The objective of the study is to qualify anecdotal observations on the opportunity to support professional/technical managers who have taken on leadership roles.


A field study was conducted, interviewing a reference group of sixteen (16) senior leaders to gather their perspectives and insights. They were selected from Manufacturing, Energy, Banking, Telecommunications, Transport, Health, Science, Supply Chain, Legal, Consulting, Recruitment, and Iwi Development. The interviews were 30 mins in duration structured around four (4) questions:

  1. What are the day-to-day leadership challenges you have observed for managers who have come from professional or specialist backgrounds?
  2. What are the fears and frustrations you see them experience?
  3. With regards to leadership skills development, what does good look like?
  4. What are the obstacles facing professional/technical managers in their leadership development?

The interview outputs were content analysed by theme and frequency into organisational and individual capability factors.

Organisational Factors moderating Coaching needs

Special idea: For professionals and specialists taking on leadership roles, their organisation plays a role in determining how hard or easy it is to develop their leadership potential. Eight (8) factors supporting development were identified by the reference group. The top five (5) factors are:

Value Perception – Networks – Pathways – Access to development -Safe to learn

  1. Value Perception. Perception that leadership is intangible, hard to codify and less important than technical capability. Conversely, the degree to which technical roles are discussed in the contexts of broader value creation can be variable.
  2. Networks. Ability to access professional networks, role models and communities of practice.
  3. Pathways. Technical career ceilings and clarity of pathways to leadership success. How well the internal appointment process places emphasise on leadership capability. Junior professional-technical talents need effective leaders and role models to grow organisational and sector capability
  4. Access to development. The priority and resources allocated to leadership development can be variable and hard to find.
  5. Safe to learn. Organisational cultures vary on how safe it is to learn from failure or be vulnerable.
  6. Feedback. Authentic feedback can decline with seniority.
  7. Opportunity. Clarity of scope and accountability mechanisms can dilute or reduce opportunities for leadership development. There can be variance in the quality and level of delegation for decision-making.
  8. Design. Managing remote teams, project or matrix structures can dislocate managers from their teams and reduce opportunity for developing leadership skills. Regulatory requirements, complexity, governance procedures and reporting mechanisms can impact on the transition from specialist to leader.

Observations. Leadership development is mediated by executive leadership values, organisational design, maturity, culture, and investment. The popular conversation about the difference between managing and leading is unhelpful. People who lead know that setting direction and achieving results requires a blend of both control and personal influence.

Individual Capability Needs

Special Idea:  The observable challenges encountered by professional/technical managers taking on leadership roles speaks to the need for competent and confident leaders to lead and grow a junior cohort pipeline of professional /technical staff. Eleven (11) development needs were identified by the reference group. The top five (5) factors are:

Self-Awareness – Communication – Commercial Acumen – Letting go – Difficult conversations

  1. Self-Awareness. Developing self-awareness was identified as a foundation for leadership.
  2. Communication. Translating tech or professional language and curating ideas in plain language for peers and senior executives. Developing presence/gravitas and influence.
  3. Commercial acumen. Understanding commercial and competitive issues including the ability to segment stakeholders and see results and opportunities in business terms. Managing the Time-Cost-Quality triangle and talking in money words. Developing breadth and depth of business knowledge outside speciality
  4. Letting go. Transitioning from technical fields, trading the objectivity of technical solutions for what is sometimes ambiguous in managing relationships and engagement. Letting go where necessary of the search for scientific certainty, in favour of achieving timely results
  5. Managing difficult conversations. Addressing and managing conflict, giving, and receiving feedback. Managing difficult conversations and holding others accountable.
  6. Vulnerability. Exercising vulnerability and authenticity, tolerating risk of failure, and breaking through ‘imposter syndrome’
  7. Delegating. Delegating and managing the risk that something will not be done as well or as quickly as if they did it themselves.
  8. Emotional intelligence. Demonstrating empathy, listening, and sensing. ‘Reading the room’ and using this to adjust approach and stewardship. Developing confidence in dealing with mental health and engagement issues
  9. Resilience. Maintaining emotional control and maintaining life balance
  10. Leading Change. Challenging the status quo, talking too much about the future, navigating, and leading sustainable change. Working through obstacles, accepting ambiguity and risk
  11. Talent management. Making quality decisions around sourcing, hiring, active talent pools and developing capability.

Observation. While many of these needs are shared by managers of all backgrounds, managers from professional backgrounds typically advance to mid-career on their specialist skills, ownership of the business or their record of revenue generation. The transition from specialist competence to leading others often surfaces a skill gap or challenge at mid to late career, at a point where managing talent and teams are either a differentiator or multiplier for success. This gradient is summarised in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Leadership gradient


This short digest summarises the key outputs of a study conducted with a reference group of senior leaders focusing on developing professional/technical managers. The output includes organisational factors mediating development and secondly, perspectives on observed development needs. These are offered to coaches and leadership development practitioners to inform their practice.

12 September 2023

Crispin Garden-Webster

Crispin is a graduate of Massey University. He is a Registered Psychologist and Leadership Coach working in the Engineering, Science and Technology sectors. Crispin has worked across diverse sectors including Defence, Telecomms, Science, Banking, Aviation, Energy, Utilities, Supply chain, International Development and Health. His international career spans work in Pakistan, Vietnam, The Philippines, and Oman. He is a Fellow of the NZ Psychological Society, a Distinguished Fellow of the HR Institute of New Zealand, and a member of the International Coaching Federation.

Mob:     +64 2040833432

eMail:   crispin@gardenwebster.nz

Web:     www.coachingleaders.nz