April 2012 | 

Tech Expert to Leader: The Skills You Need for a Successful Transition

Tech Expert to Leader

You excel at what you do. Technical knowledge and skills have helped you achieve at high levels. But now you’re moving out of your comfort zone into a leadership role, and you need new knowledge and new skills to succeed. Jeff Klein, learning director of a new Wharton Executive Education program notes, "The Leadership Edge: Strategies for the New Leader was designed to help executives navigate this critical transition. You can try to learn these skills on your own, on-the-job, but history is filled with examples of why that’s not a good idea. Highly successful entrepreneurs and internal, technical high-potentials don't necessarily have the skills they need to become leaders. In four days, we give them a great start.”

Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, who serves as faculty director of the program, agrees. "This is one of the most crucial transitions in a career. We have practical techniques and tools that work. You can read the leadership books out there — and there are a lot of good ones — but leadership is more than acquiring knowledge." At Wharton, Klein explains, "we refer to the 'three pillars'. Every MBA student and executive who participates in a Wharton Leadership program learns them, and continues to develop their leadership throughout their careers by using them."

The first pillar is becoming a student of leadership by accessing and engaging with current, cutting-edge research and best practices. The second is surrounding yourself with a learning community to share experiences and goals, receive feedback, and be held accountable. The third pillar makes learning real, as leaders seek and accept stretch experiences that test newly acquired concepts. “It’s those second and third pillars, becoming part of a learning community and authenticating what you learn through experience, that are harder to get, but that make all the difference,” notes Rothbard.

The Leadership Edge brings together outstanding Wharton faculty — the professors who teach the core courses in Wharton's world-class MBA program — and experts including former West Point professor and retired Lt. Colonel Todd Henshaw, who teaches After Action Reviews, and John Kanengieter, a principal trainer of NASA’s Space Shuttle Crews, who will work with participants on team building and the dynamics of teamwork.

Rothbard stresses the importance of learning and practicing key leadership skills. She explains, “One skill that functional experts often need to grow is the ability to connect and communicate. As a leader, you need to motivate others. One message, conveyed in one style, isn’t going to resonate with everyone. We’re bringing in an expert on emotional intelligence, Sigal Barsade, who can show participants how to understand what's really going on with the people they're leading. This is particularly important when you are managing growth and organizational change. The dynamics are challenging.

“Communication is critical for strong leadership,” Rothbard notes. “You need to share your vision and strategy so you can do your part. If you're not getting heard, it doesn’t matter how good your strategy is. We'll help executives assess their current communication style and show them how to identify the styles of those they'll be leading. There are very practical implications: they’ll build a communication strategy that they can start using as soon as they get back to work.”

“In a four-day window,” Klein adds, “what we’ve done is to distill that cutting-edge knowledge into what works. The Leadership Edge is about providing an experience in which they can grow their leadership. They'll build on their existing skill set to take them to the next level.”