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Boost your leadership IQ: Transition from technical contributor to leader

Mark Hordes, senior partner with Allen Austin, shares a road map on how to successfully transition from a technical contributor to a high performing leader
Boost your leadership IQ: Transition from technical contributor to leader

Does this sound familiar?

John is a senior engineer at a global energy company with an exceptional track record of outstanding technical performance across multiple projects. His performance reviews consistently identify John as a “high potential” and he was recently promoted to the head of the company’s engineering operations with eight direct reports and a total of 250 staff.

Not surprisingly, John is failing in his new role. His most recent performance review indicates John needs to more effectively manage his team, think strategically, address complexity issues, effectively coach others, and improve his overall communication and leadership skills.

After 12 months in his new role, John quickly realizes that his technical skills and prior accomplishments may not be all that he needs to help him move forward successfully as a leader.

The war for top leadership talent still rages across all industry sectors despite the recent downturn in oil prices, but the question remains: How do “high potential” technical professionals transition into great leaders? This question is especially critical within technical roles in the oil industry where using data, design knowledge and logical reasoning would be enough to ensure career success as an individual contributor. Yet, these skills aren’t enough to thrive in a manager role and become a top performing leader.

Although no one is immune from protracted layoffs in a company, it is safe to assume, the high potential performers seem to withstand the ‘test of time” longer that average performers who are frequently the first to be downsized.

But wait, you say, “I know some great people that have also been cut!” Yes that’s true, but let’s shed some light on what a high performer does versus what an average performer doesn’t do, so you can better prepare yourself to be successful in a leadership role. Adopting high performance behaviors also help you stay within a “safer zone” of defying the odds when the waves of restructuring change hit your company.

“Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”

I have always been intrigued by the statement on my car side mirror that says, “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Auto experts who have reflected on this statement indicate that it’s about misperception of space, distorted perceptions of distance, and how light is reflected from many positions.

These are all important driving tips that ideally keep us safe, but can also provide value when applied to how an individual performance is viewed in a company.

Let’s assume for a moment that your line of sight is on a promotion to leadership role. You have worked hard at your craft, possess great technical skills and you are perceived by your peers and supervisor to be at the top of your game. As you step back, you know something is missing as others in your company have been promoted into leadership roles with sometimes only limited success. Why is this the case?

The technical professional has to learn new leadership and communications skills, commitment–based behaviors, and processes to effectively manage people and global teams. In addition, overall emotional intelligence must be sharpened for the technical professional to ultimately be an effective leader who can manage a diverse group of professionals.

Apply the ABC’s

Top performers understand the power of communication which includes verbal, nonverbal, and inter-personal. They can translate technical information into simple terms that help others make a connection on an emotional and tactical level. This can be accomplished by learning and practicing your ABC’s.

Articulate the future – where are you taking us? People need a sense of predictability and insight into the future. Communicate this with confidence and also share on a personal level “what it means for them?”

Example:  “I know you are all wondering how we will accomplish all these complex tasks on such a short time frame? Let me share with you five examples of how it can be accomplished if we all work together.”

Be the example   – using personal stories makes a powerful impression on others. Use examples from your life to highlight where things went well and when they didn’t, and the lessons learned.

Example: “Just like you, I have worked on projects where it felt like the odds were always stacked against me. Hard to get others to commit, resources constrained and the team I had to work with were always working against each other. There were many days when I felt like throwing in the towel! But I stuck with it, and here are the 10 things that I learned about myself in the process that ultimately helped me find the confidence and commitment to fight against the odds and win.  Perhaps these ideas help can help you as well.

Consider other’s needs, wants and expectations – People you are communicating with must see the value and impact from their own perspective. You need to understand what drives and motivates your direct reports.  What is important to them? What is worrying them?

Example: “Thank you for sharing your needs, wants and expectations with me. I appreciated your transparency and honesty in being open about how you feel about the project and challenges your team has in meeting its goals, targets and key responsibilities. Let’s take each one of your key ideas and brainstorm together what can be done to decrease some of these constraints, and talk about which ones are within our zone of control, which ones we have to influence others to change, and the ones that for the moment, we have no control over. How does that sound to you?”


Although there are tons of books that have been written on the “Art of Leadership” below are the topics and skills that I have found to be most essential during over the course of 25 years working with technical experts who transitioned to successful leadership roles with energy companies around the world.

Vanguard Communications

Learning how to flex your personal communications style that aligns with others perspective, values and communications filters.

Managing Change

Learning the skills of change management from assessing readiness, stakeholder engagement, involvement and reinforcement

Creating the High Performance Team

Understanding what makes high performance teams really tick and fostering group dynamics that engages and gets others committed

Selling Services and Solutions

Insight and understanding in how to sell the “invisible.” Professional services are different, way different than product selling.

Behavior-based Leadership Essentials

At the heart of a “Commitment-based Leader” is the ability to understand behaviors and to create an environment where the leader is focusing on specific behaviors that are operating “now” and what behaviors need to be fostered to be successful.

Measuring Outcomes and Results

Process, organizational, change, financial, strategic and customer metrics is the bottom-line of business reality. You don’t have to be a CPA to become competent in measurement.

The Six Golden Rules of Trust

Trust building skills are essential in every aspect of a leader’s life.  Create the capability to know how to build trust with external and internal customers, once obtained you can create relationships that last a lifetime.

These core skills provide you with a roadmap to follow in transitioning from a technical expert into a leadership role. No journey is ever completely free of obstacles and unforeseen circumstances. What is required, though, is the ability to prepare yourself, so that your compass is always facing “true north”   by putting one foot in front of another, and making a positive and sustained effort in becoming a successful leader….good luck!


About the Author: Mark Hordes

Mark Hordes is a senior partner with Allen Austin in Houston, Texas, and is a Speaker, Leadership Consultant, Seminar and Workshop facilitator, and, best-selling business author. Mark was a 2014 Houston Business Journal Honoree, “Who’s Who in Energy” recipient.

Mr. Hordes received his BS from the University of Houston, MBA and MS in Organizational Behavior from Aurora University, and is a graduate of The American Graduate School of International Management, “Thunderbird.”

Contact Mark at:   

713 416 1781


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