Has Your Organisation Got Its “Technical Mastery” In The Wrong Place?

This month I’m looking at a common reason why organisations aren’t as effective as they should be…

...it has too much “technical mastery” where it should have “general management”

Do you ever see these symptoms?

  • The Boss is in the workplace fixing something others should be fixing.
  • You are encouraged to focus on today and worry about longer term things later.
  • In team and individual meetings with your Boss, more time is spent on what happened yesterday and little time on longer term preventative measures.

The likely reason is buried deep in the organisation’s culture driven by its reward and recognition and promotion policies.

In many organisations I have been involved with, (often analysing their strengths and improvement areas) it is very common for senior managers to reach their positions of accountability and responsibility through their past ability of understanding the technical aspects of the business. For example, if a company makes “widgets” and somebody knows everything about making widgets and are successful in being promoted, this leads to;


Although, I am talking about large organisations, we can take learning from SME’s where over 80% fail within the first three years because they are excellent at producing the product or service, but they are not capable of managing the business and/or having an entrepreneurial flair to work on long term strategy too. (ref. The E Myth Revisited by Michael W. Gerber)

You can take this thinking and apply the concepts to much larger organisations.

The Leadership and Management focus and day to day activity within an organisation should, across the spectrum of employees be represented in equal measure.

  • The technical ability to delivery or produce the product or service.
  • The managerial attention required to look at performance and trends and make appropriate decisions to support continuous improvement and problem solve issues to the root cause.
  • Strategic thinking to have “Vision” and plot a journey for company performance and growth over 1,3 5 years plus.

The Venn diagram opposite highlights the three key elements and shows the “time zone/shift” various people involved in each activity should be in.

  • In the now (fixing issues, putting out fires and “doing the doing”)
  • In the past (looking at what’s happened in the recent past (driven by data) and looking for improvements)
  • In the future (having a vision and longer-term plans)

This all seems so obvious, but disproportionate amounts of time are spent on understanding what has happened in the organisation to improve it and planning out the next 3, 4, 5 years whilst involving the right people to start to implement improvements.

This manifests itself within the middle management spending too much time fixing things in the business that others should be doing. This has a double negative effect.

  1. It lets people that should be working on the issue stand back and let the boss takeover.
  2. It takes up unnecessary time that the boss should be working on future opportunities or analysing and driving continuous improvements.

Why does this happen?

Often it is because “it’s what people know best!” Companies that promote people from within the organisation all too often promote people based upon their technical ability and do not test or analysis their basic ability to manage and lead. Not scientifically anyway, a group of people might get together and have an opinion!

You may have seen examples?

A good technician who makes widgets is proactive, well mannered, speaks up in team meetings and supports management thinking.

An opportunity arises and she gets promoted to Team Manager because she deserves it. But the business ends up losing a great technician and someone needs to be trained to a very high standard to replace her. OK its possible. But who trains the new guy? The newly promoted Team Manager? Who is now being trained in the “new ropes” covering management tasks and activities? How does she do both? Well, she does her best but its reinforcing technical mastery and she is struggling to stand back and embrace different thinking, so she focuses on what she knows……how to make widgets and hopes that the management skills will follow (her boss does too, because he was in the same place five years ago!)

Before long, all managers have followed this route. Opportunities to attend training events have occurred and they have been very good, but the magnetic of “normal” pulls them back to the old and existing culture when they return to work. NOTHING REALLY CHANGES.

The best examples of good practice I have seen is when managers, especially in their early years are move around frequently from one managerial role to another to stop technical mastery taking over!

Who said you need to be an Accountant to manage the Accounts Department and who said you need to be an Engineer to manage the Engineering Department?

In nearly every case it gets in the way. If a manager is truly developed in good management capabilities a manager will have the skills and processes to manage any group of people. It’s simply a preconceived notion that you need to be an expert. You only need to develop a certain level of understanding. There should be enough expertise in the business for the manager to call upon. Using others technical mastery inside the business is engaging and time effective.

What can be done?

1. Develop a top-level promotion and continuity strategy based upon the model below.

The model above shows the three basic levels in an organisation. Senior managers, middle management and the workforce. Alongside the triangle the table is depicting the percentage of time in each category people should focus on working on the organisation’s capability. For example, working on improvements in the business and not merely fixing things for today. Those skills should be within the workforce and part of their 90% of normal daily practise.

I personally coach middle and senior managers and one of the fundamental questions I ask them is to measure, using their diaries, what they have done across a week and a month that contributes to the percentages in the model. It is rarely close to the figures above.

Note; That is not to say they should not go to the workplace and talk and support people. But definitely not do what the workforce should be doing!

2. Promote people on their management potential using psychometric testing and focused interviewing.

These are the management competencies an organisation should be analysing when looking for the skills of a manager.

NOTE: Technical Mastery is only 1/8 of the package!

Priority setting

  • Thinks in terms of creating quality and value for customers internally and externally.
  • Defines who his/her customers are; seeks to understand their needs; sets priorities with these in mind.
  • Recognises the most important issues; makes effective plans; gets resources in place to achieve key objectives.

 Works with the end results in mind, despite obstacles.

Thinking and problem-solving

  • Sorts through complex data; gathers other relevant viewpoints; identifies important issues; thinks through alternatives.
  • Integrates intuition and data from a variety of sources; makes well-reasoned conclusions and develops a solid plan of action.
  • Learns from success and mistakes to solve problems better.

Recognises developing problems and handles them well.

Initiative and follow-through

  • Gets going on important priorities; overcomes obstacles and takes appropriate risks; keeps moving towards objectives.
  • Handles multiple priorities well.
  • Sets specific, stretching objectives and meets or exceeds them.

Finds improved ways of getting results.


  • Recognises opportunities; forms a vision of what can be achieved, then challenges self and others to get the desired result.
  • Champions ideas and people to get breakthrough results.

Uses a variety of resources effectively.

Working effectively with others

  • Demonstrate integrity and high personal standards.
  • Respects and works effectively with diverse people; enables all to contribute their best work.
  • Builds and maintains productive working relationships, even in difficult situations.

Works across organisations to develop the best approaches and get the best results.


  • Seeks first to understand, then to be understood.
  • Organises and expresses thoughts clearly and concisely, both in speaking and writing so that others can understand.
  • Expresses ideas in ways that build commitment to them; even when unfamiliar or unpopular, involves and fully informs others in a timely way.

Recognises cultural differences and communicates in ways that work.

Creativity and innovation

  • Takes a broad view; finds meaningful connections; uses both logic and intuition to define problems and solutions.
  • Goes beyond the accepted ideas; finds new improvement opportunities; generates ways to get better results.
  • Searches out and reapplies proven ideas and methods to new situations.

Translates new ideas into workable solutions; encourages others to do the same.

Technical mastery

  • Achieves technical mastery and develops it in others.
  • Converts technical skill into practical applications to better meet consumer needs.

Integrates linkages with the business process of suppliers and customers.

3. Encourage a time balanced approach.

In all meetings, team and individual, and general discussions repeat the mantra of;

“Balancing working in the business and on the business”.

Where on the business means spending time “building the organisation’s capability” both in personal skills of individuals and teams, but also processes and systems to promote a culture of continuous improvement and not merely firefighting…

Stop being a Firefighter be a Fire Preventer!!

Martin Gummery is an expert in Transformational Change and Business Improvement. He is the founder and Managing Director of NewLeaf International. He still coaches managers and leaders in various organisations across the world.

If you would like to know more about how NewLeaf International helps organisations with Business Improvement and significant Organisational Development programmes, please make contact for an informal chat.

Martin Gummery, Managing Director, NewLeaf International Ltd

Tel: 01905 425209

Email: headoffice@newleafinter.co.uk