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Growth Not Power: Developing In-house Tech Leaders

  • 14 March 2023

People with expertise in technology are in high commercial demand. But there is even greater need for a scarce group among these tech experts: tech leaders. Such leaders are not only experts in a particular domain, but can also create a tech vision, inspiring their organization to pursue it with commitment. 

Companies are struggling to meet their needs for tech leaders. To hire people already equipped with the right skills, they must compete with other firms in a small and very expensive pool. However, there is another approach: to develop leadership talent among in-house technical experts, creating a development pipeline that can produce tech leaders at various degrees of seniority.

Home-grown tech leaders bring many benefits – for instance, they are immersed in their company’s environment, have already proven their potential, and can be more loyal than external hires. In addition, outstanding in-house tech leaders help a company attract top external candidates; good people attract more good people.

To successfully nurture tech leaders, it is essential to bear in mind that they are not traditional business leaders, rising from a business-oriented education through people-oriented management roles. Tech experts tend to differ from traditional managers in their capacities and motivations, and often do not fit into traditional leadership programs. And if organizations expect tech experts to conform to programs and roles that do not suit them, these highly skilled professionals have many other options.

In this article, we offer ideas for guiding in-house tech people toward leadership roles, bearing in mind their areas of competence, personality, and motivational drivers. Our observations draw from our consulting experience for a global company with strong tech leadership needs, as well as Egon Zehnder’s engagements with executives in firms across the world.

What Makes Tech Experts Tick

To identify leadership potential, stimulate interest in leadership, and develop leadership skills among tech experts calls for understanding this group. Without an understanding of experts’ personalities and motivations, even the best-intentioned attempts at development can go wrong.

Among traditional management candidates, socializing and connecting is a strong skill. These aspiring leaders are often eager to gain and exercise power and to climb the career ladder of formal promotion. By contrast, while tech leaders must be able to influence peers, exercise authority as they pursue a technical vision, and serve as senior figures in their organization, their mindsets are not those of standard business leaders.

Take the example of a top user interface designer working for a leading electric vehicle start-up. His user interface and user experience work was so outstanding that the CEO brought him into public-facing events. Soon he was engaging frequently with the company’s many stakeholders and taking on the responsibility of managing multiple projects beyond his core domain. The expanded role and publicity didn’t suit him, so he resigned. The CEO was shocked. The designer had been given great opportunities – so why had he left?

The answer begins with a grasp of tech expertise. In our analysis, we found that high-performing tech experts tended to cluster around a specific personality profile. To a strong degree, these experts are inquisitive, offering up ideas and solutions, and proactive in acquiring new tech knowledge. They are eager to create original work of excellent quality, and attentive to data and reason rather than the views of authority figures.

By contrast, high-performing tech experts are not as strong in interpersonal sensitivity and interest in commerce. Nonetheless, such experts tend to be collaborative and not indifferent to financial considerations.
Such personality features underpin our finding that technical experts often have three key motivational drivers:

  • They seek achievement. They want to solve hard problems, create new things, and drive innovative changes. 
  • They desire growth – learning new technologies, refining their skills, and developing deep knowledge in their area. 
  • They hope to be recognized for their contributions, respected as trusted advisors and tech gurus.

We find it just as revealing to note what does not drive these experts. Unlike many of their colleagues from traditional management backgrounds, they do not gain particular satisfaction from exercising the power to control or influence people. They are often not highly motivated by the desire to be formally recognized with promotions. They are not impelled by a strong need to develop connections with others, and they are not driven by a craving for job security.

Advice for Developing Tech Leaders

Given these findings about personality and motivation, the classic managerial path is not ideal for tech experts. Advancement to a leadership role brings considerable human responsibilities that may get in the way of experts’ pursuit of what they value, such as learning new technologies and solving hard technical problems. In exchange, the new role gives them more of what they do not especially value and are not good at, including developing influential relationships with colleagues. In short, tech experts may experience their “promotion” to leadership as a demotion in work satisfaction.

By contrast, a well-informed tech leadership program can guide experts sensitively toward new roles. For example, we worked with an extremely talented expert, whose capacities to integrate important knowledge beyond his area made him an appealing candidate to lead an innovative team. His company knew that he was no aspiring MBA, and that his technical interests would need to be respected. When he took on team leader responsibility, a colleague assisted him with traditional leadership tasks. And his company ensured that he could always spend significant time with tech peers on tough engineering challenges.

We also observe that global tech companies founded by tech experts tend to have great success in nurturing tech leaders. Common values of these organizations include innovation over traditional methods, speedy change instead of bureaucracy, flat structure rather than hierarchy, autonomy in place of micromanagement, and passionate commitment instead of tactical career advancement. When a company shows respect for such values, it may be more successful in growing its own tech leaders.

Leadership thinking about how to guide in-house tech experts towards leadership is still in its early stages. Still, our experiences suggest the following advice for developing in-house tech leaders.

A tech leadership program can thrive if it:

  • Offers strong collegial support in management, appointing a suitable peer or deputy to help newly promoted tech experts manage people and interactions. 
  • Gives tech leaders opportunities to make technical decisions. This keeps their own professional satisfaction high as well as benefiting their company. Continued technical immersion tends to be more motivating than opportunities for formal promotion along traditional managerial paths. While tech experts value enhancing their skills, making contributions and being recognized for their expertise, they may not be strongly motivated by traditional paths of advancement – unlike many colleagues with business backgrounds
  • Facilitates a community of tech peers. Tech leaders, like other tech experts, are stimulated by sharing knowledge, ideas and values with like-minded colleagues as they solve problems together. We have noted that companies founded by tech people tend to be hothouses for tech leadership. Companies that are not as tech-oriented can learn from this approach by allowing tech people to form a community within the organization. This prevents them from getting “lost” by working solely among peers whose mindsets differ from their own.
  • Selectively coaches young experts. For young technical experts who are flexible and not yet settled in their professional identity, professional coaching may help them to shape their identity and explore their potential. Such candidate leaders can develop a holistic picture of their individual strengths, development areas, motives, preferences and values. They may find that they are in the uncommon group of tech experts who gain satisfaction from traditional leadership roles. Note that we emphasize selective coaching. It is unwise to provide coaching for all talented young tech experts. For many experts, coaching is not the exciting invitation it is for traditional aspirant managers. Experts are often confident in their current mindset and motivation, wanting to contribute more while still staying who they are.

In short, companies can grow in-house tech leaders by respecting and working with the capacities and needs of these scarce experts. While tech experts do not tend to seek power over others, they do want to contribute and grow – and to work among peers who seek the same.  

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