Basic elements for successful leadership of technical teams


Dr. Ramón García Rojo

Technology innovation is, in its various expressions and forms, a key driver for the economical growth and evolution of society in many complex dimensions (see for example the discussion triggered by the Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard University on the innovation complexity index).

Technical teams are those multidisciplinary teams that drive innovation in the company, their work being naturally linked to aspects related to business development, usually involving engineers, scientists, data scientists, software developers…. The technical teams, led by chief technical officer or similar, drive the development process which is essential for most businesses, but crucial for the survival of the ecosystem around what we call Industry 4.0 (you may check our previous entries on this issue).

Management of those technical teams is controversial, for it leads to a certain technical management paradox, expressed with following basic questions:

  • Does field expertise guarantee successful management of technical teams?
  • Does management competence naturally lead to an acceptance of leadership in technical teams?

The questions may look too theoretical, but they can be expressed in more plain words, showing more clearly their relevance:

  • Do leadership skills guarantee successful management of technical teams?
  • Does field superior expertise, as recognised by the team, guarantee successful management of the technical team?

At the end, the questions may somehow bring us to the distinction in Ancient Rome between Auctoritas and Potestas for the description of power execution in an organization.

In this entry I am going to briefly analyze the ways in which technical leadership can be developed and executed in multinational organizations. These ideas are the consequence of more than fifteen years of experience in the field of product development and innovation in international companies. And the purpose of this analysis is to provoke in the readers, specially those interested in becoming a leader of technical teams, or those who would like to improve their skills in that area, further self analysis and planning of their path to the development of necessary competences.

There are three main dimensions that need to be successfully covered for achieving excellence in technical leadership:

  • Technical acumen. Probably the most important element is to reach a high level of technical competence, but it is also the most tricky one. The goal is to be able to keep a sound knowledge of technology in a broad sense and a sharp understanding of the underlying technologies involved in the product and the process. And this, while keeping a wise balance that does not hinder team involvement and development.
  • Vision. It is quite common to find in technical teams personalities and profiles that get aroused by technical challenges, details, … It is very important to keep balance between the necessary basic understanding of the technologies and the business goals, of course aligned with company strategy.
  • The last dimension is not specifically linked with technical teams, but it is however relevant in this case, since development of engineers could lead to loss of IP and know-how (many natural developments of technical profiles lead to the engineer getting positions distanced from their original expertise). It is important to identify the different attitudes, and provide a stable growth for those who prefer to maintain a technical profile, and to assure the team know-how retention, when helping other collaborators to develop further to more business related positions.

In order to succeed in the dimensions above, there are several key competences required:

  • Technical excellence. This is at the end a combination of different elements related to the:
    • Technical Competence
    • Analytical skills
    • Innovative mindset
  • Vision. A good technical leader is many times seen as a visionary, someone who is able to envision the next steps of the company, market or the society. The key element is however to be able to transmit the company vision to the team, and do this by identifying the intermediate steps to achieve and by proposing them as challenges to the team in the best way and order for them to accept and accomplish. At the end, for doing that, we would be trying to:
    • Balance between the global picture and a laser focused approach for overcoming the team challenges.
    • Employ and share strategic thinking.
    • Be able to give priorities and filter noise from daily issues, side effects,…. that so commonly can become the biggest threat to company innovation and team development.
  • Finally, the technical leader needs to be able to get team engagement and needs to be able to develop the team to the next level:
    • Finding the proper ways to motivate the team.
    • Acting as a facilitator for the team, so that the collaborators can see their ideas grow and can focus on the activities that create more value.
    • Organizing the development process, providing the path to success.

The post-Covid society and the 21st century business will bring for sure new challenges to management and more specifically to the management of technical teams. In any case, I am fully convinced that the considerations above will remain valid for the next years, most likely decades.

For any one interested in becoming a technical leader, it would really pay off to prepare herself or himself in those areas, and to do a career path plan that takes into account both the development of both hard skills in the area of knowledge and soft skills in the area of people management.