How to transition from technical expert to business leader: 5 tips

To make a move from the lab to the boardroom, tech workers must learn skills around collaboration, calculated risk taking, and driving measurable change.

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Engineers, developers, and other tech workers will inevitably face an inflection point in a career, when you must decide whether you want to remain a technician or move onto a leadership pathway.

"You have the power to transition successfully from being a tech subject matter expert to being a leader on the business side," said Kolleen Kennedy, executive vice president and president of oncology systems at Varian Medical Systems, during a Thursday session at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration in Houston. "You are inherently problems solvers, and have the fundamentals to achieve this goal. You just need to hone in on five key competencies."

Here are the five key skills that tech leaders must leverage when making a transition from a technical to a leadership position, according to Kennedy.

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1. Calculated risk taking

Tech workers must determine what it takes to succeed outside of their comfort zone, Kennedy said. "You need to believe you are a capable individual with high potential, that you have the smarts to make this transition happen," she said. "You need to be able to put in that effort that drives top performance."

This also means raising your hand to tackle a tough challenge or problem, even if you don't feel ready, to gain visibility, Kennedy said. Just like the tech side, the business side requires problem solving--the problems are just different, she added.

2. Valuing diversity

Research shows that more inclusive and diverse companies outperform their peers. Diversity goes beyond gender, ethnicity, and age, to include elements such as work experience and objectives, Kennedy said. Embracing different perspectives will drive innovation, she added.

"When thinking about business leadership, these are the things you want," Kennedy said.

3. Collaborating across boundaries

Strong leaders seek out best practices from around the globe, and identify who their allies will be in making cultural changes and addressing the most important strategies for the business, Kennedy said. This means looking beyond your current ecosystem, understanding your company's strategy, and working toward it, she added.

4. Driving meaningful and measurable change

Potential leaders must be able to quantify the value they bring to the company's success, Kennedy said. This means determining what your metrics are, and putting in the right KPIs to show value.

5. Managing upwards and sideways

Build credibility among your team and with your peers, Kennedy said. Peer support is critically important, especially when things go wrong in your career, Kennedy said. "How you deal with those moments is critical to your success," she added. "Reach out to those peers and they'll be able to support you, to help you bridge the current challenge and move on to the next success."

Leaders will not actively think about each of these competencies, but they all interplay on a regular basis, Kennedy said. "If you're conscious and authentic about how to make these transitions successfully, the competencies will serve you well," she added.

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