True leadership requires some basic technical skills

An idea is worth nothing if you can not execute or build it. In my experience, workplace leaders quite often do not have knowledge or the skills necessary to deliver a product or outcome for the business. Let me be more specific. They lack technical skills and instead have trained “leadership skills”. While starting my career, I was conditioned to believe that leadership skills should be on my progression plan. You know, those HR plans your manager makes you write up and then the company pays for courses for you to attend and develop those skills. But after 7 years in the workforce, I took it off my progression plan.

You see, trained leadership skills do help with progression up the corporate ladder. Every business wants a leader who can inspire more work from their minions while reducing HR cost and growing productivity. But trained leaders are just the fallback option in the absence of what is truely required. You see, what every business actually needs is a true leader.

To build a successful campaign, product or business, you need a leader that is respected and followed out of inspiration from their people. Many business owners and managers lack any real form of leadership. I’ve seen it over and over again. I have worked with many leaders and managers who are great at following the leadership script but need to lead with the power of their position, rather then the respect of their team. This leads me to my first comment. As a leader your idea is worthless if you can not build it.

Being able to build something doesn’t mean learning the mastery skills in the area required. No, it means developing enough of an understanding to lead the project and not be lead by the member preferences in the team.

The core problems I see in people that hold management and leadership roles are:

  • They don’t actually understand how things work
  • They don’t understand how things get done
  • They think they know more than the technician (simply because someone they know who is not a technician told them it was possible, or they saw it somewhere)
  • They don’t spend enough time understanding all the above.

Solving the last point above, will actually solve all the others. Technical expertise is actually required to deliver something outstanding. A technical expert will not respect someone who is trying to tell them what to do, when that person can not do it themselves. The truth is, you need them more then they need you. While you have the idea, your idea can never come alive because you can’t physically do the work required to achieve it. You see the technician has the skill you need. But not the idea. However, the technician can develop an idea on their own. Therefore, they don’t need you because in their view you are inferior to them. Welcome to the world of marketing!

Marketing professionals consistently tell technicians (in our case designers and developer) what to build and design, but they have no knowledgeable on what is possible to achieve with the tools on hand (or budget provided). What marketers are good at, are understanding business needs. Sales needs. Who the message should appeal to, in what medium, and how it should impact sales. But the strategy and marketer will never achieve business objectives without the designer and developer. Which means a new set of skills are required. No, not leadership and communication skills. A basic level of technical understanding. This basic understanding of what the technician needs to do will result in better leadership and better communication. I’m talking from experience.

When I first started out as a marketer, I felt the stigma instantly. I would be on the phone to our web or email developers and their responses to my questions would condescending. I could feel that talking to a marketer for them was annoying and frustrating. Sometimes I would even get the “is the power switched on at the power point” question- like I was some kind of idiot. So I decided to learn all the technical jargon. My first books were “SEO for dummies” etc etc. I googled every acronym and wrote every word I didn’t understand down into my notebook. And then one day something miraculous happened. It all started to make sense and before I knew it, I learnt the foundations of how code was developed and worked to build every digital asset I needed. Once I developed this knowledge, everything changed. My agency tried to charge me $2000 to change a hyperlink in text. Something I would have signed off if I didn’t know better, or didn’t know how to do it myself. I challenged my account managers quote and reasoning of “it would take 2 days to do the work” by replying “it’s one line of code that you just need to copy and paste – you have got to be joking, send it to me as it is and I will update it myself”. She was instantly embarrassed and apologised, sending me a revised quote of $200 and 30 minute turn around time. The charge was just for inconvenience of last minute changes. You see…. had I not developed the knowledge, I would have been $1800 down in my budget and 2 days behind in my campaign. But this was only the starting point.

When you have knowledge of how it works, and how a technician will develop the work, you can lead a team with respect. Never assume you know more than the expert technician, because you don’t, but if you know the founding principles they work within (by the way, the foundation is always the same, the application is different and hence the technician is better equipped to problem solve) then you can challenge the way the technician has chosen to problem solve. That is, you can lead them to solve the problem in a way that is relevant for the business needs – which is where they lack understanding.

Majority of the time, a technician tries to take the easy way out or their preferred way of delivering something. This way may not always good for the business simply because they don’t think about their work from a commercial perspective. Their work is an art to them and the end result is satisfying when they do it their way. This is why they are hesitant to do it your way, but also the reason why they are not leading the project. They are too attached to their work. You on the other hand, are unbiased. Which means you can put business needs first.

In my line of work, I’ve seen great technicians become business owners or leaders and fail because they can not think commercially and are too attached to their work/the product to deliver something that can actually sell. I’ve also experienced alot of leaders who only have “people leadership skills” and no technical skills. They also fail because nothing they deliver helps achieve business results (of which they end up blaming the technicians for not being able to achieve their vision).

The greatest form of leadership is a technician that understands the business and can separate the two when required. And I realise now, those are the leaders I admire and want to work with. When someone tries to manage my work and has no clue on what I do, but somehow thinks they know how to make it better, I see flashes of my time being wasted. Why? Because they will make me do a lot of work that is irrelevant, not listening that it wont work and instead using their leadership role to override me only to realise they don’t like it. Scrap it and start again. These type of leaders are time wasters and made me change my view on those who were promoted in corporate organisations. I stopped wanting to be a trained leader with no technical skill, instead I wanted to be a knowledgeable leader with enough technical skill to make it happen efficiently and give credit to where credit is due.

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