5 Critical Skills Needed to Become a Technical Leader

Strong technical leaders take every opportunity to learn from mentors, peers, employees, and industry leaders.

When most engineers, technologists, and scientists begin their careers, they focus on mastering their company’s products, services, and industry. This approach creates much-needed product experts but doesn’t create great technical leaders.

Technology companies are realizing they are creating leadership gaps. They have great technologists but don’t necessarily have employees with the leadership skills to run major projects, cross-functional teams, or departments. They also lack insight into the corporate strategy and the inter-workings between departments.

This can also be frustrating for employees who realize they lack the soft skills to become people managers and don’t have the business knowledge to move to the leadership track within the company.

The Learning Continuum

Strong leaders take every opportunity to learn from mentors, peers, employees, and industry leaders. They also cultivate a learning environment by encouraging professional development and sharing their experiences with other employees and work groups. Gartner HR research finds that 58 percent of the workforce needs new skills to do their jobs. Employees are empowered by a learning culture. It creates a stronger, more dedicated corporate environment and allows employees to be promoted from within instead of seeking external candidates.

Employees need to take advantage of the training and development offered by their companies.

They also need to take the initiative to seek out learning opportunities. One of the best ways to develop as a technical leader is to get out of your comfort zone and work on new projects, manage a team, or get an advanced degree to bridge your knowledge and leadership gaps.

The Human Factor

One of the cornerstones of becoming a technical leader is emotional intelligence (EQ). Research has proven that an employee can have the best technical mind, razor-sharp analytical skills, and keen business acumen, but without emotional intelligence, they won’t have the skills to be an effective leader.

EQ includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. In short, EQ helps leaders strike a balance between empathy and assertiveness. It helps leaders communicate more effectively, create stronger workgroups, reach consensus decisions, manage cross-functional teams, and make employees feel respected and appreciated. Companies are realizing that teaching soft skills to potential leaders at all levels of the organization is an important facet of professional development.

The Importance of Communications

Communication is a core function of an effective leader. Employees expect the president and corporate leaders to communicate the company’s vision and strategic direction to motivate the employees and gain their trust and engagement. In truth, some are better than others! Good leaders connect with their employees on an emotional level. During growth periods, they share the excitement of “look what we are doing together,” and during downturns, they engage, empathize, take responsibility, and provide a plan to turn things around.

The importance of being a good communicator starts long before an employee reaches the C-Suite and is an important skill to develop and improve throughout your career. All employees are part of workgroups or cross-functional teams that require good communication skills to accomplish common goals or tasks. Teamwork requires problem-solving, listening to and motivating each other, sharing responsibilities and knowledge, and working together to create a successful outcome.

The Big Picture

One of the struggles that technical employees have is it is easy to develop tunnel vision or a silo mentality. They are so engrossed in solving the challenges of their product or service, which, of course, they should be, that they miss the bigger picture. How does it fit with the company’s overall strategy and product portfolio? Is the demand for the product increasing or decreasing? Is it cost-efficient to produce and distribute?

As employees move up in the corporate organization, they need to take a broader view of the organization. How does your area fit in with the overall strategy of the company? What are the market dynamics? What are the competitors doing? From a personal perspective, what skills do you need to stay competitive and move to the next level?

Before you panic and think you don’t have access to this information, if you work for a public company, start with the investor relations section and look for annual and quarterly reports as well as press releases. Google your competitors and read what they are doing. Become active in local and national industry organizations. Read industry publications. Private companies can be a bit more of a challenge, but there is information available.

The role of data-driven decision-making

A key advantage for technical employees is they already have a clear understanding of the role data, analytical tools, and process controls have in areas such as product development, manufacturing, and supply chain. Data-driven decision-making can be more challenging in market development, product growth, customer experience, and strategic planning.

As technical leaders develop their careers, they will be part of cross-functional teams that use data and analytical tools to make strategic decisions about the direction of a project, business unit, or company. Additionally, as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) continue to evolve, staying abreast of how they influence data-driven decision-making will be important.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is famous for saying, “In business, what’s dangerous is not to evolve.” That same saying applies to employees. Continually developing and having new opportunities creates very rewarding careers.

Ben Zoghi
As founding director of the Master of Engineering Technical Management (METM) at Texas A&M University, Dr. Ben Zoghi helps engineering professionals develop their personal and professional leadership effectiveness by focusing on emotional intelligence and expanding leadership capacities for optimal success. He holds a PhD in bioengineering/electrical engineering from Texas A&M, a Master of Science in electrical engineering from The Ohio State University, and a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Seattle University. https://engineering.tamu.edu/etid/metm/index.html