Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. ‌
―‌ ‌‌Dr. Arthur Szathmary,‌ ‌Professor, Princeton University

I was recently talking with a business owner at a break during an EOS session. She was at her wit’s end because her head of engineering just did not seem to get how to lead and manage his team. He had more institutional knowledge than anyone else on the team, built up their operations from scratch, and was by far the best engineer in the company. But as a leader, he failed to execute on major projects or reliably hire for key roles. She received complaints from his direct reports on a regular basis because they felt they had no direction, without any support from the leader of their department. She was contemplating firing him the next day.

I asked my client if there was any better principal engineer than this individual. She emphatically answered that she could not imagine anyone better for that role. I told her that I had two pieces of good news for her. Number one, she didn’t have to lose her best engineer. And two, she could still have a great head of engineering operations. Why? Because managers and technical subject matter experts do not have to be the same people!

Her frustration and lack of clarity are based on the misplaced belief that management is the only career track for technical advancement. The good news is that in reality, subject matter experts (SMEs) like this principal engineer, provide a complimentary and equally valuable contribution to the engineering department leader.

How do you know if your lead technician is right for a leadership versus a subject matter expert role? In other words, which role does he or she naturally Get, Want, and have the Capacity (GWC™) to execute with excellence – every time? Sit down and ask him or her:

  • Which activities, those related to leadership or SME, drain you and which ones energize you?
  • Which give you the greatest feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment?
  • Which drive you and make you want to get up in the morning?

If the answer is that the technical work energizes them, gives them satisfaction, and drives them, then whatever you do, keep them doing what they’re good at by advancing them in an SME track, but don’t put them in management!

Here are a few examples of what this looks like:

  • Manufacturing. Your lead engineer is the one person people go to if the floor goes down or they need help with a thorny fabrication issue, but she can’t stand project management and getting involved with professional development. Don’t waste her talents by moving her to a management role.
  • Financial and Legal Services. Your partner is a brilliant analyst, problem-solver, writer, or advocate, but when it comes to managing or inspiring other people, he ends up making things worse. Embrace the role he GWC’s as a legal or financial guru and leave the management to others.
  • Tech. She’s a tech lead and you’re contemplating whether to “promote” her to engineering management. If she genuinely feels just as much satisfaction by enabling her team to build and accomplish things, then by all means, make her an engineering manager. But if deep architectural discussions and solving difficult technical problems are what drives her, then perhaps she GWC’s being a technical lead.

The bottom line is that if someone in your organization GWC’s his or her role as an SME, you must recognize that making him or her a manager or member of the leadership team simply isn’t a promotion. They don’t GWC it. It’s a different job. Both are worthy and equally valuable. Decide which path (LMA or SME) is right for that person. When you act on that choice, you’ll keep your best technical experts, they’ll be so much happier, and you’ll be free to hire or elevate leaders who truly get, want, and have the capacity to lead and develop their teams.

“Sometimes people need to take the wrong path in order to lead them to the right one.”
― Nashoda Rose, Irish Crown

Note: This article was co-authored by Benjamin Wolf. Mr. Wolf is an EOS Implementer and the founder of Wolf’s Edge Consulting, a New York-based firm dedicated to helping people get everything they want from their business.