What Does it Take to Move from Technical Contributor to Technical Leader?

As an engineer on the technical trail you need to develop skills and behaviors that support the growth of the legs of technical career leadership development. Beyond traveling the paths of Technical, Business Acumen, Leadesrhip, Growing Others you need to make that move from technical Contributor to technical leader. What I’m going to share complements the legs of the career development. Some people call these “soft skills” which I personally find too vague I like to see these as development pathways that lead to success in large organizations. They impact your progress on the ladder and your financial rewards.

“85% of your financial success is due to your personality and ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead. Shockingly, only 15% is due to technical knowledge”
-Carnegie Institute of Technology

If we think of this as a Map to make that move let’s consider them as four areas to explore. There’s rivers that connect these regions and overflowing waterfalls that connect them as well. If growth to your career path is a tool. This map of skill developments can be views as a web of support of that stool. The stronger the web the more stable that stool. place these keys to success into four broad categories that definitely overlap so maybe it’s a web/net that supports the growth of your career stool. To make that move or shift from Contributor to Leader you need to:
Work Through Others
Extend your Influence and Work Scope
Network with Others
Build Underlying Skills

Let’s briefly visit the trailheads of each of these areas. We’ll have opportunities to explore them each in much more depth. An overview of the trails will provide you insight on the other areas to develop and perhaps.

Work Through Others
Simply put to have responsibility for larger projects means you do less of the work. Often this shift in the amount of work you do provides a psychological shift that lots of engineers find challenging. Being an engineer means doing something as Scott Adams in his comic strip Dilbert observed more than once “Engineers don’t idle well.” How can you get to feel accomplished if you don’t see the results from your own work? How do you feel accomplished?

The psychological shift is a key trail we can explore in a future walk. Let’s consider the mechanics of accomplishing larger projects. You are somehow leading a team to get the work done. You delegate work, you partner with your teammates on work or you perform the same kinds of work just on smaller modules or you perform smaller tasks.

To lead you need to free yourself up from the daily work/grind to present the teams efforts to upper management, to decide which workflow or automation tools the team will use, to shift from tactical moves to strategic thinking.

Extend your Influence and Work Scope
In most corporate job ladder/matrices the same Leg/focus area is assessed on Your influenced and the work scope.

Let’s check out the trail head of Influence. The trail sign will look something like this graphic

As you extend your Influence the circles of influence grow.

Now let’s go look at the sign of Expand Work Scope.

As You can see you move from executing the task to setting direction. So this working through others trail supports this expand the work scope path you need to take. Which directly relates to Business Accumen leg in which you need to become more strategic.
Along this path of extend your work scope is working with higher levels of ambiguity and increasing complexity. I believe the latter is not much of a challenge for engineers- we tend to like complexity. Ambiguity- most folks dislike it but the ones who thrive in such an environment can excel.

Network with Others
I know, I know networking is a tired piece of advice. Perhaps we can understand that networking is more than coming out with a set of business cards and more as forming relationships and helping others. Attend events to learn something and you have opportunities to meet others. Get to know them, learn from them and connect them to others. These are working relationships not best buddies at the pool. You don’t necessarily need to attend a Live event to network. Participate in on-line groups., getting to know others and connecting people you know who may have the need to know each other. The latter Rick Turozcy, Silicon Florist, calls “connect the dots.”

Through relationship building and helping others your network expands which result in opportunities, industry knowledge and building your reputation.
Lucky for you there’s no ONE way to network, there’s a trail or set of trails that will support your personality and work style. Stay tuned for a more detailed trail map for this area and oh the places you’ll go.

Build Underlying Skills
In engineering curriculum in the early 1980’s it focused on homework, labs, exams. It tended to be plug and chug at times, it was providing you a technical foundation for your chosen profession. It didn’t necessarily provide you opportunities to build those underlying skills. This began to change in with curriculum reviews requesting project work and engineering schools recognizing the need to build soft skills. Working on a school assignment with others models this and provides opportunity for teamwork, innovation and communication skills.

In Demystifying the Corporate technical ladder presentation I present it as a set of puzzle pieces that are valued in all engineers and I view as essential to becoming a technical leader.

This are active skills so I use the active verbs and they are puzzle pieces because they do connect to one another.
To Innovate you need to listen to a diverse and conflicting set of ideas.
To Influence you need to either Write or Present your ideas in a way that Relates to the people you want to Influence.

If you look closely 3 of the 6 fall under Communication umbrella.

The Map of Moving from IC to Leader
We have visited the major trail heads of each area of this map. To work on more interesting projects that accomplish cool things you need to make that shift to working through others, expanding your horizons, networking with others and building those underlying skills.

My classmate John Cohn summarized it well with the following:
“Technical leadership- what did she/he do to enable teams of technical people?”

Come back again for another walk,

Anne Meixner

Images: ladder, string of ladders
Tags: promotion paths

Additional Information:

Type into your favorite Internet search “What is the Technical