As they get promoted and grow as leaders, CIOs must let go of the need to be technical experts.


“Are you going to be a technical expert or are you going to be a leader?” I have asked this very simple question to many of my CIO clients over the years, and it always sparks a great debate. This question goes to the heart of Marshall Goldsmith’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Every CIO knows that one of the things that got them where they are was some type of expertise. For me it was networking and infrastructure operations. For others it was architecture, and still others excelled in application development. Whatever path brought you to the role of IT leader, being an expert was an essential component.

The CIO Problem with Technical Expertise

Most successful IT leaders recognize that as we grow as leaders, we must be willing to let go of our need to be experts. Expertise can change from an asset to a liability very quickly. There are three basic challenges that expertise creates for leadership growth. The first two involve simple capacity, and the third is more fundamental to real leadership – our ability to get the most out of others.

“Developing our soft skills takes work and energy, and it means devoting less energy to maintaining our technical expertise.”


Broaden Your Leadership Focus

The first obstacle is obvious. The higher we rise in an organization, the broader our portfolio of responsibilities grows, and with each step it becomes harder to maintain our personal standard of expertise on which we’ve built our career. We have finite mental capacity and time, so must make choices. If we focus our mental capacity and time on maintaining our technical depth, we won’t be giving our increased breadth the attention it requires. Conversely, by broadening our focus, we make room for new experts to emerge to fill the void our absence creates.

Make Room for Soft Skills Development

This leads to the second challenge: leadership roles require new skills. We disdainfully call them “soft skills.” One of greatest obstacles for emerging IT leaders is a failure to appreciate how hard it can be to develop these “soft skills.” This is not unique to IT. Every profession where technical expertise is required faces this same challenge – Accounting, Engineering, Medicine, Law, etc. Developing our soft skills takes work and energy, and it means devoting less energy to maintaining our technical expertise.

Foster Innovation from Your Team

While the first two challenges are important, they pale in comparison to the third challenge: leaders who try to remain experts often stifle creativity and innovation. Leadership is less about having answers, and it is more about asking questions. Experts produce answers, so leaders who pride themselves on their expertise are likely to focus more on answering questions than asking them. True leaders maximize their value when they develop new experts who think of solutions the leader would never have imagined.

Strong leaders possess the confidence to acknowledge and embrace their own ignorance, but would-be leaders who wish to remain experts often project an attitude of false confidence or arrogance. This often masks self-doubt or insecurity. By perpetuating the image of having all the answers, the devotees of expertise limit their ability to lead. They create environments where creativity is risky. Team members will hesitate to bring their solutions forward, because they fear it will conflict with the leader’s ideas. Even if you possess the super-human mental capacity to maintain your technical expertise as you grow your leadership skills; you must be willing to relinquish the mantle of expert. If you don’t, you will stifle those you are trying to lead.  

From ‘My Idea’ to ‘Our Idea’

Letting go of expertise doesn’t mean that we can’t have ideas or suggestions to address the challenges we confront. It does mean being careful how we present those ideas. The military has a great tradition that is worth adopting. Whenever a military work group is examining a problem, they present their ideas in reverse order of seniority. This ensures that the experts’ ideas are revealed without the risk of filtering or altering these ideas to align with organizational or political pressure. This approach allows competing perspectives to be exposed and incorporated into a final answer. It lets the most senior leader integrate the various experts’ perspectives to make the best, most well-informed decision. Often, when the leader finally does speak, it is to ask clarifying questions or to summarize his/her understanding of what has been presented.

I once attended a meeting where this technique was used, and the solution that the experts developed over the course of the meeting was almost identical to what the CIO had identified coming in to the meeting. However, when it came to his turn to present his ideas, he simply asked questions and encouraged others to do the same. After the meeting, I asked him why he hadn’t presented his ideas to show his support and the team’s alignment. He responded, “Because then it would have been my idea. Now it is our idea.” He went on to explain that the probability of success is directly proportionate to the team’s ownership of the idea.

Leadership doesn’t mean you become a technical idiot. In fact, it is imperative for IT leaders to stay current. Maintaining technical awareness ensures that you can identify trends that may impact our organizations. It also helps you maintain credibility with the next generation. Letting go of your deep subject matter expertise for broader understanding is a critical step in our leadership growth. With every step up the leadership ladder you must be willing to step further from the role of expert. As you grow as a leader, you must be willing to trust the technical depth of those you lead.

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