Are your technical skills holding you back?

About 20 years ago I found myself starting in a job surrounded by 25 people with science and engineering degrees. I walked into that silent place to see people sitting quietly reading, typing, or mixing chemicals in a lab. My task was to get them working as an effective unit. Productivity had not really changed in 5 years. Before I arrived, this group were all reporting to the Technical Director, who felt that they would simply “sort themselves out”.

Why wouldn’t they? They were all technically skilled people.

The biggest issue was not their technical skills. The real problem was that the individuals had not changed in more than 5 years.

Let me explain.

People within the team were not a team. Each person had created their own view of what they needed to do in order to succeed. Each person. Individually. Technical proficiency was applauded as the key to success as an individual. Each person had their process, their goals, their tasks.

As a group, though, there was no sense of team. Sure, they were friendly enough. The group of individuals had not naturally developed collaboration or teamwork. While individual success was the norm, nothing changed. What would be the point of helping someone else? That only strengthened their position as being more technically skilled, right?

I structured the team into work groups where the measure of success was based on shared outcomes. Each work group benefitted from sharing ideas, helping each other, and contributing to a group objective. Over a few months this was broadened to overall shared objectives where the work groups contributed to whole team goals.

Sounds great?

The fights began before lunch on day 1.

Who would lead each work group? Surely the only measure of capability was based on technical skill? Who had the highest degree? Who had been there the longest? Who sounded the cleverest?

Who could show they were the smartest in the room?

When I looked to appoint team leaders there was a revolt from some.

“I’m just as qualified, why aren’t I the obvious team leader?”

“Haven’t you read my resume? I have been here longer!”

Or even better, “All the problems were caused by others; my work is perfect”.

Do any of these sound familiar?

In watching the team and how they interacted with each other, as the new guy without the history, it seemed obvious that the clear leaders were not the necessarily the technically qualified team members. They were the ones who listened. The ones who asked people to explore their ideas. The ones who pulled people out of silent solitude and made them smile.

In consultation with the team before I made the team leader appointments they eventually agreed to try things in a new way.

It took only three months for productivity to double, laughter and fun become part of the way the team worked, and people telling me that it had always been that way!

Nothing had changed in the technical skills the individuals had. What had changed is that the individuals were now working as a team; supporting each other for everyone to achieve together.

Fast forward to today and this has held true for me in more than 40 workplaces. The leaders who get results are those who don’t rely on how clever they are. They aren’t the ones who can do things faster or better themselves. The greatest outcomes have always come from people who unite people behind a common goal. The listeners who shape direction through effective collaboration.

It matters that you have technical skills, don’t get me wrong!

Your technical skills can get you in the door. A good CV might get you a job. A reputation for great collaborative attitude and the ability to bring people together for results is what builds your career.

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Nathan Jones

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