The great talent divide

How expert are your technical experts, and how can you tell? What career paths exist for them, and where are these documented? There exists, in many organisations, a ‘Great Talent Divide’: plenty of resources, frameworks and support for people leaders, but little or none for technical leaders. 

A newly developed knowledge leadership framework for technical specialists is the answer.

Alison is a people leader running a team of individual contributors. Promoted to team lead a year ago, having passed a series of interviews and been assessed against a well documented set of front line leadership capabilities, she’s hit the ground running. Her team is happy, motivated and performing. In the six monthly talent review, she was identified in the green pool of early stage leaders with high potential at the organisation. Alison was also nominated to attend the Emerge program for high potential early stage people leaders later in the year. She’s on track!
Edward is a business analyst in the finance department, who has been with the organisation for seven years. His job has constantly evolved and Edward is now trusted with highly complex tactical and strategic financial analysis and often works directly with business unit heads. In his last few annual performance reviews, the outcome from the performance conversations Edward has with his manager is a mid-level ranking of ‘meets expectations’. This is only performance conversation Edward has with his manager each year.
He’s stuck! Edward is frustrated that his manager doesn’t really understand the work he does for business unit managers. There are never any discussions about advancement or career progression. The better the quality of his work, the more is loaded onto him, with none of his existing tasks handed to someone else. He believes he’ll never be promoted because there’s no successor in place and he is the only person in the organisation who does what he does. He feels taken for granted, that everyone assumes he has no ambition and is happy being a technical grunt for the rest of his working life.
But Edward is certainly not happy. He shows his increasing disconnection with his work and the organisation every day. He hasn’t yet made the decision to leave and find another job elsewhere, although he’s had offers, but that day is coming.
Some employees are more equal than others
The career journeys of Alison and Edward are symptomatic of the different ways in which the corporate talent infrastructure is often organised for leaders of people versus leaders of knowledge.
As the illustrations below demonstrate, the career path of people leaders is well defined and well documented, and indeed, usually well socialised (Chart A on the illustration). People leaders’ promotions and growth are highly visible – they have more people reporting to them!
Conversely, the career paths for technical stars like Edward are amorphous. There is no clear-cut criteria defining what poor, average or great performance looks like. 

Many of the things that Alison actually takes for granted – clear behaviour maps for more senior roles, supportive conversations and feedback from a well informed manager, support programs such as the Emerge program she is about to be enrolled in – simply don’t exist for Edward. With luck, he might get sent on a finance analysts’ conference to keep his technical skills current, but he certainly won’t be enrolled in a leadership program because he isn’t a people leader.


But is Edward a leader? A closer analysis of Edward’s role shows that he needs advanced leadership skills as much as, if not more than, Alison. As a leader of knowledge, Edward still needs to develop and sharpen his people and business skills – typically know as people leadership skills. He interacts with executives at all levels of the organisation. He’s a member of multiple teams, many virtual. His difficult role is to report and then influence without authority, often driving change that people robustly resist. His communication skills need to be top notch, because often he’s explaining complex technical concepts to people who have no knowledge or experience of these matters. He actually needs to build strong relationships with people who don’t have to do what he says, so great engagement skills and well developed emotional intelligence skills are increasingly critical.


Alison has been schooled in these skills for years, even before she made team leader. In the forthcoming Emerge program these skills will be a key focus. Edward, on the other hand, has never been invited to any workshops that cover the ‘soft skills’ that are so important for success in modern corporations.


Documenting the development of technical specialists


Interacting with many hundreds of technical specialists over the years, and working closely with two cornerstone clients in this space, HFL has developed a capability framework – the Knowledge Leadership Model (KLM) - for subject matter experts, or ‘technical stars’ as they are often classified on the nine box talent grid. The chart below describes its key elements.

Underneath the three main pillars of the framework (Technical, Business & Relationships) sit nine capabilities through which the performance of technical specialist can be gauged. The behavioural model allows the technicians themselves, and their managers, to assess at which of the four levels (from the lowest Knowledge Practitioner, to the highest Knowledge Practice Leader) they are currently operating at.


HFL has now worked with over 200 technical specialists from a variety of companies and has seen all first self-assess themselves against the Knowledge Leadership Model, and then be assessed by those in their relationship network via a 360 degree tool (the Stakeholder Impact Survey) designed specifically for subject matter experts based on this model.


We have found that regardless of the results (some positive, some challenging!), technical experts have delighted in having a clear framework upon which to begin to assess the level of ‘expertness’ they are operating at. They report all sorts of benefits:

• While they individually found it useful, it helped their managers even more - real conversations about performance levels were possible for the first time

• They have a clear view of how they can develop and report that development planning was now a critical activity

• They understand where their capability gaps are and can focus on doing something concrete about them.


The next step to engaging and advancing technical specialists


HFL has developed a primer on the Knowledge Leadership Model, including a detailed description of behaviours under each of the pillars, and also a description of how our assessment tool is constructed, and works. To download a free copy, please click here.


So we have a talent divide? What do we do about it?  Click here to read about HFL’s associated K-LEADER program, which aims to help technical specialists advance their career, re-engage with their organisation, and deliver outstanding business value.

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