Over the past several years, while working with hedge funds and banks, I have coached a number of leaders engaged in highly technical work. They work in complex areas such as quantitative research, electronic trading, and software development. Recently, I reviewed 22 coaching assignments with this population and this is the first of several articles describing the more interesting trends that emerged. I believe these results are applicable to technical leaders across industries.

Who are these Technical Leaders? These technical leaders are important individual contributors in their own right. Due to their depth of expertise (most had advanced degrees), they were also managing groups of technologists or researchers. In addition to their management responsibilities, there was an ongoing need for them to interact and collaborate with other groups within their organizations.

What areas did they need to improve? Like many coaching clients, all of the participants had development needs related to leading their groups and collaborating with others. These included common areas such as delegating, providing feedback and listening skills. In several cases, participants had received prior training in these areas which did not result in any tangible improvement.

When discussing interactions with peers or direct reports, my clients would talk about the tasks they engaged in rather than people they were working with. Many knew little about their colleagues and could not describe them in any depth. Most preferred to work independently and saw dealing with others as a necessary evil and a distraction from their core work. Interactions were often through email, even with colleagues who worked in the same office.

Assessment data provided insight into causes of development areas. At the onset of these engagements, I conducted an assessment consisting of a behavior based interview, a verbal 360 and two psychometric instruments. The instruments were the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) and the Hogan Motives, Values, Interests and Preferences Inventory (MVPI). Looking at the groups’ mean psychometric scores further illustrates the nature of this group.

Their mean percentile score on the HPI Interpersonal Sensitivity scale is a very low 22 (only two scores were above the 39th percentile). For those psychology geeks, this is essentially the Agreeableness factor of the “Big 5.” Lower scores on Interpersonal Sensitivity indicate a lack of awareness and ability to interpret interpersonal cues.  It also indicates a relatively higher focus on tasks and a logical, versus emotional, decision making style.

Their mean MVPI Affiliation percentile score is 26, indicative of a low desire for social interaction at work and a preference for working independently. Their mean MVPI Science percentile score was an incredibly high 94, indicative of a strong preference to work with data and objective facts. Taken together, these results shed light on the group’s overall lack of engagement with their colleagues. Their wiring was working against them in the same way that right hand dominant individuals are poor at left handed ping pong.

How did the story end with a “happily ever after”?  Helping my clients improve required me being a bit counter-intuitive in my approach so that I could get them started on increasing their interaction with colleagues and then helping them learn new skills. This involved a two-step process:

STEP 1 Increasing level of engagement with colleagues – Before working on skill building, my clients needed to increase their engagement with their colleagues and direct reports. For example, in working with “Max”, who leads a team of developers, we established achievable weekly time allocations for meeting with his important stakeholders. A 5% target, given a 50 hour work week, translates to 2.5 hours or five thirty minute slots. He established meetings every other week with direct reports and an ongoing weekly routine with colleagues in other regions to discuss projects. Some of slots were designated as times he would informally engage internal clients, often portfolio managers and risk professionals, and check in on completed and ongoing development projects. To make engagement an ingrained practice, we closely monitored adherence to the weekly target.  At the same time, I assigned Max “homework” designed to gather information about his colleagues. For example, he had to ask a colleague to describe their current work priorities. During the coaching sessions we reviewed the information he gathered. Max began to see how much he had learned and how valuable this information was. The idea of gathering of information that could then be applied to decisions appealed to the scientist in him.

STEP 2 Skill development – Once the allocation of time and data gathering were put in place we began working on skill development. Max now had a forum to practice skills, such as active listening, feedback and coaching. We worked incrementally, teaching a basic skill till it could be successfully applied. It was important to have realistic goals at this stage. Most piano students will not master Rachmaninov’s concertos (I googled that) and will never need to. To improve and make an impact, Max and my other clients generally needed to learn and apply some very basic skills in a consistent fashion.  Keep in mind that most of Max’s colleagues and direct reports were wired similarly to him. So, Max knowing his direct reports’ goals, providing them with clear feedback and career support made him the best manager his people ever had.  Also, when Max engaged in conversations (versus emails) with his colleagues to define and structure work, he got high marks for collaboration.  Essentially, all needed skills were attainable.

To conclude, highly technical leaders have become an increasingly important talent pool.  I have learned that improving collaboration and management skills first involves making changes in the amount of time spent directly interacting with colleagues. This change provides opportunities to learn more about others and practice new skills.

Please contact me directly if you have any questions or if you want to share your own experiences in this area.

Avi Shatzkes Ph.D.

[email protected]

914 714-0776