What is a technical leader?
Summary: The phrase technical leader can mean several things in medium to larger organizations. In very instance it is a very important role, and requires technical skills but also enterprise skills.
Written by Alistair Gordon 07 Jul 2022

The three roles of a Technical Leader

The phrase technical leader can mean several things in medium to larger organizations. Crucially, it doesn’t necessarily mean leading people - in fact, often not. In very instance it is, however, a very important role, and requires technical skills but also enterprise skills (What are enterprise skills, and why are they important for technical experts?).

And by technical we mean all technical knowledge domains - such as accountancy, law, engineering, data analytics, science and technology.

There are three board categories of Technical Leader.

A technical leader may describe a thought leader.

This is someone who has deep domain knowledge and experience of a particular technical topics, and is the go to person when the organisation needs expert advice in that area. This type of technical leader may have no direct reports as all, but is a key advisor, mentor and support to those developing technical knowledge in that area. “Leader” here means “leader in knowledge.”

A technical leader may describe a director of technical standards.

Many organizations now have roles that involve the leader having the knowledge we describe above as a thought leader, but with the additional responsibility of ensuring consistent standards and application of that knowledge across a multiple teams (perhaps in multiple geographies). Often these technical leaders don’t have direct reports, but they have a strong dotted line to many specialists and experts (who are directly managed by others).

A technical leader might be a manager of a group of technical experts.

In the most direct translation of technical leader, this is a colleague who manages technical experts. Such a leader may or may not have advanced technical skills similar to those they are managing. Being a technical leader where some of your team know more than you in depth about a technical topic can sometimes be challenging (as we discuss in our leader of experts resource center on this website).

Same, same, but different

The first two technical leaders roles require these colleagues not only to have great technical skills but also to have great enterprise skills. In particular, these technical leaders have to lead very often without direct authority. They lead by influencing and impact.

We’d argue that these days even the third category of technical leader, while maybe possessing direct authority over their reports, would be unwise to use it. Technical experts work best when there are a collaborative and inclusive environment where all ideas are respectfully heard and the team collectively plots a sensible technical roadmap. The technical leaders role in all this is to ensure the discussion and decision-making, and the communication implied, happens. These too require the development of excellent enterprise skills.

How do I grow great enterprise skills to fill all three roles as a technical leader?

We’d argue that you need very specific learning opportunities to quickly and effectively build technical leadership skills. This is particularly true for technical experts who would prefer being a thought leader or a director of technical standards, rather than becoming a people leader (leading a team of experts).

Our The Technical Leader Blog is designed for existing technical leaders, helping them hone their skills. You can subscribe for free by following the link.

There are books written on this topic now (for example Master Expert: The ultimate guide for subject matter experts having more influence and impact), and also programs you can attend (for example, the Mastering Expertship Program).

Many experts may also decide to get some coaching to help them build these skills (for example, Coaching for Experts: What is it and why is it needed?).

For those already in our third category - leading teams of experts - there are also specialist short programs, such as Leader of Experts.

One thing is for sure: technical experts who have great technical skills, and great enterprise skills, advance their careers, influence and impact, and know every day they are able to make a real difference to their organization. Ans, as important as this job satisfaction is, they are likely to be paid significantly more. Many incentives then to master enterprise skills.

Our company has produced a capability framework for people wanting to be a technical leader, called the Expertship Model. It describes all of the enterprise skills you need to succeed. You can download a description of these skills for free using the form below.

If you want a non-obligation for formal briefing, please contact us.

Download The Expertship Model