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Some of the most successful business leaders today have one overarching trait in common: They possess a deep, technical background that helps them make informed business decisions.
For example, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, studied physics in college, then interned for Silicon Valley tech startups upon graduation, which ultimately led him to bet big on the Internet boom a few years later and launch his own startup. Another inspiration is Antonio Neri, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, who has deep roots in engineering, leading him to become a key player in the company’s evolution and a visionary in the “Everything as a Service” model.
As a co-founder of a technology company myself, I went through this journey firsthand, coming from a hands-on technical background and having to make the transition to business leader in my current role. Over time, I’ve realized that technical skills form the baseline to grow one’s career. These types of skills are essential, as they allow you to perform hands-on roles which lead to real-life, front-line problem-solving experiences.
But there will come a point in time where one is forced to make a choice — continue to be a contributor using these technical skills, or step up to lead and commit to acquiring the necessary business skills to guide others and drive business outcomes.
If you’re making the leap, here are three essential skills to carry over from a technical role to a leadership one.
Many technically skilled people come from a background where they are looked up to as someone who has the answers, or are able to find the answer to a problem faster than others. As you transition to an executive role, you are now the person seeking answers within your team. Your ability to ask the right questions, and listen to others, is key. In fact, a new mantra in many situations you encounter will be to “listen more than you talk.”
Additionally, the ability to negotiate under a variety of circumstances, such as with vendors, your team and your executive, is a key indicator of success in an executive role. The best negotiators intently listen and are able to show their counterpart acknowledgement, empathy and a clear understanding of the argument presented. Your reputation as a listener will gain far greater respect in your pursuit to be a great leader and contribute to building a reputation as someone who is approachable, trustworthy and even teachable.
It is time to take your hands off of the keyboard. While you’ve previously been hands-on, and were admired for your ability to get things done, it’s time to change this approach no matter how difficult it is to ignore your natural style and comfort zone.
As a leader, you are the team’s mentor, spokesperson, cheerleader and ultimately, the underlying motivator. Your success is earned through the success of your team members. When they succeed, so do you. Likewise, when they fail, it is also your responsibility, and long-term success will often depend on how you handle such situations, hopefully finding teachable moments that earn the long-term trust and respect of your team in you (and vice versa).
It’s important to communicate what success looks like. Empower teams to steer their way to that outcome within their respective areas of expertise. Avoid the temptation to “just do it yourself” because the solution seems obvious to you.
Leadership is one of the most sought after, and yet most difficult, skills to master. It is also the most critical skill to master as you take on an executive C-level role such as a CTO or CIO. People gravitate towards strong leaders. Any outcomes you drive throughout your career will be underpinned by your ability to lead those around you to the goals you have laid out.
Quite often, technical people struggle with this, as humility is seen as a desirable quality. You don’t need to break your ethics or principles, but in an executive role, being a quiet, humble leader can be a disservice to both you and those you lead.
Promoting the outcomes of your efforts is just as important as being able to convince others to follow and buy into your ideas. Many leaders have failed here because of their inability to promote the positive impacts of their team’s work. Some of the best executives I have worked with clearly understood the importance of this quality. They knew how and when to use the opportunity to promote their success and leveraged that success to gain trust and achieve stronger buy-in for their future initiatives across the business.
The ability to promote also acts as a critical foundation in having other groups across the business better understand the work you do and the contribution it brings to the business. It will lead to stronger relationships and build bridges with other teams and leaders. These relationships will be key as you continue to promote new initiatives and seek buy-in across the business. This is the strongest way to help your team achieve recognition, which will support career progression through a history of recognized success.
Related: 5 Ways to Be a Strong Leader
From the view of someone who comes from a technical background, the skills to listen, lead and promote are often some of the hardest to adapt to if your natural style doesn’t prioritize these qualities. Self awareness is key. Good business leaders will review themselves through an honest lens and stay highly aware of their natural behaviors and potential areas of improvement. It’s easy to focus on your strengths, but when it comes to being an effective leader, focus on where to grow.