Are you a people leader or a technical leader? Why it’s important to stay in your lane

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Towards the end of last year, I was asked by a client to run a session for her new leaders on ‘best practice performance reviews’ before they moved into their annual review season. At the time I explained to her that while I used to be a huge fan of reviewing my team members’ performance every six months, I’d become more of an advocate for regular check-ins. 

Many organisations have replaced annual appraisals in favour of check-ins after discovering how frustrated employees had become with performance reviews. They felt the process was time-consuming and bureaucratic and questioned why they should wait until the end of the year to receive feedback. 

I agreed to facilitate the workshop on the understanding that I would also talk about the benefits of the more progressive check-in process. My client was more than happy for me to do so. 

As is often the case in workshops like this, I was asked to share some of my earlier performance review experiences as a leader. But in doing so, for some reason during this particular session, I was also reminded of my very first review as an employee in my professional career. (I’d never really considered my boss telling me that there was no need to stack the Coke fridge so meticulously when I was a petrol station attendant to be much of a performance appraisal per se). 

But I digress. 

I had been working in my first real job (in an office!) for six months when my boss called me in for an appraisal. 

After the main ‘review’ component (which had thankfully gone well), she asked me if I could see myself heading down a path towards people management or business management.  

I remember feeling somewhat embarrassed and telling her that although I had completed an economics degree, I wasn’t sure of the difference between the two. 

She smiled and then asked me whether I could see myself becoming a master of my craft, or whether I could see myself leading others and helping them become masters of theirs. 

“Couldn’t I do both?”, I asked. 

“It’s not that simple”, she replied before unpacking both concepts in a lot more detail so that I could understand what both paths or ‘tracks’ (another term she used) looked like. 

I’ve never forgotten that discussion and I put my own spin on it many times as a recruiter, or when I ran appraisals or had career planning discussions with my own team members as a people leader. 

Spoiler alert … yes … that was the path I chose to take.  

Three decades later, had I been that same starry eyed, enthusiastic employee today, my boss would probably ask me whether I could see myself as a people leader or a technical leader. 

Back then (in the mid ‘90’s), whilst software engineering was definitely a ‘thing’, it wasn’t nearly as dominant (or trendy) as it is today. It certainly didn’t set the tone or have an impact on the day-to-day business vernacular. 

In companies across all sectors, we have become so accustomed to using terms originating from the world of software engineering – from ‘agile’, to ‘matrix’ team structures, to ‘wireframing’, ‘applications’, project ‘milestones’, and of course technical leaders. 

I’m not denying that the term ‘technical leader’ has its origins in the tech world, but the concept of a ‘non-people’ leader can still be applied to all industry sectors or departments within most organisations. 

At its core, technical leaders are responsible for making project-related or operational decisions (and have no direct reports), while people leaders (as the term implies) focus on managing people. 

The same boss that had first explained my two potential career tracks to me all those years ago, also shared an invaluable insight with me once.

Never promote a high performer into a managerial role on the assumption that they would necessarily want to lead people, as it could (often) be the beginning of their downfall.  

That piece of advice stuck with me and on one particular occasion when I wanted to promote a star performer in my team, I asked him what his thoughts were, and he looked at me mortified.

“I might play the role of ‘team player’ well”, he said. “But I actually hate people and couldn’t think of anything worse than being a glorified babysitter”.

So, instead I set him off on a very successful path towards “practice lead” which in the early 2000’s was the new term for ‘business manager’, and what would ultimately morph into ‘technical leader’ even though we weren’t an engineering team. 

As a recruiter I spent decades explaining to clients that if they were looking for a manager (people leader), that industry or sector experience wasn’t the be all and end all in terms of a desirable background. In fact, I once placed a leader from an advertising agency into a contact centre; and on another occasion a manager from a busy travel business into a new division within an expanding media group. It was their transferrable people leadership skills and competencies that sealed the deal. On the other hand, when searching for a new technical leader, it is only their previous industry experience (and by definition their technical know-how) that will get a successful candidate over the line. 

Technical leaders want to master their craft.

That could be coding, audit and taxation, financial planning, client service, business development and sales, or graphic design. They are the front runners in terms of excellence in job performance. That is their competitive edge. 

For the most part technical leaders aren’t interested in dealing with HR-related issues, recruitment, performance management, having 1:1 meetings internally, coaching, mentoring, or as my team member described it, “babysitting”. They want to be recognised for their technical responsibility and expertise in an area they love, and to be able to influence more projects and broader decisions. 

On the other hand, (and following a completely different career trajectory), people leaders have a genuine desire to bring out the best in others and are passionate about coaching and mentoring others. They will typically have a high level of emotional intelligence (and self-awareness) and strong communication and interpersonal skills as opposed to the solid technical skills demonstrated by their counterparts. 

As an aspiring future leader, what path do you feel more drawn towards?

And if you are a senior leader looking at your high performers and potential future leaders within your evolving team, remember not to assume what path they may choose to take. Instead, ask them – just like my boss did nearly three decades ago.

Please just appreciate that technical leadership and people leadership are two distinct roles and should therefore be seen as two very different career paths. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader (technical and people), prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders focus on their own core skills and strengths while also helping them identify the future pathways of the next generation. 

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