But I'll Lose My Technical Edge
Sandra, the Company’s best tenured technical expert and now “informal leader” without direct reports, was about ready to quit with the increasing stress and frustration of her new role. Forced to attend a two day Next Phase Leadership Development Conference, she came kicking and screaming, certain we would let her go home if she was just ornery enough. Well, though she was nasty to everyone, we did not let her go. Paired up with a “learning partner” for the two days, she “finally gave in” and listened to some of her colleagues struggles to “let go” of their solo professional pasts and transition into making leveraged contributions through others…to be Phase 3 leaders. They all seemed to be in the same boat with her, needing to make the same fundamental changes in how they contribute to their organizations.
Her main complaint was, “I was hired, rewarded and even promoted into this “leadership thing”, because I was the best technician…now, I’m stretched so thin in so many directions I don’t know which way is up. I haven’t the time to go to all the extra meetings, coach and develop my people and still find time to keep up with my profession. So, why am I here wasting two whole days, it just puts me further behind”.
Rather than try and convince her she was her own worse enemy, or publicly state that her R+D company sent her to remediate several problems she was creating, she was asked to persist in learning and finding applications to the leadership research and tools provided by Next Phase Leadership. More importantly she was asked to examine the things she might need to “stop doing” in order to get out of the way of progress and actually contribute to the larger and leveraged good of the team.
Reluctant, but frighteningly intelligent, Sandra (an Oxford PhD), put a leadership development plan together. It was full of things she was going to do “less of “or “abandon altogether.” She got the message from the Phases research that tenured professionals are expected to leverage their knowledge and experience with others or they risk becoming seen as obstacles to the business. She claimed she would lose her technical/professional edge and undermine her ability to provide the company with the kinds of “data” she was best suited to give. After several follow up Coaching conversations over a period of 18 months she had this to say.
“My greatest fear was that, in becoming a leader, I would lose all the knowledge and expertise I had spent my life and a small fortune accumulating. If I was not valued anymore as a world-class expert in my field (Physics/Chemistry) then just sack me and get on with life! But I did not want to change companies or relocate, again. I’m at that time in my life when I don’t want to play that game. So, I started coaching junior members of the group, asking ‘devils advocate” questions, being a second set of eyes on their formulations and asking questions long before offering suggestions. I attended meetings with less resistance (I still don’t like meetings), and listened to the needs of the business with greater awareness. I even got to know my manager better and listened to his counsel and advice on the needs of the larger business.
“Okay, I admit it. After 18 months of trying to make a bigger difference by working with and through people and increasing communications across the entire R+D shop, I have to admit something. I’ve learned more about my own profession in the last few months than I would have had I remained isolated in my technical role. I actually like helping out the other engineers and technicians and my boss is thrilled with the impact it has on the entire group. Morale is up, productivity is up, incremental development mishaps are on the decline and safety has never been better. We are, after all, an R+D shop, so we fail regularly, but it seems we’re no longer failing at planning or anticipating or communicating with each other now that I’m willing to lead projects and people through a coordinated and careful process. I’m happy to say I’ve not forgotten my technical side but added a whole new greater reputation and more visible dimension to my career and company.”
Lessons in Becoming Phase 3: Resistance, fear of people and fear of losing your technical reputation are all “reasons” experts give for not becoming good Phase 3 leaders/managers. In the end, Sandra’s story is typical, technicians are going to lose their “edge” sooner or later unless they retool and stay on the cutting edge. May as well retool into a Phase 3 contributor role and create a new reputation, new skill set and be recognized for higher more leveraged contributions across the organization.