The Technical Executive as Leader

What does it take for someone from a technical background, a scientist, an engineer, or a computer specialist – to become an effective leader of people? Many executives I work with in my coaching practice come from backgrounds in science, bio-tech and life sciences, technology, communications, etc., and are at various stages in their development as leaders.

The biggest differences between effective scientists, engineers and technical experts who become effective leaders and managers of other people and those that are not as effective can be described in a single phrase: the ability to navigate a different altitude. This is the ability to switch gears between different modes of operation; as well as, aspects of their personality.

First, conceptualize a challenge for a new technology leader in terms of three altitudes:

Effective new managers I have observed who come from science and engineering technical backgrounds tend to be able to navigate these different altitudes well. And, they can (or learn) to do it in a very deliberate, intentional way. They can deal with their stakeholders in complex dynamic organizations. They can create shared reality for their teams in an ever-shifting environment. And, very importantly, they reflect on their own capabilities and style and have the ability to have self-insight about their own leadership style, their own approach, their own hot buttons, and their own motivations. It’s not just being able to do any one of these; it’s the ability to navigate at these three different altitudes that differentiates the highly successful from the average.

Personality is stable over time and influences work behaviors. As such, it is useful to understand our own personalities and those of the people around us. Personality can be assessed in many ways. For example, for a coaching intervention, I typically use the Hogan Personality assessment method that evaluates three discrete, but related aspects of personality: style & values, potential and derailers.

  1. At the 50,000 foot altitude, the task is to more fully understand the organization including the context, culture, priorities/deliverables, and the vision/mission and, very importantly, to be clear about the needs and expectations of key stakeholders. Who are they? What makes them tick? What is their preferred mode of interaction? Managing a dynamic organization and dealing with key stakeholders is the macro altitude for a new leader.
  2. Coming down to the 10,000 foot altitude is fundamentally about leading a team, creating shared reality, addressing deliverables under the time and resource constraints in a likely dynamic world of change. Questions that present themselves are: How do you keep your team aligned, and realigned through change? How do you keep everyone on the same page? How do you create a shared reality when your context is constantly evolving?
  3. Next, we come to the micro-micro altitude; this is when you get on the ground. What’s essential here is not only understanding the organization, or leading your team, but very importantly, it’s about knowing who you are, what your style is, what your key motivators are. And, what your derailers are, your blind spots? Therefore, self-insight is a critical third component of our altitude concept.

Why Personality Matters

Each of these three has its own tradition of research within personality psychology but, taken together, they are powerful predictors of behavior. Feedback in the form of debriefing an executive’s survey scores will raise a new level of awareness of the manager’s strengths, weaknesses, his/her style and the blind spots which can derail his career.

Many people suspect they are high or low on specific attributes, and have a feeling of their impact on others, but no one really knows until they assess it. Personality feedback with expert coaching helps individuals understand themselves and helps them know who they are, better. Once a manager understands his own tendencies and their impact on others, he will likely be more able to act with authentic leadership and strengthen his adherence to principles and practices that truly define effective leaders.

To get beyond stereotyping scientific, engineering or technical types, personality assessment provides the technical leader with a better sense of the skills needed to successfully navigate the three altitudes, and also what might mitigate those skills. Psychometrically speaking, scientists are often identified as introverted, thinking, detail focused, data based personalities. While these qualities may have contributed to their success as a sole contributor in a technical role, these same personality preferences may lead to their own challenges when it comes to effective leadership. Having a deeper understanding of one’s psychological makeup can shed light on the importance of situational leadership and the ability to flex different aspects of our personalities; to navigate a different altitude.


WJM Faculty member Joe Tomaselli, Ph.D. is a corporate behavioral specialist with more than 20 years experience working with corporations and executives as an executive coach, organizational consultant, leadership trainer and facilitator.

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