The importance of upskilling both technical and leadership skills 

Key success factors for leadership

Sue Musson on how L&D can enhance the leadership skills of technical experts

Leaders with technical competence hold a unique advantage in today’s demanding workplace. Their expertise establishes immediate credibility, provides a valuable knowledge resource for their organisations, and demonstrates exceptional technical proficiency. Such leaders also benefit from structured pathways for continuing professional development, ensuring their technical skills stay sharp and relevant.  

It’s easy to spot the technical expert who has been promoted to a leadership role but not planned how to make the transition from doing to leading 

However, the complex challenges of today’s workplace demand more. Technical expertise alone is not enough to lead with impact. To achieve this goal, leaders must maintain their technical proficiency and master all the skills of the visionary leader.  

How L&D can help

Achieving this balance is where the learning and development (L&D) professional plays a pivotal role. L&D colleagues offer insight and practical support in crafting the upskilling programmes that address both areas, meeting individual needs and organisational objectives.   

It’s important to have leadership and technical skills in abundance and in balance. These areas need equal focus, investment and attainment if leaders are to fulfil their own potential, inspire excellence in their teams and drive organisational success. 

It’s easy to spot the technical expert who has been promoted to a leadership role but not fully planned how to make the transition from doing to leading. So many times I have seen outstanding technical experts flounder in leadership roles.

Often they struggle because the development of crucial leadership skills such as setting a clear and inspiring purpose, communicating to build morale or providing guidance and feedback, has not kept pace with the maintenance of technical skills.  

The ‘give it here’ trap…

Technically proficient leaders are also at risk of falling into what I call the “give it here” trap. They often have more knowledge, experience and technical skill than anyone else, so their instinct is to execute tasks themselves.

They focus on completing work to a high standard, but may neglect the essence of their leadership role which is to encourage the growth, learning and autonomy of team members. 

These leaders may take on the personal execution of tasks because this seems quicker, easier and more efficient in producing a quality outcome. What is less obvious is the damaging impact on others.

Staff surveys and team diagnostics show that team members led by “give it here” leaders feel a lack of trust and a lack of encouragement to learn and develop. This can curtail, rather than enhance, team members’ motivation and performance. 

I once recruited a board-level leader who had particular expertise in business process analysis and applying technological solutions. These two skill areas were scarce within the organisation, and our new recruit brought vital knowledge and experience. At an early stage, I noticed he had fallen into the “give it here” trap by accident and with the best of intentions.   

… and how to avoid it

I took him aside to chat through my observations, mentioning that there were two paths to achieving the desired outcome. The first was to have him personally write an excellent strategy which would make full use of his technical expertise and knowledge.

The second was for him to take time to support the learning and growth of others who could contribute their ideas to the strategy and then take ownership of its implementation.  

I asked if he felt the overriding goal should be creating an excellent written strategy quickly or nurturing the development of his team to grow organisational capacity for the long term.  

Setting out these two paths really brought home the need for him to maintain his technical skills and develop his leadership skills so that he could facilitate the growth of expertise in others.  

The role of L&D professionals is crucial in navigating these situations. They are uniquely placed to spot the pitfalls of the “give it here” approach and to seize opportunities to enhance the leadership skills of technical experts. By doing so, they not only enhance individuals’ job satisfaction, they also help to fortify team capacity, effectiveness and morale.  

L&D’s mission

For L&D professionals, the mission is clear: to light the way for technically proficient leaders to become visionary leaders.

This involves diagnosing their starting point, creating appropriate upskilling pathways that maintain their personal expertise as well as growing their wider leadership skills and providing support and encouragement along the way.  

This approach creates well-rounded, credible leaders who have the technical and leadership skills necessary to inspire, guide and support others to achieve personal and organisational success. 

Sue Musson is Managing Director at Firecracker Projects and author of Firecracker Leadership 

Sue Musson

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