When you’re leading a team, it can be beneficial to understand the technical details of the work your team does. In fact, research suggests that team members are happier when their boss could do their jobs.
However, I’ve noticed that there is such a thing as too much technical expertise when you’re leading a team. So in this post, I’m going to share some of the benefits and drawbacks of technical expertise that I’ve learned during my career.
When Technical Expertise Tripped Me Up
In a previous role, I was leading a team of technical specialists. I also had a technical background, so I knew the nature of the work being performed. One day, we were short staffed, so I had to help out at short notice.
There I was, in a room full of computer equipment, plugging and unplugging cables. The problem was, my technical experience had been quite a few years ago. I did unplug a few things that I shouldn’t have on that day. But luckily, I didn’t cause any major damage. But at the back of my mind I knew what I was doing was wrong.
It was risky, and because of my familiarity with the technical details, I could give it a try. Conversely, a manager with no technical background would never have tried this, and would have ensured the people with the right skills were doing the job.
For you and your team, there is no right answer to how much technical expertise you should have.
However, you need to be aware of the problems that too much or too little technical expertise can bring. This will help you to avoid falling into the common traps.
How Technical Expertise Helps Leaders
1. It’s harder for team members to fool you
If you’re an expert in what your team does, it’s unlikely they are going to be able to mislead you.
If they say it will take three months when you know it should only take three weeks, you’ll be able to work with them in detail to understand what the real story is.
2. People perceive leaders with technical expertise as more credible
When a leader has been “in the trenches” or “got their hands dirty” with the actual work the team does, they often get more respect. This is because the team knows they have lived and breathed the work before.
Therefore, this type of leader will have something in common with their team, which can be an important factor in building trust.
3. Leaders with technical expertise can step in when there is a resource shortage
If something goes wrong in your team and you find yourself short of team members, it can be extremely handy to be able to roll your sleeves up and do the work yourself.
Leaders without technical expertise are unable to do this, so they run the risk of being caught out if they aren’t resourcing their team appropriately.
How Technical Expertise Hurts Leaders
Technical expertise sounds great. But hold on a minute. What happens when leaders have too much technical expertise?
This can be just as big a problem as too little. Let’s look at some of the common problems.
1. Leaders with technical expertise get caught up in the details
When a leader knows all the details of the work their team does, they run the risk of getting too involved. Instead of letting their team members get on with their jobs, they have a tendency to micromanage their teams and get caught up in the technical details of the work.
This can be enormously frustrating for a team.
Firstly, it sends a message that the leader doesn’t trust their own team members. And second, it ruins productivity when a team member has their boss constantly looking over their shoulder.
2. Leaders with technical expertise can lose focus on their own role
One problem that technical experts have when they take on a leadership role, is that they focus more on the work they are familiar with.
Why? Because they are often more comfortable with technical work than with leadership work.
They lose sight of leadership tasks like supporting their team, providing guidance and managing performance. Instead, they go back to what they are comfortable with – doing the actual work.
This means that performance conversations, goal setting and team development come second. But as a leader, these should be the things that come first!
There is no right or wrong for your team. But you can see that technical expertise works both ways for leaders. Remain aware of the potential consequences and you’ll improve the way you lead your team.
How have you seen too much or too little technical expertise go wrong for leaders? Let me know in the comments below!