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Transforming a technical expert into a people's champion

Whenever we encounter outstanding technical managers, we are impressed by how they think about and analyse things, often in ways we cannot imagine. We may believe that people with such skills should be working in more important roles. However, many great technical talents find their world turned upside down when they are put in charge of others.

There's an old saying that when you promote a good engineer to manager, you may end up with a bad manager and lose a good engineer. The moral is to be careful when making decisions involving technical talent and people issues.

Generally speaking, technical people are not good at managing others. They choose to work in a technical area because they like the challenge. Interfacing with other human beings is not something they regard as a priority, but it does not mean they refuse to deal with people.

From my direct experience of working with technical people in large technical organisations — consumer electronics, satellite communications, mobiles to name a few — I have found we can have very enjoyable relationships, not to mention good business performance.

Core characteristics: Technical people have certain characteristics enabling them to excel at what they do. The table shows 10 such characteristics, ranked by percentile against the overall workforce, based on a study of four global technical companies in different kind of industries but mainly manufacturing. These unique qualities of successful technical managers as follows:

Independence: This refers to working without guidance or input from others and being willing to confront problems alone. Technical people tend to run things by themselves since they enjoy spending time solving problems. However, they may also distance themselves and not report in a timely manner.

Analytical thinking: Technical people look at problems in depth and systematically analyse the issues. They tend to identify patterns not obvious to others. They can process abstract ideas but prefer tangible solutions.

Innovation: Technical managers like to generate ideas, see new points of view, offer inventive solutions and have a fresh perspective. They can be easily turned off by conventional methods, proven ideas and uninventive ideas.

Energy: They like a fast-paced environment. They can juggle multiple tasks and work more quickly than others. They do not prefer to work at a relaxed pace.

Influence: This personality trait has to do with the ability to persuade others. Since they love technical issues, they like to convince others to think in the same manner that they do.

Adaptability: They do not like dealing with change and ambiguity and are not good at adjusting quickly to change. While they prefer creating new things, they do not like to be forced to accept change from others.

Rule following: Technical people are non-conformists and willing to bend the rules to get things done. Their strong determination to finish things means they will have their own ways and procedures.

Diplomacy: Technical people are not always considerate or respectful of others' opinions. In some cases they may even be impolite and disrespectful to people they find difficult to deal with. At the same time, if they really need something badly, they can be courteous, tactful and careful not to offend.

Cooperation: Technical people tend not to pitch in and assist co-workers. They prefer working independently. Trusting in others' ability is not something that comes easily to them.

Concern for others: They are not empathetic and find it difficult to serve people who express needs that they don't deem important to the task at hand.

From technical expert to people focus: Transforming technical experts into people champions is not easy. What we must do is find out their interests and motivations to change first. Later on, we can connect these interests with a stronger people orientation.

What are their hot buttons? From my own experience, I can say it has to do with creating new things and impressing themselves first. Offer them a challenging assignment for which they can play around with solutions and exercise their brains while using their imagination and curiosity. Since technical people are smart by nature and prefer to combine analytical thinking and innovation at the same time, they can easily make trade-offs to justify their actions. This is where the people element can be introduced.

The bosses of technical people should show them they can achieve their tasks even more successfully with better cooperation and diplomacy as well as some degree of concern for others. Their work will be more satisfying and enjoyable as well. I have seen many successful cases of hard-headed engineers whose mindful bosses have helped them to break through their own barriers by letting them decide to change based on their self-interest. Insightful bosses are thus the key to getting the best out of technical talent.

This is my last article for this year. Thank you for support and feedback. May the Triple Gem bless you and bring the best to you. Happy New Year 2558 BE!

Sorayuth Vathanavisuth is principal consultant and executive coach at the Center for Southeast Asia Leadership and lectures at Mahidol University's College of Management. His areas of interest are corporate strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. He can be reached at