· Features

Making the transition from technical expert to professional leader - are organisations doing enough to help?

Organisations draw a high percentage of team-leaders from current employees in professional and technical roles.

But how do individuals end up in these senior roles, leading businesses, and what are the dangers? How can organisations ensure that technical experts are equipped with the skills needed to be leaders in the future?

Unplanned route to leadership

Professionals that have made a conscious decision to become a doctor, for example, will have followed a well established route-map through school, university, work experience, professional accreditation and so on.

Many professionals don't make the conscious choice to become a leader, it just tends to happen; gradual promotions - offering the benefits of greater seniority, recognition and more money - result in professionals finding themselves in positions of leadership, even if they don't have the desire or aptitude to succeed in such a role.

Flourishing in a leadership role can be a challenge, as it requires new perspectives, fresh knowledge and different skills. Success means leaving the comfort of existing professional and technical know-how, re-framing peer relationships, learning lots of new skills and being measured by a different criteria.

There are many high profile examples of individuals who have stumbled on this journey, often at considerable cost to personal credibility, well-being and teams they lead - which can then negatively impact financial results and customer relations too.

The 'failure' of which can be so overwhelming, that some new leaders never recover from the experience - or do so with significant scars. Whilst others may flourish in new leadership roles, this tends to be down to personal resourcefulness rather than proactive leadership management on behalf of organisations.

Chance leaders

Every organisation is structured around team-leaders, from the boardroom to the front line. It is the team-leaders, at every level, who transmit the strategic and cultural intent of the organisation and turn it into operational reality.

How well leaders perform is a key to organisational success, yet many companies leave it to chance rather than helping professionals prepare for such a role. In fact a recent Penna poll, of 120 senior HR professionals, found that the majority (80%) of respondents believed their organisation's leaders are drawn from their professional and technical ranks.

However, less than 20% believed that their organisation had a robust and effective process to transition staff into such leadership roles - showing the lack of support available to these 'have a go' leaders.

Organisational support

It's important that organisations support professionals in making the transition from technical expert to leader, as the ramifications of not doing so are potentially disastrous - from damaging personal confidence to overall team dissatisfaction, and customer loss to share price dips in worst case scenarios.

Therefore before businesses promote someone internally to a leadership position, they need to ask:


  • Will this person make a suitable leader? Do they need support in honing their leadership skills?
  • Will they be able to manage their peers effectively in their new leadership role?
  • Do they have the necessary EQ to flourish? And enable others to grow too?
  • Can they establish authority, without becoming authoritarian?


Considering these questions in advance can help organisations decide whether an employee is a suitable leader and then establish where additional support is needed to ensure they make an impact - particularly within the first crucial 90 days in role.

Leadership rarely comes naturally, and skills need honing to be truly successful, so organisations need to ensure that support is available - enabling technical experts to make the leap effectively.

Not only will support positively affect the individual, giving them the skills needed to lead effectively, but it will also benefit the company as employees and customers alike will feel more confident in their leader.

Oliver Johnston, director of leadership consulting at Penna