According to an October 2017 Harvard Business Review article— “Women are underrepresented in the C-suite, receive lower salaries, and are less likely to receive a critical first promotion to manager than men.” No surprise there. But, once you make it up that ladder, based on hard work and your engineering excellence, did you ever think you might not be prepared to lead?

People in the early years of their careers in STEM fields who have strong technical skills are able to advance up the first or second rank of their career because of those skills. But research at the Brown University School of Professional Studies (SPS) suggests that once these professionals want to move up another level, they lack skills beyond those technical ones to help them succeed.

SPS recently conducted a series of in-depth interviews with more than 30 senior leaders in top technology companies to identify the key skills and capabilities technologists need to progress in management. These professionals tend to be detail-oriented analytical thinkers who drive to the root causes of problems and dive deeply into the weeds in a structured, systematic and disciplined way.

In their early careers, these traditional strengths serve them well, but they often stumble when asked to lead bigger teams and achieve success through the efforts of others. There are too many cases of brilliant technical professionals—across gender—floundering once outside their functional areas.

In a world of growing automation, those with the strongest people skills—what can’t be replicated by computers—will be a high-demand leadership asset.

The four soft skills you need to have to lead in a knowledge economy

Based on this research with senior executives, engineering leadership does not require additional skills derived from deeper technical knowledge, but rather from the liberal arts –  from the study of subjects such as sociology, anthropology, economics and literature. In a world of growing automation, those with the strongest people skills—what can’t be replicated by computers—will be a high-demand leadership asset.

Liberal arts disciplines empower leaders to read people, and see the world through their eyes; to empathically understand what they need to succeed and the barriers that stand in their way. These skills include:

1. Big-picture thinking

How can technical experts move beyond detailed, analytical thinking to thinking strategically about the “big picture?” How can they learn to see the forest and the trees?

A leader needs to think strategically to set a clear vision, to build and inspire a high-performance team and to establish a path forward in the face of incomplete information, limited resources or other challenges.

Big picture thinking requires an understanding of the company and its position in the industry ecosystem. The focus is no longer on a functional area but on how the group contributes to future corporate success and how to help define that future. It requires a leader to look internally and externally, to identify market and global trends and to continuously assess the impact of competition, regulation, resource availability and other factors.

2. People skills

Technical experts are masters of facts, data management and control processes. But to advance as leaders, they must develop the interpersonal skills to work with and through others. Leaders need to inspire their teams, manage conflict and give feedback in ways that encourage others to progress rapidly toward shared goals. By understanding how their teams view the world, effective leaders expand their vantage points to problem-solve more effectively.

3. Flexible and integrative leadership

Flexible leaders know when to use technical and analytic problem solving and when to be conceptual and creative. They integrate multiple perspectives or “connect the dots” and have a range of problem-solving and management approaches. Flexible leaders have their core leadership style, but also have the awareness and skills to adapt that style when needed to achieve results.

4. Effective communication

Engineering, science, and technology professionals are proficient in the technical language of their fields. In that domain, credibility and influence come from communication with colleagues who respect their expertise. But leaders must communicate with diverse stakeholders and compete for resources in the face of multiple priorities.

Technical professionals who aspire to leadership positions must become skilled at influencing business leaders, building partnerships across functional areas and working effectively with multidisciplinary teams. Clear, persuasive communication tailored to different audiences is key to maximizing opportunities and achieving results with and through others.

Getting results

Corporations have a pressing need for transformative leaders who drive innovation. To become one of these highly prized leaders, technical professionals must broaden their perspectives.

This personal transformation can happen slowly via trial and error as technical professionals move through management ranks. More rapid results are possible when companies and professionals choose an intensive, accelerated executive leadership development programs that push STEM professionals beyond their comfort level into new disciplines for more impactful ways of seeing and communicating.   

Brown University executive master’s students discuss solutions to real-world organizational challenges

The best choice is a targeted business leadership development program designed to broaden professionals trained and experienced in engineering, science and technology. To advance your career while studying, look for top-tier, rigorous programs taught online and on campus. This provides opportunities to immediately apply new knowledge at work, and leverage advice and feedback from peers and professors. Professionals graduate with a high-impact network of colleagues and primed to drive innovation and industry forward.

 

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