CXO

8 tips for building tech leadership skills

Many tech experts want to rise up the corporate ladder, but lack the communication and business skills needed. Here's how to gain the tools that will help you advance your career.

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Image: iStockphoto/Rawpixel Ltd

New tech employees rely on their expertise to complete projects and build up a resume. However, after a few years when they want to move up the corporate ladder, many find that they are unable to address large groups or think strategically, and are at a leadership disadvantage.

"Soft skills are the most common things tech workers lack," said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA. "Coming up in tech, individuals often work on their own or in very small teams on short task oriented projects. They don't always get the experience of leadership, cross discipline teamwork, building consensus, listening for understanding, and developing written communications."

Tech workers need soft skills to advance and be more effective in the workplace. Yet many organizations do not offer clear paths for employee advancement, leading them to seek outside programs for professional development.

"The development of people is the No. 1 gap in organizations," said Bob Hewes, senior partner at Camden Consulting. "This does not happen naturally."

SEE: New IT managers: learn these five people skills

Leadership education is a big business, with a plethora of master's programs, certifications, and workshops on the market. Some programs, like French university École 42, go far beyond traditional approaches: The school has no teachers, curriculum, books, or even tuition fees, as TechRepublic editor Jason Hiner reported in June. Rather, students are grouped into teams and immersed in practical projects. École 42's founders plan to open a campus in the San Francisco Bay Area this fall.

Others, like Toastmasters, are less industry-specific and focus more on public speaking and feedback as a path to leadership success.

Knowledge of leadership skills and practical experience are both important for employee development, Hewes said. "This is not a science—it's really still an art," Hewes said. "A technical degree will not give you this angle. You need a combination of real-world experience and a program."

Meeting industry challenges

A research team from Brown University spent the past three years studying what tech workers need to amplify their leadership skills. In March 2017, the school will launch its new Executive Master in Science & Technology Leadership program, with a curriculum based on its findings, according to program director Sandra Smith.

"Our research suggests that people in the early years of their career have strong technical skills, which gets them up the first rank," Smith said. "But once they want to move up another level, they are lacking skills beyond those technical ones to make them succeed."

The 16-month program for mid-level tech professionals includes online work, four, one-week long face-to-face sessions, and a one-week trip to Seoul, South Korea to meet industry leaders from companies including Samsung.

Its focus is on developing effective leadership skills from an integrated liberal arts perspective, Smith said. Participants also have the opportunity to apply their new skills on a practical project: In their application to the program, students must describe a problem they want to solve at their company or in their industry, and apply their learning to do so by their degree completion.

Courses will hone leadership skills many tech experts lack, Smith said, including communication skills, strategic thinking, working across international boundaries, and maintaining an innovative culture.

"Innovation is one of the biggest changes in the industry—in the past, sometimes projects would be a year long," Smith said. "Now the expectation is you will release hundreds of prototypes into the market to get real-life testing and results." Continually rethinking paradigms is key for a leader, she added.

Tips for tech workers

Experts offer the following tips to gain leadership skills and rise up the tech ladder:

1. Make the choice.

"If you're an engineer, it has to be a conscious decision that you want to be on this track, and want to be a leader and a manager of people and projects," Hewes said. Often, people fall into a leadership position without making a strong decision to pursue one, he added. "Leading and managing is tough, and when you hit the troughs, if you've made a choice you can get through it," Hewes said. "If you're just a smart person they happened to promote, it will be a struggle in those down cycles."

2. Observe your leaders.

Every organization has a particular culture and definition of leadership and management, even if it is not explicitly stated, Hewes said. He recommends observing your leaders, noting their strong characteristics, and trying to incorporate them into your position.

3. Talk to your manager.

Ensure you're on the career advancement path of your choice at your current company, or at least make your aspirations known, Hewes said. This might happen during a yearly review, or another time. You can ask for informal feedback, and identify some specific competencies you plan to tackle in the next year.

4. Join a professional organization to observe and connect with leaders in your field.

Anne Krook, owner and principal of the consulting firm Practical Workplace Advice, especially recommends this for young women looking for role models. "It gives you a chance to see senior women who you might want to emulate," she added.

5. Seek out feedback from your manager and peers.

"Everybody has strengths and challenges—get a good balanced view of where your strong points are, and what you should focus on," Hewes said.

6. Avoid the "delegation trap."

Once you are given more responsibility, don't put the pressure to do all the work on yourself, Hewes said. "People in tech tend to be really smart, so one of the obstacles is letting go and letting others do the work," he added. "If you never let it go, you can't scale what you need to attack."

7. Don't define yourself as "apolitical" in the workplace.

"Anytime you have two or more people together, you need to understand how people work," Hewes said. "You need to be able to influence people, and not just say 'Here's the answer.'"

8. Don't expect any leadership program to be a cure-all.

"You can't rely on any one program to give you soft skills," Krook said. "It can provide you with guidance and a framework for thinking about how to get more skills. But it's not a discrete subject matter class."

No matter what leadership track you chose, remember that your workplace is a learning environment in itself, Hewes said. "Your work environment is a great learning lab—you can observe leaders and learn from them," he added. "It turns every meeting, interaction, and project into a learning opportunity."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Many tech employees with technical expertise find they do not have the communication and management skills needed to move up in their company.
  2. Becoming a leader is, ideally, a choice you make; when it's forced upon you, it can be difficult to learn to manage others and weather the tough times.
  3. Experts recommend tech workers interested in advancing their careers observe leaders at their company, and seek out opportunities to talk to managers about an action plan.

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About Alison DeNisco

Alison DeNisco is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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