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Developing great technical leaders, a collective failure

There is a story that plays out time and time again in my clients; it goes something like this…

…a senior petroleum engineer at a large independent oil and gas company has an exceptional track record of performance. She has spent the past 10 years working across reservoir; drilling and production engineering. Her performance reviews consistently mark her out as technically gifted and, unlike many colleagues, able to work across most of the upstream value-chain.

Of course she’s rated as one of the top 5 petroleum engineers at the company and is ready for her next career move. Her promotion comes through and she will head up the operations subsurface team with 6 direct reports and a total of 25 staff.

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12 months later the performance reviews tell a familiar story…

…and not surprisingly she is failing. There’s no need to go into details, you can imagine the appraisal comments around ‘managing stakeholders, strategic thinking, managing complexity, coaching others, commercial awareness etc….the only bright spot is that in the space of 12 months she has at least learned that what got her to this point won’t really help her move forward.

So what is at the root of this failure and who is to blame?

Well, the first point to make is that in order to retain her there was probably no alternative than to promote her into a role within a flatter structure with a wide span of control and a larger team to manage. In our efforts to ‘optimise the organisation design’ we have given her few options to develop her career through a technical route and (perhaps unintentionally) sent her a signal that in order to get on around here you have to manage bigger teams, be less technical and more ‘business’.

The second point is that we often do very little to prepare technical managers for this very different type of leadership role. The lucky few seem to learn the new skills and behaviours they need to succeed as if by magic, or osmosis. In fact they are likely to have these skills already in their DNA.

Our chief engineer is not one of these lucky few. She may have been offered a place on a leadership development course, but in all likelihood it would have been a generic programme and not designed around her needs. At least she’s had some sort of appraisal around a leadership competency framework, in many companies even this doesn’t happen.

Frustratingly I see many technical leaders failing to make this transition effectively, resulting in poor performance, undue stress on themselves and on the team, and inevitably retention problems further down the line. In a world where we are chronically short of technical skills in the energy sector, this is a serious matter and we desperately need to retain, nurture and develop outstanding technical people to be leaders in their chosen disciplines.

This failure though is not individual, it is collective.

We are all complicit. We have external advisors and consultants (including me at times, I confess) peddling ‘products’ such as off the shelf leadership training courses or the latest ‘big thing’ in leadership development thinking, organisational benchmarking or so-called ‘best practice’ organisation design solutions. We have executives and HR professionals who often leave the leadership of technical functions largely to chance without putting the right transition support in place, and we have individuals themselves who are perhaps unaware, unwilling or unable to change their approach to their own development to acquire the necessary capabilities to lead in these roles.

So how do we fix it?

As ever, the solution will be a combination of different interventions and I’m not suggesting there is a silver bullet. Increasingly though, my experience tells me that part of the answer lies in two areas where we should think a bit differently, and certainly in a more simple, flexible and focused way than we have up to now. Firstly I think we have to challenge prevailing thinking in organisational design, and secondly we must do more to tailor development programmes for people to fit their needs.

In my view we should tear up the traditional organisation chart, remove the straightjacket of benchmarking and the dogma of ‘best practice’ models and methods and put more progressive and flexible organisation designs in place to allow our technical people to develop to their potential along their chosen path (and perhaps between different types of leadership role). This can be addressed in the design of technical functions where both of the following states co-exist happily:

  1. Smaller teams with narrower spans of control that allow people to progress in their chosen technical discipline, through continuous professional development and experience.
  2. Larger teams, with broader roles and spans of control that allow people to develop their ‘business’ leadership skills, to acquire new knowledge about how their function fits with others and how it acts in a strategic and commercial context.

I’ve had the privilege of helping a number of technical functions put this in place, and it works.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that for a technical expert, becoming a more senior business leader involves a degree of ‘deconstruction’ and then ‘reconstruction’ of their knowledge and skills, and we should therefore act and invest accordingly.

Humans are emotional and social creatures (and petroleum engineers are human, really). We all need the right targeted development and, most importantly, support from others through individual mentoring or hands-on coaching to provide challenge and support. It’s like getting from the top of one hill to the top of another, different hill. We can’t just leap across, there are some things we have to ‘unlearn’ or supplant in this process, and that’s not easy when you’re on your own.

So this isn’t easy, and nor is it cheap. It means investing in and giving high-potential leaders access to skilled coaches and mentors. However it works and I’ve seen first-hand the payback in terms of engagement, development and improved individual and team performance. A modest investment really does translate positively into ‘mboe’, staff retention and engagement, as well as having a transformative effect on the individual.

To sum up, we know that the skills that make a great technical leader are different to the skills that make a great business leader. Business leaders need to think strategically, take decisions in a commercial context, solve complex issues, communicate with teams, empower and coach others, etc. For many though, there is simply no alternative than to take such a role if they want to progress in their career, and that’s not right. Having accepted the challenge, I then see too many gifted technical people struggle without the mentors or coaches to help them develop against these new expectations, and that’s not right either. It’s up to us to change this, collectively.

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