Does a Leader Need Technical Expertise in the Area He/She Leads?

Yesterday, Yahoo! hired Carol Bartz to be its CEO. Bartz was the CEO of Autodesk, which is a software company that develops computer-aided design 3D software. Some analysts criticized the move citing Batrz’s lack of experience in the consumer internet media business. Never mind her experience running a 7,300-employee, $4+ billion market cap publicly-traded software company in the Silicon Valley area. Never mind her experience managing C-Level officers, and her Ph.D. She lacks experience in the consumer internet media business.

The question is begged…does a leader need specific technical skills (in the case of Bartz, does she need specific consumer internet media expertise) in the area they manage? Does a supervisor of a networking team need to know how to set up computer networks? How about a senior manager of that same group? What about the Vice President of IT? What about the CIO?

Answers to these questions are debatable for some, but one thing is clear: the higher you rise in an organization the less important are your technical skills, and the more important are your leadership skills. In fact, one of the biggest reasons that new managers struggle is when they fail to stop doing the technical work are start managing the technical work of others. Need proof? Read Linda Hill’s book, Becoming a Manager. She talks about that very struggle...the transition from a person being an individual contributor to a manager. A good read and a subject for another day.

As a leader in any organization, your most important skill is the ability to lead the work of others. If you take the attitude that if you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself, you will fail. It is your job to get others to perform. Mike Leach is the coach of the Texas Tech football team. He never played college football. His team finished 11-2 this season. Does he need the technical expertise of playing college football to succeed? Do you think that when his team struggles, he thinks he should put on a helmet and suit up? The answer is “no” on both counts.

But too many managers think it is their technical expertise that will help them be successful. In other worlds, if John does not finish an assignment correctly, the manager takes over and finishes it themselves. How does this help John be better tomorrow? How does this allow the manager to spend time planning the work effort for the team next quarter? It doesn’t.
Managers need to let go of their technical expertise as a primary skill and develop leadership skills. Leaders make organizations succeed.


  1. Raymond Katz, was I think, telling us to have social skills and organizational acumen.

    Can we have either if we have little idea what the person on the front line does?

    Of course, the person at the top of an airline is not pilot AND engineer AND logistics specialist - but to have little curiosity in the skills essential to the business spells disaster.

    In a well designed organization, we also assume that the person doing the job is trained for the job, so we ask their opinion about why work is not finished and work their answer into our plans for the future! If a manager has time to do someone else's job, their own job could be enlarged a little?

  2. Yes...a leader should have more than a little curiosity in the skills necessary to do a job. This shows respect for people's work, and people will be more likely to work hard for this leader.


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