Long back, Bell Labs conducted an interesting study, closely watching the common characteristics among a group of technical professionals who rose to the top. The exercise revealed nine key factors outside just technical competence that differentiated brilliant technical folks from the masses.
Taking Initiative is about accepting responsibility above and beyond our stated job. It is about volunteering for additional activities and promoting new ideas. The concept of initiative begins by looking for technical and other opportunities in the organization and volunteering for them. Initiative is also about two other things dealing constructively with criticism and planning for the future.
Concept of cognitive development is about understanding the interplay of technology and trends in how they are getting deployed. It is also about recognizing the business eco-system in which technology works. The importance of consequence thinking is very critical. It asks us to look beyond the immediate deliverable of a task and it is about asking who will be impacted by my work, what is the end state? People in our industry just think in terms of modules and seldom ask where is it going, who is my customer and more importantly – who is my customer’s customer? Cognition is a key faculty that determines how much we are able to read patterns, make sense of things. Refining cognitive skills helps us to go beyond stated needs of our customers to explore unstated needs.
We tend to think of networking in a social sense. As one grows higher in life, we are often as powerful as is our network. Building a professional network requires us to step out of the comfort zone to look at whom we can learn from. Quite often, and more as one progresses in life, the learning has to come from unusual sources. The interesting thing about benefiting from a network is that it works like a savings bank. We need to deposit in to it before we withdraw. We all have heard about how important internal and external knowledge communities are. Networking opportunities and open many doors.
Next to networking is development of leadership skills. Many technical people associate it with “management” and shy away from developing key leadership skills like communication, negotiation, influencing, inter-personal skills, business knowledge, building spokespersonship and so on. Take for instance negotiating as a skill. Imagine that we are an individual professional contributor. Why should we learn to negotiate? Tomorrow, our organization becomes member of a standard body and we have to represent the organization as a technical expert. We will find our self-needing to negotiate with powerful lobbies that represent a competing viewpoint or a rival standard. Unless we have honed our capability alongside our hacking skills, we will be at a complete loss. Yet, we do not discover our negotiating capability one fine morning. We need to work on it from an early stage. Negotiating for internal resources is becoming another critical need. We can choose to remain an individual professional contributor but from time to time, we have to create mind share in the organization where resources are limited and claimants are many. Establishing thought leadership is another key requirement of growth and independent of whether we want to be a technical person or grow to be a manager, we need to develop as a leader who can influence others.
If we ever tried to solve our test paper “collaboratively” it was called copying. We spent all our school and college life fiercely competing to get the engineering school and seat of our choice. Then comes the workplace and we suddenly realize that it is not individual brilliance but collective competence that determines excellence. Collaboration is the most important part of our work life. Along with collaboration come issues of forming, norming, storming, performing stages of team life. Capability to create interdependencies, capability to encourage dialogue and dissension, knowledge sharing become critical to professional existence.
The best leaders are also great followers. We can be great leaders if we learn and imbibe the values of followership. Everywhere we go there are courses that teach leadership. Nowhere we will find a business school teaching us followership. Yet, when solving complex problems in life, we have to embrace what is called “situational leadership”. We have to be comfortable being led by others and must learn to trust leadership. Many people have issues reporting to a test lead as a developer, or being led by a business analyst or a user interface designer. In different parts of a project life cycle, people of varied competence must lead. We must be comfortable when some one else is under the strobe light and must have the greatness to be led by people younger than us, people with a different background or a point of view.
This is the hardest to explain. It begins with appreciating why we are doing what we are doing. Quite often, we find people having a very narrow view of their tasks; many do not see the criticality of their task vis-à-vis a larger goal. So, a tester in a project sees his job as testing code or a module designer’s worldview begins and ends with the module. He does not appreciate the importance of writing meaningful documentation because he thinks it is not his job or does not realize that five years from now, another person will have to maintain it. We have heard about the story of two people who were laying bricks. A passer by asked the first one as to what he was doing. He replied, “I am laying bricks”. He asked the second one. He replied, “I am building a temple”. This story explains what perspective is and how the resultant attitude and approach to work can be vastly different.
As technical people grow up, they often feel unconnected to the larger organization. Some people develop a knack of exploring it, finding spots of influence, tracking changes, creating networks and in the process they learn how to make the organization work for them. The organization is not outside of us. If we know it well, we can get it to work for us when we want. Think of the difference between one Project Manager and another or one technical lead from another. One person always gets the resources he needs, the other one struggle. One person knows who is getting freed from which client engagement and ahead of time blocks the person. Larger the organization, higher is the need to develop organization savvy. It begins with questioning ones knowledge about the larger business dynamic, knowing who does what, tracking the work of other groups, knowing leaders outside of my own sphere and a host of other things. Importantly, it is also about tracking what the competitors of the organization are doing and keeping abreast of directional changes.
Show and Tell
Show and tell is about oral and written communication. Some engineers look down upon the need for communication skills and associate it with people who make up for poor programming prowess. It is the greatest misconception. Think of the best Chief Technology Officers of companies like Sun, Microsoft, Oracle or IBM. Their number one job is evangelizing. If they cannot forcefully present their technologies, nothing else will matter. So, every engineer must pay attention to improving the ability to present in front of people, develop the ability to ask questions and handle objections. In a sense, if we cannot sell the technology we create, it has no value. So, building salespersonship is a key requirement for technical excellence.
Based on the presentation made by Subroto Bagchi, Chief Operating Officer of MindTree Consulting. © MindTree Consulting.
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