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Thoughts on "Can You Be a Great Leader Without Technical Expertise?"

There was a great article by Art Markham on the HBR blog this month which picks up on a subject we think a lot about and believe that many people in talent get confused about,

Do you need a strong technical expertise to be a great leader?

His answer is yes you do and we agree with that. You can read the full article here.

This question is so important as it links to so many other talent questions such as

  • how to identify potential

  • how to design graduate and early entry schemes

  • how to design and deliver hi potential schemes

Art refers back to previous research from Artz, Benjamin & Goodall, Amanda & Oswald, Andrew. (2015). Boss Competence and Worker Well-Being. Industrial and Labor Relations Review. forthcoming.and discussed in an HBR article you can read here which comes to the interesting conclusion that

"we found that employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business."

The implication of this is that hospitals run by doctors are better and development teams run by engineers run better. It also means that leaders in an industry need experience in that industry. Leadership skills are transferable at a degree of abstraction but context means this transferablity only goes so far.

A quote from the Markham article gets to the nub of it. How you apply expertise depends on the context

"When you begin to look at any of the core skills that leaders have, it quickly becomes clear that domain-specific expertise is bound up in all of them. And the domains of expertise required may also be fairly specific. Even business is not really a single domain. Leadership in construction, semiconductor fabrication, consulting, and retail sales all require a lot of specific knowledge".

And this changes how we develop leaders

"when we train people to take on leadership roles, we need to give them practice solving domain-specific problems so that they can prepare to integrate information in the arena in which they are being asked to lead"

and has real implications for younger talent and how to develop a career if they want to lead and if they move around a lot

"This mobility means that many younger employees may not gain significant expertise in the industry in which they are currently working, which will make it harder for them to be effective in leadership roles."

So context and depth of experience matter. Our previous work on FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 CEO's backs this up.

It also implies that when we talk about potential, answering the potential for what question needs a domain definition as well as a job title.

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