Back a few years ago at age 29 I raised $10MM in growth capital from VC firms in Austin and Seattle for my 3rd company. Despite a strong track record of innovation, customer acquisition & revenue growth - the VC's began inquiring about my 'openness to an outside CEO'. At the time this form of 'adult supervision' was part of the standard VC play book, and still remains in certain circles.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review puts a clear light on the risks of this strategy and the idea of hiring for leadership charisma without serious consideration for technical expertise. Researchers decided to ask the question, "how important to employee engagement is a deep technical understanding of the work?" So - how important is technical competence? Researchers decided to ask these 3 questions:
- Whether the supervisor could, if necessary, do the employee’s job.
- Whether the supervisor worked his or her way up inside the company.
- The supervisor’s level of technical competence as assessed by a worker.
When the dust settled - the data clearly demonstrated that the 'adult supervision' myth was folly. The traditional view that a good leader doesn’t need technical expertise, but rather, a mix of qualities like charisma, organizational skills, and emotional intelligence is simply wrong. Those qualities do matter, but what the research suggests is that the oft-overlooked quality of having technical expertise also matters enormously.
These days notable examples are all around us that defy the old convention. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, is an engineer. So is General Motors’ Mary Barra and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; and the list goes on. In fact, engineering has long been ranked as the most common undergraduate degree among Fortune 500 CEOs. Even Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, has an engineering PhD under his belt.
The outside CEO who was brought in to supervise my young team immediately struggled with the technical aspects of the business on many levels and I had a front row seat to the challenges.
Lastly, the next time you hear 'wisdom' from an investor or advisor - feel free to challenge it. They don't have a monopoly on management expertise, and often rely on old conventions that could use better scrutiny. Most importantly - know that the job satisfaction of your team is profoundly molded by your competence and that of those you hire to provide leadership.
Go out and be someone worthy of learning from.