Can Techies be Leaders too? (Pt 1)

Can Techies be Leaders too? (Pt 1)

We all know about technical people who excel at their specialism, be it software development or systems engineering, but find themselves promoted into roles that take them away at what they’re good at. They end up in an area where they don’t necessarily specialise: leadership, raising the question of whether a technical specialist can also be a good leader?

Striking the balance

Highly technical specialisms hinge on solving problems to deliver the end result (the “what”). Successful leaders also need to consider both the emotional (EQ) and commercial considerations that will get their team to the end result (the “how”). Technical people in leadership positions need to be able to deliver both.

This means there needs to be a re-balancing of the technical skills of emerging leaders to add emotional intelligence and business insight but the technical skills still matter.

Attributes important for technical leadership development
Attributes important for technical leadership development
  1. Credibility is king

Johnson & Johnson CIO, Stuart McGuigan, said, If he had to pick a CIO between someone with non-IT experience or one steeped in IT,  “it’s not even close. ” He would pick the one without the IT background. Why is it, then, that the Forbes’ ‘most influential people in tech’ list shows that those climbing to the top of their field have invariably started out in it?  The answer is credibility. still lists technical knowledge as one of the five resume ‘must haves’ because of the respect it generates from the workforce.

PA is currently supporting a large scale technology implementation, which recently saw the incumbent Programme Director replaced. Why? Because technical delivery was falling behind and the Director had neither the understanding of the work nor the respect of the workforce to make the changes required. His replacement with a more technical, albeit less experienced, leader from the IT department has swiftly turned this around.

  1. The EQ gap

Pamela Rucker, chair of the CIO Executive Council’s Executive Women in IT, believes EQ accounts for 80-90% of the difference between average and outstanding leaders, and is twice as important as IQ. However, a research study, personality types in software development, indicated that 71% of technical leaders tended towards introversion, and a significant proportion preferred to work with facts than with people. This implies a partiality towards decisions based on perceived logic rather than engagement with what others feel. Finding technical leaders with a good level of EQ, and developing this throughout their career, will be key to strengthening leadership capability.

  1. A nose for business

Rucker says, “Moving into an executive role requires the ability to think about problems that have multiple origins, conflicting stakeholders, and dynamic environments –where changing one facet can have immediate unintended consequences”.  This understanding of the business and commercial context of technical delivery often becomes an increasing priority as a technical career progresses.

To develop credibility with the wider business, technical leaders should develop an awareness of the business implications of technical decisions and act accordingly. PA has worked with a number of senior technical clients who, although they excel at their specialism, struggle to engage with these other aspects of programme delivery. Coaching leaders in these areas has been key to unblocking progress and strengthening longer term leadership capability.


Figure 2: Change in knowledge and skills required in technical leadership roles
Figure 2: Change in knowledge and skills required in technical leadership roles

All these factors underline that techies can make good leaders, and they do have the advantage of credibility with the workforce. However, to achieve real success, those technical leaders will need to re-balance their technical skills with other important attributes of emotional intelligence and business acumen.

In my next article, I will discuss how organisations can turn techies in to outstanding future leaders.


Tara Jones is a director in PA Consulting’s London office, where Dennis Layton is a principal.

The authors would like to thank Andrea Alexander, Mauricio Arnau, Lori Dobeus, Kirill Dushkin, Lauren Miller, and Katie Smith for their contributions to this report.

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