Big Picture

Technical experts are left behind when it comes to developing soft skills – here’s how to fix it

Alistair Gordon and Dominic Johnson
Alistair Gordon and Dominic Johnson

Your organisation likely relies on talented technical specialists to keep it functioning. Engineers, software developers, researchers, scientists, lawyers, economists – whatever field they’re in, technical specialists are often critical, but also expensive, hard to hire, and hard to retain. They also have an underserved reputation for being bad with soft skills – with negotiation, stakeholder engagement, with knowledge transfer or succession planning. But what if the problem isn’t nature, it’s nurture?

How do you define high performing?

Most organisations quickly spot when they have a high-performing emerging manager. And they roll out the red carpet: career paths, appraisals, training to polish their business skills, career ladders, and all those forms of leadership support. What makes this leader a high performer? It’s that they show aptitude and interest in leading teams – maybe one day even becoming CEO.

This is not the case for experts. Where people leaders are promoted, coached and encouraged, high-performing experts are not. They’re often trapped in the same technical role for many years. They perform miracles, but in roles that frequently become unchallenging and uninteresting over time.  Why are experts not seen as “high-potential”? They don’t want to be CEO, and often they would prefer to not even have to lead a team.

Ending up stuck

As a result, high-performing experts end up stuck. They’re not going to be people leaders, so they’re not given the development they need to polish their business and people skills. And without that development, it’s assumed experts were “born that way” – they aren’t capable of developing soft skills in the first place.

Ask your CIO, or head of engineering, or data science, or the head of the policy team how they would define “high-performing”. They’ll tell you it’s not about leading teams, it’s about solving critical problems that threaten your business, and using their deep domain knowledge to create competitive advantage. They’ll also tell you that they’d love for talented experts to be trained with enterprise skills – not just basic soft skills, but coaching to understand your organisation’s commercials, risk and reward, and the creation and maintenance of business relationships.

Often, experts are sent on the same courses as people leaders – it’s all business skills, after all. But experts don’t respond well to leadership programs, because they don’t want to be managers. They want to be better experts – more senior, more influential, and more effective.

How do you solve the soft skills problem? Here’s five ideas to start.

  1. Redefine “high-performing” to reflect business value more than people leadership potential. This will transform your organisation’s ability to unlock the latent competitive advantage of experts.
  2. Frame enterprise skills as part of an expert’s day to day role. From their first day at work, people leaders are told that soft skills and commercial acumen are critical to their long-term growth. What if you gave experts the same guidance? Once presented, it’s rare that we see experts fail to take up that challenge.
  3. Create an expert capability framework, to show what true mastery involves. Are you clear which non-technical skills you want experts to acquire?
  4. Don’t default to offering only leadership coaching. Leadership coaches the skills needed to lead teams. Expertship develops the skills needed to lead innovation, projects and ideas. Experts don’t want to learn to be people leaders – but they welcome ideas to become better experts.
  5. Ask your heads of technical teams to identify experts who are stuck, and whether they could add greater value than you may have realised. To an expert, many employers are similar – not that interested in expert ideas, and not that understanding of expert challenges. How significantly would you improve expert retention if you helped experts understand that you welcome – in fact, encourage – their ideas and their work?

Written by Alistair Gordon.

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Alistair Gordon
Alistair Gordon is the CEO of Expertunity, an expert coach, speaker and author, and a long-time veteran of the media and organisational-development worlds. He is the co-author with Dominic Johnson of Master Expert: how to use Expertship to achieve peak performance, seniority and influence in a technical role (Expertship Press $49).


Alistair Gordon is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.