Leadership gap can experts step up to leadership?

Written by
Changeboard Team

17 May 2015

17 May 2015 • by Changeboard Team

The leadership gap

Working with technical experts and professionals, we have recognised a leadership gap. From lawyers to engineers, accountants to research scientists, clinicians to actuaries, IT developers to quantity surveyors, academics to bankers, regardless of their expertise, professionals hesitate to take on leadership roles and make the next step in their career path.

So what's the problem? People who have worked hard to achieve a high level of competence in their chosen field are achievement orientated and value autonomy. Another irony is that, in many professional organisations, management is seen as an entirely separate support function, coping with day to day operational issues. Combine the organisational structure with a personal desire for self-management and freedom, and the result is a leadership gap.

The ability to think strategically, set direction and engage others is challenging, especially in partnerships or practices, with a less hierarchical management structure. The top down management approach, using coercive power to get messages across, no longer works in a knowledge economy where people can take their expertise elsewhere. Effective leadership is the key to retention and performance and often underestimated.

People with professional expertise have a power base they rarely recognise – that of knowledge and experience – and they underestimate their ability to influence others. We respect people who know their field well and we will listen to them, so they start with an advantage, but they do not necessarily use it in service of leadership.

Organisational recognition

Organisations need to think about formalising leadership and recognising the value it brings. Any formal system needs the visible, and vocal, endorsement of senior people in the organisation, who can legitimise the time spent on leadership activities in a culture where ‘billing hours’ or publishing research papers are often seen as the indicators of success. Leadership behaviour needs organisational recognition and reward.

Leaders need to think strategically

Busy professionals do not take sufficient time to stand back and think strategically about their organisation and their role in it. Professional organisations can believe that there will always be a demand for their services and they are usually correct. The challenge today will come from other supply channels: the micro-finance models that could undermine banking, the online legal services that could compete with solicitors, the overseas universities that could prove more attractive to students, are all part of a global economy that will challenge every organisation.

Leaders are people who can scan the horizon and notice the up and coming organisations that will compete in their market space. They are also the people who can create innovative products and services. Thinking strategically is the key to survival.

Explain leadership

Many people do not recognise what ‘leadership’ is. It can be as simple as being mindful of the impact you have on the people around you – do you encourage and support them or do you find them annoying? Do you add value to the organisation with your activities or merely maintain the status quo? A simple framework of leadership behaviours, based on your business context, can explain a rather nebulous concept to people whose expertise is rooted in evidence based research, or manipulation of data.

Measure leadership

The data surrounding leadership is also important - there needs to be a clear rationale that explains the role of leadership in increasing productivity and engagement, and the subsequent impact on the bottom line. Professionals value facts and figures, so find ways to measure leadership. This could be at an individual level e.g. 360 degree feedback scores, or the engagement scores of direct reports. It could be measuring how well leaders develop others e.g. the number of promotions from their team, or percentage of performance reviews that show evidence of exceptional success.

At an organisational level, it might be about projects undertaken to increase revenue or to make cost savings. We have evidence from one leadership programme of an individual making £500,000 savings and increasing sales by over £225,000 in one year - a significant return on an investment in leadership development costing a fraction of the benefits achieved - and he was one of 40 people on the programme.

Build credibility

An audience of professionals can be very demanding and they will not respond well to didactic ‘teaching’ of leadership. They will need to be engaged in discussion by people skilled in the field, whom they can recognise as fellow professionals and who can hold their own in a debate. Anyone encouraging them to think about and change their behaviour will have to earn their respect through evidence based research and rational arguments. Once credibility is established, working with professionals is rewarding - they are bright people who learn fast, value new ideas and like to apply their learning.

Inside out

Using our ‘inside out’ approach at Roffey Park, we have had great success in enabling professionals to step up and bridge the gap between being a technical expert and adding value as an organisational leader. This requires them to open themselves up to learning about themselves, and an environment where they feel both supported and challenged to change. The goal is to enable them to lead authentically, recognising who they are and what they offer as a leader. Professionals will find themselves becoming more exposed as they take on a leadership role, and they will need to build their confidence as they become more visible and accountable. Leadership means letting go of some of the professional day to day work that they can accomplish easily, and entering a new world of having ‘followers’, who require time and effort.

Emotional intelligence

In order to lead others effectively, leaders need to understand the impact they have on others on a daily basis. They are responsible for the team ‘climate’ – is it negative, where people keep their heads down and avoid upsetting the boss, or positive, where team members are free to speak up and offer ideas and feedback? This means that professionals will have to understand the people they are leading, developing empathy and perception, so that they can sense the atmosphere and respond appropriately. A few well chosen words can make a difference, but more importantly a few badly chosen words will create long lasting stories about the insensitivity of senior people.

Developing teamwork

Technical professionals frequently value individual achievement and their careers are predicated on a personal research finding or development of a successful financial model and this can result in duplication of effort. We know of one investment bank where the IT function consisted of a group of highly intelligent individuals working in parallel to solve similar problems. They resisted any attempt to become more ‘corporate’. The solution was a self initiated learning event, where they were able to describe to others the work they were doing and how it improved functionality.

The result was that they identified a number of opportunities to work together on wider initiatives, which saved resources and produced widely used applications. This teamwork occurred because a senior leader created the opportunity for knowledge sharing, and sponsored the learning event that kicked it off. The role of the leader is to create space for new initiatives to develop, and manage any organisational ‘interference’ that could obstruct progress.

The leadership challenge

Professional organisations need to prepare themselves for a future that will continue to be unpredictable and complex. Who could anticipate the challenges caused by the environment in snow, the ash cloud preventing air travel, the earthquake in Chile, the floods in Pakistan? The economic challenges caused by the banking crisis continue to haunt business, especially in Europe, and this volatile world requires leaders who are confident when faced with ambiguity and change.