You know that guy in the office who always seems bored and distracted? The really brilliant one who occasionally shows wild enthusiasm for certain projects and surly disdain for all else? The one everybody thinks has an ego the size of Staten Island? Well he might not be a lousy employee. You might just be a lousy manager.
Better stated, you might be a manager who doesn’t understand how to deal with technical professionals, those workers who have specialized knowledge and need to be engaged creatively. These types of professionals can actually be some of the best people on staff, says Fraser Marlow, director of leadership at GP Marketing and vice president of marketing at BlessingWhite in Skillman. You just need to understand how they think.
Marlow will lead a webinar, “What’s Harder About Being ‘Smarter?’ The Challenges of Leading Expert Employees,” on Thursday, June 20, at 2 p.m. This is a free webinar. Register at bit.ly/190XPCn.
In a nutshell, technical professionals are experts in their fields. They rely on specialized knowledge and tend to be devoted to doing their favored work. And the phrase “technical professionals” doesn’t just refer to computer types, it also refers to architects and financial advisors and scientists and lawyers and so on.
What makes leading these workers so frustrating is that while they are usually highly intelligent and creative, they don’t think the way a lot of people do. Managers tend to see the business in one way and expect that everyone will perform their best under one set of guidelines. An expert’s potential, which can be great, Marlow says, is often buried under managerial strictures and myopic micromanaging.
Sense of achievement. Marlow has identified six ingredients shared by technical professionals, from the lab to the ad agency. The first is that technical professionals need to view their work as meaningful beyond the paycheck. “There are admins who don’t really aspire to anything,” Marlow says. “As long as their inbox equals their outbox, everything’s fine.”
But for technical professionals, “if something’s in their outbox, they don’t clock off,” he says. They do not like to leave questions unanswered. They are motivated by finding solutions and trying new things just to see how things turn out. And, Marlow says, they believe in what they do. This quality, he says, is often viewed as flaky by companies who do not realize the resource they have in their midst. “Companies often fail to embrace the creatives.”
Autonomy. If it’s one thing technical professionals hate, it’s being made to feel like interchangeable machine parts. Technical professionals, Marlow says, do not respond well to things like time cards and profit statements. They want to be given a broad set of parameters and then be left alone to do the job. This doesn’t mean that technical professionals don’t work well in teams, it just means that they do not like being micromanaged.
Mission. While it might sound obvious that experts like to be valued for their intelligence, too many organizations leave creative and technical professionals out of the discussion when it comes to business development, Marlow says. They want to participate in the mission and goals of the organization and feel their contributions to that mission are valued.
Trouble often occurs, Marlow says, because senior managers tend to have a set amount of time to focus on different groups within an organization, so they subsequently tend to focus on the groups with the most tangible data. In other words, the sales staff or the recruiters. Technical professionals quickly pick up on the favoritism, feel that the organization doesn’t care about them, and tune out.
Collegial support. Despite their need for autonomy, technical professionals crave interaction with colleagues, Marlow says. They tend to hate social media because they don’t find the general conversation interesting, but they greatly enjoy talking about their fields and their knowledge among peers.
Marlow likens this to one of his favorite television shows, “The Big Bang Theory.” The main characters are a group of genius scientists who relate perfectly to the group’s members but can barely function in social situations that happen away from their work.
Keeping current. Technical professionals are geeks about what they do. They like the latest gizmos, trends, research, and anything else that advances their field, Marlow says. This is not merely a survival tactic, he says, it is because experts get antsy when they start feeling antiquated. And that happens quickly these days.
The concerns. “A lot of people say ‘These seem like very generic needs,’” Marlow says. And the idea that people want to feel included or to be left alone or that they most enjoy conversations with their peers, he admits, can be used to describe a lot of people. The difference, he says, is that technical professionals strongly identify with all six of these personality traits. A secretary might like to be left alone, for example, but she has no interest on the company’s goals or mission.
Where this gets tricky is in how to lead experts. Individually, Marlow says, they are very hard to manage. As a group, the right leader can do wonders, but generally speaking, “guess who they get to manage technical professionals,” Marlow says.
That’s right, someone from the peer group. And these experts tend to believe that either everyone will fall into line with them because the leader is obviously the smartest person, or they fail to lead because they don’t like being in charge of people they work with. Managers, he says, “often fail to give people the context. They just sort of say ‘Here’s the leadership badge, good luck with it.’”
Another irony is that while experts hate to be micromanaged, they often become micromanagers when they take charge, Marlow says. They’re experts, after all — they know what they’re doing. And when they don’t micromanage, they take the “cool” projects for themselves. Or worse, disengage from the cool projects completely in an effort to not truly lead a group. “Technical professionals often don’t make good leaders,” he says. “They don’t like it.”
Marlow became fascinated with leadership while working for GE. A native Brit, Marlow earned a bachelor’s in business from Bradford University in northern England in 1992. He originally worked in theater doing sound and lighting. The world-touring lifestyle got old after a few years, so Marlow took a job helping a biotech startup through the Royal Veterinary College. This led him to GE, where he worked until 2007.
The company had brought him to the United States in 2000 and through his time with GE he learned a lot about leadership. “GE is a great place to grow up as a manager,” he says. His time led to an interest in the psychology of leadership and development, as well as management training. In 2007 he joined BlessingWhite and learned through existing BlessingWhite research and his own presentations to management types that some people think very differently about how they work than others.
Actually, he found technical professionals to be openly hostile to the idea of one-size-fits-all management. Whenever anyone tried to define the core qualities of leaders, technical professionals would immediately challenge with “Show me the data,” Marlow says. And the biggest issue he sees now is that companies are “shoving technologies down throats,” even though many experts do not like or even use cutting edge technologies. They have a way of doing it, and they’re best left to what they do best, rather than be forced to learn new technologies that won’t help them.
Marlow loves his job and is fascinated by the psychology of leadership, but a big part of him wants to do what his father was able to do. Marlow’s father was a molecular biologist who helped develop the field of radio-pharmaceuticals in the U.K. He eventually became the CEO of a company that, were it in the U.S., would be considered a Fortune 250 firm, Marlow says. That job took the Marlows to France for 13 years and to Chicago for a time, but Marlow’s parents’ job today “is to sail their 40-foot boat.”
The senior Marlow built the boat himself and is currently sailing around some British Isles with his wife, Marlow says. He’s not much for sailing himself, but he likes the overall idea of what his father has done. “He made a lot of money and retired at 55,” he says. “That’s a good role model.”