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Secrets for Managing the Nerdy and Brilliant

by Patrick Bosworth

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Even an outstanding team of engineers, computer programmers, developers, or systems designers will only be as effective as their leader allows them to be.

After nearly two decades of experience working alongside brilliant (and nerdy) professionals in technology companies, it’s become quite clear that an organization’s success is less dependent on the skills of individual contributors and more dependent on the skills of the team lead. This is because regardless of the talents of each key player, a team lead sets the tone for the entire organization.

In every team, the leader significantly affects the engagement, performance levels, and output of their team – but perhaps in no team is this truer than in brilliant (and nerdy) technology-based teams. This is because teams in fields such as engineering, systems, or programming are typically contributing to a specific detail-based whole that relies on a consistent language and mindset to successfully complete.

I recently spoke to a CEO of a quickly-growing internet-based service company in Salt Lake City who told me how his team of extremely talented engineers and programmers saw a 30% increase in performance and output after they successfully addressed some of the leadership shortcomings in their head of engineering.

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Why do brilliant technology teams often struggle with leadership?

The biggest reason many technology-based teams struggle with leadership is because of the typical path to management

  1. Management spots a bright light on the team—the best coder, the sharpest mind, the fastest pathfinder—someone making an amazing individual contribution.
  2. “Bright light” continues to make a great contribution, perhaps even helping others on the team out a bit on their problems.
  3. The existing team leader gets promoted out of the team leader position and into a Development Manager, VP, or Engineering Lead position.
  4. Bright light gets picked to take the seat as the new team leader.
  5. Bright light is excited for the promotion but is unsure about what he or she is supposed to do differently in this new role and how.

This line of promotion is not uncommon—sometimes it occurs as a “battlefield promotion,” or a promotion that occurs when a transition or shift within a company leaves a big hole that needs to be filled asap; and sometimes it occurs because that’s simply how an organization chooses to reward top performers.

In our decades of experience accelerating leaders in a variety of industries, we’ve found this story to be true for most organizations regardless of industry, but especially when there are technology-based teams involved.

Regardless of the reason behind the internal promotion, the organization typically expects the individual to hit the ground running since he or she already has pertinent company and team knowledge. However, what many organizations may misjudge is that strong individuals may not necessarily have inherent leadership skills (in fact, according to a recent study by Gallup, only 1 in 10 of these leaders will have the skills needed so successfully drive profitability, productivity, and engagement within a team).

What’s the solution?

Many organizations (understandably) rely on internal promotion as part of their company culture. It gives team members a trajectory to promotion within an organization, provides incentives for hard work, and assures that new leaders have organization and team knowledge and relationships prior to the promotion that enable them a shorter learning curve. For these reasons and more, hiring from within is often more attractive than hiring external leaders. But how can you ensure these internal promotions go smoothly and that the individuals selected to impact entire teams through leadership are qualified to do a good job? The main consideration, say leadership experts, is to empower new leaders to develop top leadership habits early on with support, training, and coaching that will yield a much more positive (and deliberate) leadership habits.

What do these positive leadership habits look like?

Here are five of our most popular articles from our Leadership Insights that highlight some of the best leadership skills, most common mistakes, and exceptional mindsets that can transform new or inexperienced leaders into great leaders:

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About the Author

Brett Walker

President Brett draws from more than 25 years of business-to-business leadership and previously filled senior executive roles at Partners In Leadership (The Oz Principle) and VitalSmarts (Crucial Conversations). He has consulted with many other organizations in the learning and development, technology, and manufacturing industries.

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