From bench to boardroom

Many businesses that rely on intellectual capital and research and development (R&D) struggle to convert their key innovators into leaders. How can businesses tackle the issue of up-skilling their technical people, turning engineers and scientists into future leaders?

It does happen. Technical experts do go on to become corporate leaders. In January 2014, General Motors appointed Mary Barra, an electrical engineer, to the post of chief executive. Norbert Reithofer, Chairman of BMW, was once a researcher at the Institute for Machine Tools in Munich while Pascal Soriot, the CEO of AstraZeneca, has a background in veterinary science.

And yet the decision to promote specialist staff into managerial and leadership roles is still approached with trepidation in many quarters where it is thought that technicians and scientists lack the personal skills to move into leadership.

Writing on the website of science journal Nature, Jessica Seeliger, Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York, says: “As researchers, we are trained to work within a rational and methodical framework. But when it comes to running our labs and managing people, we have to rely on our gut feelings, our limited know-how from mentoring a few students or our observations of our previous advisors. We can often feel ill-prepared.”

And yet, large corporates reliant on specialist R&D teams have a need for fresh leaders and a preference that they should come from within. The issue is one of ensuring that techies go from the bench to management with the right skills, such as being able to work with different personality types, organizational strategy, prioritizing and sticking to budgets.

Paul Kearns, Chairman of the Institute of HR Maturity, and author of Professional HR: Evidence Based People Management and Development,* says organizations end up facing a “classic dilemma” of whether to keep highflying researchers in technical roles or promote them into management. And with that comes a question of what to do about training.

One route is to introduce candidates to a “competency framework”  – a blueprint for setting down the skills and performance levels expected. And then, use a fourstep process to evaluate the outcomes of the training.

But Kearns, who is working with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development on a human capital reporting framework for the UK Commission on Employment and Skills, says the model is flawed. He says the core competencies theory, written by Indian academic CK Prahalad and US colleague Gary Hamel, fails to measure the “baseline” learning and development needs of individuals and organizations before training gets under way. Competency frameworks, Kearns says, tend to become “off the shelf” and one-size-fits-all blueprints for prospective managers that fail to address the “learning needs analysis” of employees. For this, Kearns draws on the work of US statistician Edward Deming, credited with the Deming Cycle of change management, which argues that improvements cannot be delivered if baseline needs are not evaluated first.

“You have a technical specialist, say an engineering manager, who has great technical expertise and a wealth of experience but is obviously deficient in the range of interpersonal skills required to run a team and instil a certain sense of esprit de corps,” says Kearns.

“She might sound like just the sort of character who could do with being exposed to a different view of the world on an outdoor, team-building weekend. However, if that is the way you normally send managers on such programs you are in danger of completely missing out the learning needs analysis and design phases and moving straight into delivery.”

Working this way is a sign of “organizational immaturity,” says Kearns, and especially risky when training managers. But it’s important, he adds.

“You may have to admit that you have poor leadership and the baseline measures demand that you evaluate your existing leadership capability. It’s evidence based and helps organizations face up to the truth.”

* P. Kearns, Professional HR: Evidence Based People Management and Development, Routledge, 2013.

The article was written by:

  • Gavin Hinks

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