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How neglecting technical development leads to competitive disadvantage

Alistair Gordon - Author

How does your organisation define high-potential, high-performing employees? I’ve been coaching technical teams for 10 years, and they all have one thing in common – they’re always in the wrong place in the grid of performance versus potential.

Specialists are obvious high performers. They keep critical systems running, and routinely save significant cost or introduce innovations that improve organisational profitability. But despite making a large and direct contribution to the bottom line today, senior technical specialists are seen as “low potential” because they rarely want to manage teams.

Emerging people leaders, meanwhile, are “high performance, high potential” – despite contributing little in comparison today. As a result, specialists are neglected, and receive far less development and attention than people leaders. Is this really the most effective way for HR to allocate its resources?

The disadvantages of neglecting technical development
Organisations that don’t value technical performance struggle to retain, motivate and challenge technical staff. They also stifle innovation by not training experts to communicate with senior executives, which prevents great technical ideas from reaching the boardroom. It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s four mistakes HR teams make with specialist development – and how to unlock them to increase innovation and organisational competitiveness.

1. Organisational goals are “not the technical team’s problem”
Few organisations adapt their capability model to technical teams. Where a specialist framework exists, it invariably defines only technical goals, and it doesn’t ask that a specialist attune themselves to larger organisational needs. This is problematic as specialists become more senior. Now, they face business challenges, not just the technical. Senior specialists must present commercial justifications of budget to spend, and build relationships to ensure innovation is adopted.

That’s not easy, and experts need support to develop that capability. Encourage them to develop commercial acumen, and relationship, influence, coaching and delegation skills. It’s a huge change of emphasis for technical teams, but it works. Challenge your teams to think bigger and become business superstars. Technical teams love a challenge. This is a goal they respond to.

2. HR invests in future potential, ignoring value today
People leaders thrive because they are supported. They’re offered career ladders, regular appraisals, networking opportunities, functional capability frameworks, and mentoring to help them achieve. Few technical experts receive that level of support, so at senior levels they can seem to lack the polish of business leaders. This is not their nature, it’s an issue with lack of nurture. Given the same level of support as people leaders, specialists achieve a similar level of influence, effectiveness and achievement.

3. It’s assumed leadership development programs help technical specialists
People leaders need to learn leadership, the art of leading teams. Technical specialists, on the other hand, want to improve their expertship, the art of leading projects, ideas and innovation.

While there’s some overlap, these are different skillsets, and specialists need specialist development. Don’t cut corners by sending specialists on a traditional leadership program.

4. There’s no career track for high potential experts
Some experts want to lead teams, but many don’t. These second group needs its own promotion track. There, a specialist can keep maximising the value of their expertise and become more senior, but they remain an individual contributor rather than becoming a manager. Organisations that lack this style of expert career track will struggle to retain their specialists. Experts change job if they can’t increase their seniority, or when they are not supported to gain the skills they need to become more senior.

To best develop these experts, you have to redefine potential to understand the entire range of potential an employee offers to innovate and create success – not just their potential to lead teams. Don’t neglect teams that create real value for the organisation today. With the right development, they the potential to provide even greater value tomorrow.

 Alistair Gordon is the co-author of Master Expert: how to use Expertship to achieve peak performance, seniority and influence in a technical role

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