From Technically Competent to Organizational Leader

Practical insights on the five critical roles in an organization

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 11, Issue No. 5
August, 2012

By Dan Coughlin



Every role in an organization matters, but not every person is right for every role, and success in one role doesn’t guarantee a person will be successful in another role.

That is so easy to say, but when it is forgotten it causes a lot of problems in organizations. I’m going to focus on five roles (technically competent, technically expert, project member, project leader, and organizational leader) in this article. I believe they are five critical roles that every organization needs to fill as well as possible in order to succeed in the short term and the long term.

Technically Competent

The technically competent employee is willing and able to do well tasks that support value being created inside a business and then delivered outside the business. This includes, but is not limited to, technically competent people in research, design, operations, sales, customer service, marketing, human resources, finances, and legal areas. Companies cannot survive without technically competent people. One major problem that executives create is even though they must have technically competent people for their company to survive, they often take these people for granted. They focus instead on senior management and organizational leaders and forget about all the technically competent people who actually keep the business functioning every day. Be sure to regularly appreciate the technically competent people who keep your business alive and well.

Another problem organizations face is that many people do not arrive in perfect condition on the first day. There are three things that keep people from being able to do a role well: they don’t want to do it, they don’t know how to do it, or they are not capable of doing it.

If they don’t want to do it, you may have to help them develop a sense of purpose for why the work is so important. I encourage you to ask questions like, “What are the benefits to you, your family, your co-workers, this organization, and your customers if you do this job well?” If the person can think of reasons why doing these tasks are so important, then he or she can increase the internal desire to thrive in the job. If the person can’t see any purpose for doing the work well, it’s unlikely he or she is going to be consistently competent in doing the work.

If the person doesn’t know how to do it, then some good training may help him or her develop the skills to be technically competent.

However, no matter how much purpose they have and no matter how much training they receive, there will be tasks that a particular individual will not be able to do well enough. If this is an employee you feel is worth keeping in your organization, then ask yourself, “Is there another task within your organization that the person can do and will want to do?” If not, then yours might not be the right organization for the person.

These same three questions (does the person know how to do it, does the person want to do it, and is the person capable of doing it?) apply to the other four roles I will describe as well.

Technically Expert

The technical expert has refined his or her ability and passion for a particular task to a higher level than nearly anyone else in your organization. If the task is of high importance to your organization, then this person is extremely valuable. Rather than falling into the trap of automatically making this person a manager, decide if the person’s greater value is in continuing to do the task he or she has mastered. Other people can learn by watching this person. Sometimes there will be a challenge so great that only this person can handle it. Their supreme skills can be put to great use.

Too often a great sales person becomes the vice-president of sales, the great operations person becomes the vice-president of operations, and the computer guru becomes the VP of IT. If the person is qualified and has passion for an upper management position, that might prove to be a good move. But, and this is a really big but, too often the technical expert is not a great organizational leader and so you end up with a double negative: you lose his or her talent on the critical task, and you end up with a poor leader in a crucially important management role.

Instead of forcing the technical expert onto the management ladder, let him or her stay in her role and show the person lots of appreciation, recognition, and rewards.

Project Member

Projects that are separate from the day-to-day functioning of the business can be really important to the success of the organization. Effective project members have both the technical skills necessary to perform key tasks and the ability to mesh quickly with new team members and get focused on moving the project ahead successfully. They are comfortable with quick changes and with not getting immediate results for their efforts. They see the long-term vision and buy into the value of the project.

Not every technically competent employee is a viable short-term project member. It takes a certain type of person to leave a regular routine and step on board a project that might require funky hours, intense debates, alternative approaches in order to succeed, and the ability to handle failure and still move forward.

Project Leader

Effective project leaders are extremely valuable assets in an organization. They love the challenge of being able to achieve something extraordinary on what appears to be a very tight budget and in a very tough time frame. These people want the challenge and willingly take on the risks involved in a big project. They are able to very quickly coalesce a group of diverse individuals into a focused and committed team. Many times the project leader will push the team members harder than they’ve ever been pushed before, but they understand that this is necessary for short stretches of time because the project has to be completed on time and on budget.

However, and this is a big however, project leaders are not necessarily effective organizational leaders. The pushing to the limit, the aggressiveness, the extreme intensity, and the willingness to cut off conversations in order to get the team to the next milestone on the project path are not effective in a long-term organizational situation. It’s the difference between coaching in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl and building a team in training camp. In the Super Bowl with fifteen minutes to play, you have to bring a no-nonsense intensity and everyone understands that there is no time for elongated conversations or long, collaborative exchanges. Decisions need to be made instantly. That is the environment of a project. But if an NFL coach brings that intensity to every moment of every conversation in the hallway with every player and every assistant coach over a period of seven months, or even several years, eventually the relationships will burn out. In business, the great project leader will burn an organization out if he or she doesn’t alter the approach used in order to better fit the circumstances.

Organizational Leader

The organizational leader is not the only valuable role in the organization. The people that are technically competent, technically expert, project members, and project leaders are also extremely valuable. That is very, very important to remember. Otherwise you end up with everyone in a business wanting to be the organizational leader because they feel worthless in any other role. That creates a very, very big problem.

I’m defining an organizational leader as a person who is responsible for guiding the performance of an entire organization or a significant part of the organization involving multiple functions. An effective organizational leader brings tremendous value to the business both in the things he or she does and the things he or she refrains from doing.

The Big Picture of Organizational Leadership

Effective organizational leaders focus on very few things. They realize that the success of the organization depends on three critical factors: execution, innovation, and branding. They know that all three are critically important and as they clarify the strategy for the future of the company they make sure that what people need to do well today (execution) fits properly with what customers need right now, that greater value is being created (innovation) for what customers will need in the future, and that efforts are being made to help customers understand the value they can receive by buying from the organization (branding).

The Day-to-Day Work of Organizational Leadership

However, the day-to-day work of an organizational leader is leadership. I define business leadership as influencing how people think so they make decisions that improve results for the organization. Notice that there are two very important parts in that definition. First, the organizational leader influences how people think. Second, the person gets out of the way and lets other people make decisions.

As the organizational leader, you can influence how people think in lots of ways, but if you wait until the moment a decision needs to be made you will come across as a micromanager. You will essentially be guiding other people to the decision you want them to make. Remember, this definition contains two parts: influence and empower. Influence how people think on a regular basis, but then get out of their way and empower them to make the decision they believe is the right one to make.

Influencing How People Think

Here are three approaches to influencing how people think.

What do you feel are the three to four most important steps your employees should think through before making a decision? Take some time to consider that question, jot down some ideas, cross them out, come up with a better list, and then make it better again. Once you’ve settled on what you think is the right thought process, think about how you can influence people to use it. Could you weave the four steps into a story or into a business example that you could explain to other people? Could you show how you have used the four steps in situations where you had to make a decision?

Instead of giving people your four steps, could you ask, “What are the steps that you think through as you make a decision?” Have different people answer that question and then have some dialogue about the steps so that in the end the group has an opportunity to develop a thought process for making decisions that you can agree with. The group might very well come up with a better thought process than you had originally walked in with.

Instead of developing and teaching a thought process, answer this question, “What are the values, principles, and/or priorities you want people in your organization to consider before making a decision?” Take time to write those down and think about them. When you’re ready, share those with other people throughout your organization who need to make decisions everyday that affect the business. You can use the various methods of telling a story or walking them through a real-life example to make your points. If you want to establish organization-wide values, then don’t just answer that question yourself. Get other people involved in answering the question and developing the answers. Then influence people to consider those values, principles, and priorities before making a decision.

The main idea here is I’m encouraging you to influence how people think, but don’t tell them what to think or what to do. Give them the freedom to make their own decisions and to learn from those decisions by holding them accountable with positive and negative consequences. If you don’t give people freedom to think, you end up with a very limited organization. The organization can only make decisions when you are in the room. That’s not effective for three reasons. First, you can’t be everywhere all the time. Second, even if you slow other people down so that they have to meet with you before making a decision, you aren’t developing any future leaders. It’s like you’re running a one-person operation. Third, it’s very unlikely that any person always makes the best decisions in any organization.


Every business needs multiple roles to be filled. They are all important. Being good at one doesn’t mean you would necessarily be good at another one, and that’s okay. One mistake is in treating people in one role with less dignity and appreciation than people in a different role. Another mistake is leaving a person in a role when it is not the right role for him or her, even if he or she really wants to stay in that role.

Imagine an employee who is a terrible singer, but a good public speaker. If someone said, “He’s a good public speaker so let’s make him the lead singer at the after dinner party,” attendees would quickly realize the person was in the wrong role. If the meeting planner insisted on sticking with the assigned roles, people would wonder what was going on.

The same thing happens in organizations when a person is clearly in the wrong role. I’ve described five distinct roles. It’s possible that a person can successively move from one role to another, but it’s not guaranteed to be successful and it’s not linear. It’s not a ladder that you move up. A great organizational leader might have been mediocre technically and may never have led a short-term project. A great project leader may never become a technical expert or an effective organizational leader.

They are five distinct roles with different skills and passions required. Consider them carefully as you make your own career moves and as you decide who should play what part in the great theater of your business.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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