Nothing substitutes for strong leadership, and that’s why successful organizations put the right people, in the right jobs, at the right times.
I want to reference some recent commentary regarding U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence, being put in charge of the COVID-19 task force by President Trump. Remember, I’m not going to talk about politics, but this concept of who should be in charge of leading a crisis, a major initiative, or get the big leadership role, is an important one – maybe the most important for any company. Lots of comments were made at the time that Mike Pence wasn’t a medical expert, therefore, he wasn’t qualified and shouldn’t have been appointed as the task force leader. As the crisis has developed, people are also questioning who should make the decision on how long the American public should stay at home and when the economy should start up again.
The appointment of “technical experts” as leaders of initiatives has been done forever, and is still done today. And it’s a monumental mistake. I’ve seen companies make this same misjudgment over and over again. Somehow, those making these people decisions are impressed by technical prowess and mistake subject matter knowledge with strong leadership. Experts are just that, expert in a specific field or aspect of a problem, issue, or subject. They are incredibly valuable to a team effort, but should almost never be in charge of the team as its leader. I say almost never, since there is always an exception. In this case if the appointee, in addition to being an expert, happens to be an extraordinary leader as well, then you’re good to go.
Technical experts get mired in the details, tend to want to problem solve, and are too easily distracted from the larger mission. Big issues, big jobs, big problems, require broad thinkers, with both strategic and tactical skills, and capabilities of stepping back to see the big picture, the entire management system, and literally managing myriad components in order to achieve objectives. Nothing substitutes for strong leadership, and that’s why successful companies and businesses put the right people, in the right jobs, at the right times. I’m certain you’ve heard of putting your best people on your biggest problems, and/or in charge of your biggest opportunities.
This is not the exact same idea as the “peter principle,” which essentially is promoting someone to their level of incompetence. People get promoted everyday as a result of their technical skills and abilities, and sometimes they make good or even great leaders, and sometimes they fail miserably. Promoting people based solely on their technical skills is flat out wrong. When you’re promoted, you’re most likely being put in charge of others. When you’re in charge of others, a whole new set of skills is required, management and leadership skills, in addition to understanding the technical aspects of the job.
Additionally, think about the demands of leaders assigned to major company projects and initiatives. Chances are, they are going to be expected to provide updates to the executive officer team, external groups, and maybe even the Board of Directors. Do they have the communications skills required for these interactions? Do they have any level of executive presence? Do they exhibit tact, diplomacy, ownership, and accountability? All of these skills and abilities are needed and more, to inspire confidence amongst those you lead, and those you’re trying to influence.
So resist the urge to promote your technical experts into leadership roles, if in fact they’re technical prowess is their singular talent. If they are fantastic leaders also, well then you have a bonus. Assign and appoint your best leaders to lead your flagship initiatives, those with a solid technical background, strong project management skills, and excellent communications abilities. Leadership isn’t learned overnight, and progressive leadership roles typically are the best experiences to ensure the readiness of leaders to take on leading a crisis, major technology initiatives, or a significant organizational assignment.
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