Letting Go of the Familiar

Why technical specialists often fail to progress in their careers, and how you can avoid this trap

Technical specialist rise to the top of their field by demonstrating their ability to get things done. Pride in craftsmanship drives them to write cleaner code or configure systems faster. They pit their level of technical knowledge against that of their co-workers in an ongoing challenge of one-upmanship. Their goal is to be the best.

Unfortunately, the best is not good enough. If you are the best, your point of view is too one-dimensional to let you see the important business issues at hand. Being the best puts on blinders that hide other important issues (such as the fact that a system is worthless if no-one can use it or it isn’t flexible enough to support changing business goals or customer priorities). Being the best also puts you at risk of dismissing as irrelevant the insight of others who do not measure up to your level of technical expertise. That insight could, for example, ensure that the system mentioned above does provide the flexibility necessary to support business goals now and in the future.

The greatest tragedy of being the best technically is the limit that it imposes on one’s career. Some specialists are so indispensable that they are unlikely to ever be promoted out of their current position. A single focus can also prevent the specialist from gaining other expertise necessary to move forward. Skills in time and project management, communication, interpersonal effectiveness, leadership and decisiveness can all languish undeveloped as the technical specialist over-focuses on his or her singular dimension.

The value of the technical specialist is relatively easy to measure in terms of the speed that problems are solved or the degree of reliability that is achieved from a design. The value of a manager’s work, on the other hand, is less specific. Because, in the eyes of the technical specialist, that value is not as measurable, the specialist feels little incentive to accumulate the skills necessary to move beyond their technical comfort zone. Specialists who do make the transition often focus on the familiar, rather than adapt to the new challenges. This is seen, for example, in the manager who focuses on demonstrating how to do the job of a technical specialist better, rather than, as he or she should, on the strategic aspects of the job.

In order to become an effective manager, the specialist must leave the technical specialty behind and rely on others to do that work. The new manager must replace his or her old measures of success with new ones, such as the degree to which business goals are achieved. All technical specialists interested in enhancing their career potential must realize that good leaders are paid for their judgment and influence—these are the attributes that make it possible to get things done and achieve business goals.

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