born we learn how to get attention for food, how to walk, to talk and how to influence our environment. That innate yearning to learn does not go away. As we learn something we embody it and it becomes a part of our identity. That is why it can be so hard for people to change their behaviour. We are asking people to not just change the way they do things but we are asking them to change their identity.
And so it is with the expert. When we ask them to change their behaviour we are asking them to change their identity. Experts have learned how to do some things really well and we are asking them to do things differently as a leader. That is a threat to their very identity.
This shift requires a level of insight and awareness. It requires some deep inner work to let go of what is comfortable and valued. The endowment effect is a tendency to value things more highly when we already on them. We value things we lose more highly than things we gain. This makes the transition from expert to leader a painful process.
Developing a strengths mindset is critical to leadership. This is true both for ourselves and for others around us. Put simply it’s about the law of attraction – what we focus on is what we get. So if we focus on weaknesses we get more weakness, whereas if we focus on strengths we get more strengths. Developing the ability to spot strengths in ourselves and others and allocate work based on those strengths will lead to a massive increase in productivity. A study, based on Marcus Buckingham’s Measuring Stick, of workers in Australia found that only 8% of people “agreed” or “completely agreed” with the statement “I get to use my strengths at work every day”. One in twelve! That has a devastating impact on productivity.
One of the most poorly applied management activities is the performance review process. Even when it is done well what typically happens is that people are praised for doing some aspects of their job well and then given “opportunities for improvement”. Then we focus professional development investment on weaknesses. Yet the evidence is clear that when people are allowed to develop excellence, to grow the skills in which they are already good, the pay-off is enormous. But when we train people in their weaknesses they will often get little return and behaviour change is minimal.
There are two important flipsides to the strengths mindset. First, any strength taken to an extreme is likely to become a weakness. Some examples might be too much responsibility can lead to inability to delegate, too much attention to detail can lead to micro-management, too much focus on high-level strategy might lead to taking the eye off the ball of operations and too much focus on people issues can lessen accountability for performance.
Speak from the Heart
The number one most difficult thing to do for leaders is have difficult, or courageous, conversations. Before addressing this topic another skill that is helpful for leaders is to have more positive conversations with people, in the form of coaching.
Often experts are really good at tasks and less good at working with people. As previously discussed, sometimes their task skills might even inhibit their people skills. There are some simple ways to develop strong people skills. First is the art of conversational leadership. Just have a conversation. A great way to do that is to use a coaching approach. This approach allows a leader to work with people in a way that encourages them to set their own goals and support them to achieve them. It is a core skill of a leader. The standard approach to coaching is individualistic and behavioural. The trouble is that we live in a connected world and behaviour is driven by beliefs and worldviews. That’s why a standard approach to coaching is hit and miss.
The best approach to coaching I have found is the Analytic-Network Coaching. This approach has five distinct frames:
Depth Analysis – values, purpose and desire
Relational Analysis – how we make meaning through relationships and how some relationships trip us up
Leadership Analysis – what is our primary leadership discourse
Network Analysis – how do we analyse and influence the network in which we are located
Strategic Analysis – an action plan built upon the other four frames
The whole is also greater than the sum of the parts. Working through this approach with someone helps them understand why, how and with whom they need to take action for success. I’m happy to chat with you about using ANC for coaching.
While positive coaching conversations are critical it’s also important to know how to have the courageous conversations that we fear and loathe. The important challenge here is to balance the relationship with the outcome. Usually in the workplace we need to keep working with people and so we need to find a way to hold people accountable for their performance and maintain a healthy relationship. There is a 7-step process to work through that helps these conversations.
By working through this 7-step process it is possible to have the courageous conversation in a way that achieves your desired outcome and maintains the relationship. In my experience these conversations can lead to a deepening of the relationship and build trust and respect. People appreciate honest and constructive feedback when it is offered with sensitivity and grace.
There are many interventions that require practice to become skilled. An effective leader will develop mastery in at least some of these, and awareness of all of them. Below I outline just a few that I have found to be critical to successful leadership.
Build a High Performing Team
In addition to working with individuals leaders need to build effective teams. Lencioni has identified five core potential dysfunctions of a team. These dysfunctions build on each other. It is possible to avoid these dysfunctions by using winning practices to build a high performing team.
Influence the Field
My doctoral research explored what we can learn from quantum and complexity theories about leadership. Leadership can be seen as a social field and a core skill is to learn how to influence that field. We have all experienced the way a group shares in an experience – elation when our team kicks a goal, happiness for a bride and groom on their wedding day, shared grief at a funeral or shock at a terrorist attack. Leaders can work with the energy that exists within and between groups, to help them become unstuck and become energised. Creating a safe space for dissent and encouraging trust and cooperation across factions are all ways to influence the energetic fields that are always present in groups.
Resist the Urge to Converge
Leaders are usually under pressure to deliver results quickly. That can lead to quick fixes, that often fail, creating the next problem. This is the basis of the systems archetype of Fixes that Fail. The first step is to start with a clear purpose. The next step, Divergence, is to open up the conversation to allow all views to be heard. This is the basis for innovation. If we shut down the conversation too soon we are at risk of missing fresh ideas and perspectives that might be essential to the ultimate solution. The next step is uncomfortable and too often we try to avoid it – Emergence. This is also referred to as the Groan Zone where ideas are allowed to percolate, sink in, evolve and clarify. This stage is often uncomfortable and there is pressure on leaders to make a decision. It is important to resist the urge to converge. Finally, there is a Convergence stage when all voices have been heard, the ideas have been allowed to settle and there is the opportunity to achieve collective clarity of purpose and move to wise action.
This process can occur in a meeting of under an hour or it can take weeks or even months, depending on the complexity and scale of the challenge.
This idea has been described in different ways by Jim Collins, Otto Scharmer and Ed O’Malley.
“Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs is a concept developed in Collins’ book Great by Choice. First, you fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what will work—calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots. Then, once you have empirical validation, you fire a cannonball (concentrating resources into a big bet) on the calibrated line of sight. Calibrated cannonballs correlate with outsized results; uncalibrated cannonballs correlate with disaster. The ability to turn small proven ideas (bullets) into huge hits (cannonballs) counts more than the sheer amount of pure innovation.”
In Theory U, Otto Scharmer includes prototyping as a step in his process for achieving profound and sustainable change. He talks about opening the mind, heart and will with prototyping stage as a necessary step before “performing”. Ed O’Malley, in Your Leadership Edge, has Act Experimentally as an element of one of the four competencies.
Too often we fall in love with a new idea and want to bet the house on it. If it fails, we lose the house. It’s much better to try out the idea in a small, manageable way. If it works, then it can be scaled up. If it fails it can be stopped, without losing the house.
Making the transition
In some ways it might seem like the reward of a promotion from expert to leader is a bit of a poison chalice. It requires letting go of old and comfortable ways of working and embracing new and initially awkward ways of working. It requires a level of inner work that can be challenging. It is also one of the most rewarding and important transitions you can ever undertake. By taking on some simple practices you can build a foundation as the first step in your leadership journey.
An epilogue about Ted. When he started at the hospital he was the only cardiologist. Now there is a whole department with a research base and Ted has an executive role across the whole hospital, in addition to running the cardiology department. In our conversations he has expressed his pride for the strategic developments and has arranged for new referrals to be shared amongst the team. He is also focusing on a succession plan and encouraging the team to take on leadership in the team and hospital.
If you want help to work through this transition, or would like to go deeper, feel free to contact me to discuss the options.
Coming soon: an online course based on these ideas that will outline them in greater detail and provide activities to try out.
Stephen Duns The Leadership Centre
+61 448 892 553
 David Rooke and William R. Torbet (2005) The Seven Transformations of Leadership, Harvard Business Review April 2005
 Heifetz, Ronald and Linsky, Marty (2002) Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business School Press
 Silsberg, Doug (2018) Presence-Based Leadership: Complexity Practices for Clarity, Resilience and Results that Matter, Yes! Global, Asheville, NC p36
 Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (1999) “First Break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently”, Simon and Schuster, New York
 Simon Western, (2012) Coaching and Mentoring: A critical text, Sage Publications, London, UK
 Patrick M. Lencioni (2002) The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco
 Duns, Stephen (2010) Leading the Field, Charles Sturt University ,Doctoral Dissertation
 Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen (2011) Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck--Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, Harper Collins, USA
 C. Oto Scharmer (2009) Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges, Berrett Koehler, Oakland, CA
 Ed O’Malley and Amanda Cebula (2015) Your Leadership Edge: Lead Anytime, Anywhere, Kansas Leadership CEntre