technical stars
August 2, 2018

Tips from experience: Protecting your less appreciated technical stars

By Paul Laughlin

Having given plenty of airtime to the benefit of books & podcasts, I’d like to turn to tips from experience. These are lessons learnt by leaders from practical on-the-job experience. Often involving getting it wrong. In this post, I’ll share my advice on protecting your less appreciated technical stars.

Let me explain what I mean by a couple of those terms. By ‘less appreciated‘, I mean team members who may not be respected outside of your team. Those who might suffer during an annual performance management cycle.

By ‘technical stars‘, I mean team members who have highly developed or just rarer technical knowledge or skills. Often these may be within the less sexy functions, for example data management or reporting.

Protecting staff: isn’t that paternalistic?

Many years ago, I can recall being challenged by a CEO. He suggested I was overly protective of my rapidly growing team & needed to avoid being paternalistic.

Let me first acknowledge that there was some truth to his challenge. At the time I was leading a team that I had created and grown organically. Most of the members of my team had been recruited as graduates and I had worked with them to develop their roles.

As a father myself, there is always a tendency to be paternalistic or to emotionally act as if your team are family. However, I’ve also seen leaders who focussed on being objectively detached. They may have managed upwards very effectively, but most struggled to motivate or retain their own staff.

So, there is a balance to be struck. Caring for the well-being of your team and wanting to see them fulfil their potential is a good thing. Just beware of it blinding you to issues that need to be resolved, especially if you fall into the common trap of recruiting people like you. You should be open to hearing feedback on each team member’s delivery, attitude & behaviour. Don’t avoid giving negative feedback or consequences when those are appropriate.

The focus of this post, is on the specific challenge of technically able members of your team, who are not rated highly by other teams/leaders. There can be a number of reasons for this situation, but it may reflect a performance management system unsuited to valuing technical expertise. Too many businesses still ‘manage to the curve‘ or adjust people’s performance weighting based mainly on perception.

That approach may be appropriate for a pipeline of future general managers (e.g. the focus of Leadership Pipeline book). But, it rarely works well for more geeky members of a business, especially introverted individuals. My experience is that such team members need their managers to help them. Here are some of my lessons learnt on how to do that.

Technical stars: let them shine, even if they shun the limelight

One of the first steps that a manager should try, in this situation, is to increase the visibility of good technical work. Training in Softer Skills can help some more introverted analysts increase their visibility. By intentionally managing their priority stakeholders, some will manage to improve their perception.

This is not surprising as most analysts (all the way back to university) have been encouraged to focus on technical skills. Few have been counselled in the need to manage their personal brand, or navigate organisational politics.

However, this tactic will not work for all personalities, nor is it as easy for some roles. For example, data analysts or those managing data sourcing and quality, are often much less visible than insight analysts. Sometimes you can take opportunities to get them to present the results of team efforts, but often they hate it.

Another, less painful solution, can be to ensure outputs are named as coming from the full team of individuals involved. For example, a final insight report may have come from a ‘value chain‘ of work by a data analyst, statistical modeller, reporting analyst and insight analyst. All their names should be on the report and all should be invited to any presentation or recognition event.

It is crucial that customer insight leaders understand their production line, or value chain. Identifying the different skills and collaboration needed; to get from dirty data to critical insights. Understanding that should guide role design & team design. It should also guide leaders to be intentional about ensuring each skillset is valued, not just those considered more sexy.

Beware fashions in the world of data/analytics/insight. At the moment, it can be tempting to really value data scientists, data engineers or data artists. For that reason, be careful not to overlook the critical role of other people in your teams. Give time to identifying best practice in other skillsets and rewarding people who are excelling in less popular roles. For instance, market research, data quality management, campaign evaluation, customer insight generation.

Protecting your stars: serving your team means sometimes putting your foot down

Having said all that, there are also times to refuse to play the game. Although it is normally worthwhile navigating organisational politics, sometimes you have to take a stand. I can recall a handful of individuals who have worked for me or my clients. These fine people were very valuable to their businesses, but were not the personality types to be valued in those cultures.

During a few performance rating review meetings, I did need to sometimes take a stand. To insist, to my boss or peers, that these people contributed more than was generally recognised and deserved better ratings.

This is best defended as a crucial part of a successful operation. For the leader to state valued outputs and explain that those could not be delivered without that person. They are a critical skillset or knowledge (explained as too technical and backroom for others to see).

You cannot play this card too often. But sometimes it is needed. If you are going to be a leader who really makes a difference in your business, you must at times insist on protecting key people. Wise leaders know when & who.

The more you are able to see the way that each person contributed to team knowledge & delivery the better you will be. That is one reason why “management by walking about” is still relevant today. Human beings are social creatures, even the shy ones. Regularly visit your teams, sit in with analysts to chat over what they are working on and listen for conversations over lunch, coffee, beer.

People notice and remember those leaders they can trust. If you build a reputation as a leader who protects his stars and ensures they are stretched to achieve their best, people will want to work for you. Over the medium to long-term, being a leader people want to work for is more powerful than being the current rising star.

How have you protected your technical stars?

I hope those general reflections and memories have helped to spark your own thinking. Can you identify members of your team who are technically essential, but underrated by your business?

How can you best help them? I encourage you to give time to consider this. Getting the best out of your people and engendering a team spirit that people want to work in – is more valuable than any technology investment.

Why not go and talk to them now? Get closer to understanding their story, know what value they add & help them show it.

If other tactics have worked for you, please share them in our comment box below or on social media.